We really should come up with a clever name for this emerging strategy sub-genre. If you have ever played Cartoon Wars, Ancient War or any other 2D side-scrolling RTS, then you’ll feel right at home with Battle of Puppets. However, while Small Wonders’ newest title may not win you over with its originality, its abundance of charm and adorable atmosphere will.
The game is centered around a spectacularly realized show business motif. You play as a puppeteer traveling his way across America, battling other puppeteers in their home venues hoping to reach the ultimate arena: Broadway.
Otherwise mundane matches are made much more theatrical when your playfield is a stage, your background is a set and your units are props. As puppets ‘die’, ropes pull them off stage, your castle home base might as well be a cardboard cut-out, and the day/night cycles are obviously the work of someone behind curtain.
Everything, including the menus, the opening cinematics, and the game itself looks wonderfully bright, colorful, and smoothly animated. Even the peppy music contributes to the delightfully playful tone that perfectly suits the casual strategy gameplay.
Unleash the marionettes!
However, while you may not have seen Battle of Puppets’ look before, you have certainly experienced its gameplay. Two bases are laid at opposite ends of a long, flat track you can scroll across with the touch screen. Units created at one end automatically begin walking towards the other. If they encounter each other they fight until one dies, and one team wins when his units take down the other team’s base.
If you choose to play through the 20 or so missions, you will discover Battle of Puppets’ small but meaningful variations. Money is earned throughout a match to fund your army’s production, but there is also a popularity meter to keep track of, complementing the live performance theme.
Repairs, upgrades and up to five units can be queued for deployment at once as long as you don’t exceed the nine unit maximum, and defenses can be built at several points on the map to halt enemy progress. The catch is that only the team that reaches a point first is the one that gets the bonus.
The running of the bulls.
But the real twist, and secret weapon, is the spell system. By tapping the screen twice and drawing a simple symbol like a “Z” or an “O” when your gauge is full, you can cast a variety of helpful spells, including an enemy-stunning lightning bolt. Later on, spells become crucial for success, but if you are in a hurry, like when your base is under siege, the game doesn’t always recognize your scribbles, leading to frustration.
To round out the showbiz theme, each spell is actually the work of an onstage professional. For example, the spell that repairs your handmade troops is due to the hard work of a nearby cabinetmaker.
There are a handful of factions to choose from, including ninjas, Egyptians, Vikings, and Spaniards. However, each group plays roughly the same. Initially you can quickly build melee units (Vikings) and ranged units (Egyptians with spears). After upgrading your base twice you can then build a stronger type of melee unit (bulls) and a stronger type of ranged unit (Japanese boats with cannons) as long as you are patient enough.
Perhaps if there was a multiplayer option, key strengths and weaknesses would emerge among the factions. Humans playing other humans would lead to a deeper metagame than what’s on display here. Sadly though, the campaign and OpenFeint leaderboards will have to suffice for now.
As it currently stands, Battle of Puppets is a treat for the eyes, only mildly taxing on the brain, and thoroughly entertaining throughout. It’s just not a total showstopper.