Happy Wars is a unique product, not so much in its gameplay as much as its method of delivery. The game is the first Xbox Live Arcade title that costs nothing to download and play in full, though an Xbox Live Gold membership is required. Instead, it takes the “freemium” route seen in numerous PC and mobile titles, where money can instead be optionally spent on downloadable add-on items. The game itself is a mostly well-made multiplayer romp that, while easy to pick up and play, will offer the most to people who are willing to put time into getting every mechanic down.
While there is both a backstory and a one-player narrative campaign to Happy Wars, they are definitely not the focus. All that players need to know going in is that two neighboring kingdoms have engaged in war with each other over petty squabbles, and the players control indiviudal soldiers. The campaign mode does offer brief cutscenes explaining the plight of a kidnapped princess and whatnot, but the emphasis of Happy Wars is definitely focused on the multiplayer aspect. Proof of this is the fact that, while the first campaign level is unlocked from the start, players must level up their rank a certain amount in multiplayer in order to unlock additional chapters. While it provides an additional incentive to keep playing, it can also be viewed as a missed opportunity, as a traditionally-unlocked single-player campaign could have helped players get used to the different character classes and abilities.
The three classes available for players to choose from include the Warrior, the Cleric and the Mage. Warriors are sword and shield-wielding fighters who mostly fight with their weapons in close range, Mages use projectile magic spells from a distance, and Clerics, while weak in terms of offense, can protect, heal and strengthen companion units with their own spells. Besides a generic attack, each class comes with various sets of secondary skills that use up their magic meter. Going further, each class has exclusive skills, some of which are unlocked in each match as players gain experience. These can range from offensive attacks to stat-enhancing spells.
One of the most important and effective abilities comes in the form of Team Skills. At any time, a player can hold down the Y button to stand in place and have several blue circle outlines appear around them. Nearby teammates can stand in these circles and also hold down Y until the player who initiated the skill feels the time is right. Based on the class, this can create powerful offensive attacks such as massive tornados or storms of arrows and meteors, or power up the entire group’s stats. The duration and/or strength of each skill depends on the number of players involved in executing it. This is a neat idea that definitely encourages teamwork and cooperation, and is a good way to encourage players to genuinely work together to achieve victory.
The actual multiplayer gameplay is fairly straightforward. Two teams of opposing players start out in castles on opposite ends of each map, with the ultimate goal of infiltrating the opposing team’s castle and destroying their valuable Big Tower to win the match. There are also numerous other tower bases strewn throughout each map, allowing players to construct towers for their team by running up and holding down the left trigger button. Similar to Team Skills, the greater the amount of players who focus on building the same structure, the less time it will take to build it. Once finished, these smaller towers can be used as additional spawn points for players should they be killed by opponents. However, it is possible at any time for opponents to destroy an unguarded tower and replace it with one of their own. It’s generally a good idea to start each match by grabbing as many towers as possible, as it will make it easier to storm the enemy base.
Happy Wars supports a large amount of players, which can lead to some very chaotic skirmishes. The downside to this is that it occasionally becomes very hard to follow what’s going on with all the characters scurrying about on the screen, and far too easy for your character to lose control and get slaughtered. On the other hand, this also does encourage teamwork and planning if players want to avoid an overly messy conflict. It also doesn’t help that it’s fairly easy to become unable to tell characters apart from each other. Even though clothing, faces, and hair can be customized, all characters have the same body sizes and proportions.
And yet, despite these issues, Happy Wars is still an engaging play. The fact that it rewards you with experience for numerous tasks, including killing an enemy unit, assisting companions with a skill or spell and both building and destroying structures, will make you want to keep going. It doesn’t hurt that the environments for each map are varied and very pleasant on the eyes, with different environmental factors and a very unique look for each one, such as islands floating in the sky or an underwater arena complete with fish and coral. Unfortunately, the doll-like character models are simple to a fault, and end up looking pretty bland.
Unlocking new equipment is key to gaining the upper hand, and this can be accomplished through two methods. Players earn items known as Happy Stars during each match, which can be used to bet on a roulette wheel outside of matches, providing a chance to win random items. More specific (and generally exclusive) items can be bought in the in-game store using another type of item called Happy Tickets, which can be bought in various bundles using Microsoft Points. Happy Tickets can also be used in battles for various benefits like stat enhancements and shorter cooldowns between deaths and respawns. While some may feel that this method can possibly make matches feel unbalanced, it’s nice that all the actual features and mechanics of the game are available or unlockable for free in the main game, and none of the items currently in the store seem incredibly essential. The game still feels like a complete package even if a player doesn’t want to throw down any cash.
A final aspect that should be pointed out is that, at the time of release, the game’s matchmaking system needs some serious work. I often found myself hanging on the lobby screen for several minutes before being unceremoniously booted back to the main menu, and had to try several times to get into a match that actually started. With any luck, this will be addressed in the future via a patch or some work on the servers.
Happy Wars offers some good fun with a payment system that has been foreign to the 360 until now. While certain aspects such as campaign progression and character design are fumbled, the core gameplay is generally engaging and surprisingly fleshed out. If you’re a Gold member looking for a new multiplayer title to get into, there’s a good chance you’ll get some enjoyment out of it.
This article is based on a copy of the game that we received for review purposes.
Happy Wars is a mostly well-made multiplayer romp that, while easy to pick up and play, will offer the most to people who are willing to put time into getting every mechanic down.