Battle Chasers: Nightwar Review
The thing about Battle Chasers: Nightwar that initially caught my eye was its turn-based jRPG combat. I’ve played a lot of games over the years, but the gaming period I’m most nostalgic about is the 16-bit era of jRPGs, back when Squaresoft ruled the roost and a million recognizable series were only just getting off the ground. The thing about those games that made them so good is that the basic traits inherent to the genre had already been established, so developers were either spending their time polishing things to a mirror sheen or challenging gamer expectations with their own divergent approaches. The reason I bring this up is that the same thing seems to happen every so often with modern developers, leading to surprising, quality games that are instantly familiar and yet totally unique. That’s Battle Chasers: Nightwar in a nutshell.
This picks up after a comic (kind of)
Battle Chasers was a comic that ran for 9 issues back in the 1990s. I’m not going to sit here and pretend to be totally up to date with comics, because the extent of my comic knowledge is watching Youtube videos on the subject, but I tracked down a collection and obsessively read through over 200 pages of Battle Chasers, only to get totally engrossed in its blend of seriousness and humor. After that, I was disappointed that the story ended on a cliffhanger. Numerous cliffhangers, in fact. Creator Joe Madureira moved on to video games and things were left unresolved. First things first: things remain unresolved after Nightwar. This is an entirely standalone experience that tells its own story, though there are numerous references to events from the comics that could conceivably confuse those brand new to Battle Chasers. The story picks up with all of the “main” characters from the comics—Gully, Calibretto, Garrison, Knolan, and Red Monika—united as a group. Knolan is trying to learn more about mana, and so the group heads to a place called the Crescent Isle where much of it supposedly exists, only for their ship to be shot down and the group separated.
That means that the five previously-mentioned characters are the only ones from the comic who make an appearance, with everyone else here being new. There’s no shocking revelation about Aramus, no mention of August that I found, and I only came across one reference to King Vaneer. The story here also ends with a bit of sequel bait, though this didn’t bother me as much as it usually does because the most pressing plot threads are wrapped up and that “the adventure continues” feeling suits a comic book game such as this. If you’re starved for information, however, there’s one bit about Garrison’s sword that I found interesting. It’s probably not a good idea to go into this thinking that you’ll have all of your comic-related questions answered, though.
But really, detailed back story isn’t the way Battle Chasers has ever been. It’s been all about brisk pacing with details being filled in as a result of events rather than long-winded explanations. The main story here is exactly like that, too, though there are supplementary bits of lore that you can find in dungeons that flesh out the day-to-day happenings of wherever you are without giving too much away. It’s an interesting tightrope act where you can learn a lot about various Crescent Isle characters if you go out of your way to find the lore, but the main story avoids belaboring the point or straying from that “something is constantly happening” vibe that the comic had.
The characters are the main draw here, obviously. Their interactions (after finding and recruiting a new character, you can sleep at the inn a couple times and watch as your party members have entertaining conversations) are both serious and humorous, and that’s a balance that the game nails in general. Everyone is absurdly lovable and entertaining here. Even Monika, who didn’t really get enough screen time in the comics to adequately show off her good side. Party members and enemies quip at each other throughout combat through comic speech bubbles, often in response to what’s happening (if Gully is knocked unconscious, Calibretto will often yell out “Gully, no!”), and dramatic story moments of impending disaster are frequently undercut with Gully or Monika or Knolan finding humor in the situation. The voice acting for everyone—even Knolan, despite what you may initially think—is on point, as well, and the excellent voice acting also breathes life into the various NPC vendors you meet in the hub town of Harm’s Way, which you’ll spend much of the game revisiting to sleep and buy/craft equipment.
The gameplay here is just about perfect
Games in the jRPG genre can go horribly wrong every bit as easily as they can go right, but Battle Chasers has one of the most consistently enjoyable combat systems I’ve seen. As I mentioned earlier, the combat is turn-based, with ally and enemy speed (called “haste” for some reason) determining the turn order/frequency. You can see the turn order on the left side of the screen and plan accordingly, and this becomes important because there are three kinds of attacks your characters can use: actions, abilities, and burst abilities. Actions have no mana cost and are instant, so there’s a temptation to think of them as “normal” attacks like you’d expect from a jRPG, and yet that’s not entirely the case. For example, Calibretto’s attack action inflicts a debuff on any enemy he hits that causes them to take more physical damage. Monika has three attack actions, with the first inflicting a random debuff on the enemy she hits, the second attacking and raising her evade chance for 3 turns, and the third attacking twice against random enemies. All characters have their own unique actions like that (and there are also defensive actions, obviously) which they can use instantly in combat without any mana cost.
