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A different kind of brain game

Image: Advance Wars
'Days of Ruin' may look cute, but it's a deep, turn-based strategy game. When you or your opponent attacks, the outcome is played out on both DS screens.Nintendo

“Advance Wars,” the long-running military strategy game for Nintendo's hand-held systems, has always had a naïve charm; a cast of gung-ho, excessively enthusiastic anime characters facing off against evil invaders in land, sea and air campaigns. The good guys are always so cheerful, even during prolonged battles that would leave any sane person shell-shocked.

“Advance Wars: Days of Ruin,” out now for Nintendo's DS, isn't as bright and shiny as its predecessors. The setting is darker and the enemies meaner; befitting given the post-apocalyptic setting. Thankfully, the engrossing, deep gameplay remains mostly unchanged, making “Days of Ruin” one of the finest strategy games, portable or otherwise.

The game opens following a catastrophic meteor shower that nearly wipes humankind off the face of the Earth. A handful of survivors remain. Remnants of the armed forces have pledged to help rebuild society and assist the survivors but their efforts are hampered by roaming raiders straight out of “Mad Max.” The main characters include the noble Commander Brennan and canny tactician Lieutenant Lin. Eager beaver cadet Will is rescued by Brennan and joins the ranks along with fellow survivor Isabella, an amnesiac with extensive military knowledge. The characters in the “Advance Wars” series have always been colorful, if somewhat predictable, and “Days of Ruin” is no exception.

That said, the gameplay is exquisitely crafted and paced. “Days of Ruin” takes full advantage of the DS’s dual screens with the interactive battlefield displayed on the touch screen and detailed information on terrain and units on the top display. The chess-like nature of “Advance Wars'” turn-based play, in which you’re allowed as much time as you like for planning and execution, is ideal for those looking for a thoughtful, more cerebral gaming experience.

There’s no tutorial, but the structure of the game eases you into what eventually becomes a very complex exercise. The first few missions of the single player campaign serve to familiarize you with the capabilities of various vehicles and infantry units. You’ll also learn how to use terrain for tactical advantage and how to capture factories to create new vehicles and units.

The strength of “Advance Wars” is in the interplay between the forces and craft of the opposing armies. Infantry soldiers are necessary for capturing factories and are cheap to deploy but they can be easily destroyed. Artillery is a potent long-distance force but is easily defeated at close range. Different models of tanks, planes and ships – more than 20 in all – have specific capabilities and their own vulnerabilities. If this sounds complicated, fear not. The game can be saved at any time, allowing you to try out different strategies with minimal frustration.

The one frustration that remains is the never-ending stream of corny dialogue. It may be gripping stuff to younger players, but the rest of us will end up regularly hitting the start button to skip the blathering. Meanwhile, the difficulty level may turn off some casual gamers. Make no mistake, despite the anime window dressing, this is a challenging and sophisticated strategy game.

Fans of “Advance Wars” also may lament the change made to the CO Powers, the devastating super attacks from prior outings. As the game progresses, different commanders can lead forces into battle. While each officer still has specific skills that can tip the scales in your favor, the scale of the resulting damage has been toned down.

After honing your skills to a Patton-like edge in the campaign, the new Wi-Fi multiplayer modes await. You can ping your friends or take on a mysterious stranger online in a two-player battle. There’s a beefy collection of more than 150 maps to choose from or you can create your own to swap in a DS mini-version of the “Halo 3” Forge feature.

“Advance Wars: Days of Ruin” isn’t for casual gamers. Stick with it, though, and you’ll find yourself spending hours on the battlefield. It’ll also boost your I.Q. at least as well as those brain games.