Then there are abilities, which cost mana and knock a character’s turn back a bit, often allowing enemies to attack first, but that can be devastatingly powerful. These aren’t necessarily magical moves; Monika has bombs and powerful gun abilities, while Calibretto has healing abilities and some that revolve around him being a war golem. Gully’s abilities tend to revolve around punching, but she can also create shields to absorb enemy damage. Basically, abilities are more flexible and often do more damage than actions. You don’t necessarily have to ration mana to use them, though, because attacking with actions builds up “overcharge” mana. This is temporary mana that’s built up as characters use actions, and since your overcharge pool is drawn from before your regular mana pool, you can use abilities freely so long as you build up overcharge first. Overcharge disappears after battles, so you’re incentivized to mix up actions and abilities in combat based on what kind of timing and damage is ideal for getting out of the fight with as much health as possible.
Finally, there are burst abilities. As combat progresses, your burst meter fills up, and you’ll eventually have 3 available charges to use. All characters have three burst abilities (though the third has to be unlocked by completing a small sidequest) that are kind of like extra-powerful actions—which is to say instant and without any mana cost. Like with so much else, these can be heals or damaging attacks depending on the character and ability in question. Using a first-tier burst ability costs a single charge of the burst bar, using a second-tier one costs 2 charges, and third-tier bursts cost 3. That means that in addition to working around the timing of actions and abilities, you’re also constantly weighing whether or not you have enough time to build up your burst bar after using a third-tier ability or if it’s smarter to use a second-tier one instead. All burst abilities (like most actions and abilities) remain useful throughout the game, too, rather than being supplanted by better moves that render them obsolete.
That’s not even getting into the dungeons
The story sends your party to various dungeons, though “dungeon” evokes a certain dark and lonely atmosphere that isn’t universally true of Battle Chasers’ areas. While you do spend some time wandering around dark cave areas filled with various types of lycelots (werewolves, basically) and spiders, there’s also a stage that takes place in a bandit fortress. It almost feels like a little town, with you going into various houses looking for loot and pieces of a password you need to reach the dungeon boss, and all the while you’re being taunted over a loudspeaker. Getting to the boss is always the goal here, though dungeons are short enough—I’d guess they have something like 9-15 rooms in them—that you can explore and look for chests and pieces of lore without feeling like you’re straying too far. Oftentimes you have to wander around anyway to actually find the boss. It all feels really natural, which is impressive when you consider the fact that the dungeons are procedurally generated. Personally, I hate procedural generation. It doesn’t compare to something that’s hand-designed, but dungeons are short enough with enough landmarks that are hand-designed that it’s the best of both worlds.
Dungeon puzzles are a good example of this. There’s one puzzle where you have to figure out a rune combination based on the order they show up in the background, and while the combination changes every time, the runes are always obvious. This allows the game to teach you the rules of how to proceed with the area design rather than explicitly spelling it out. In another area, you’re dealing with dead ends and rotating platforms. You quickly learn that using a nearby object causes the area design to change, and before long, you’re switching back and forth to find switches to open doors only accessible in the other area. All without the game having to spell out how any of this works. And of course, since the layout, items, enemies, and (non-story) events are randomized each time you go through a dungeon, there’s an element of replayability here that doesn’t sabotage the overall flow. I didn’t think it could be done.
In fairness, there’s one element that I feel does negatively impact the flow, and that’s liches. Late-game dungeons include powerful lich enemies in certain rooms, and an infinite number of skeleton enemies spawn and engage you whenever they’re present. This only stops when you beat the lich, and that can prove to be a hassle when you’re not sure exactly where the lich is. It becomes a hassle to look for it when each dead end means yet another encounter with skeletons (which aren’t even difficult enemies—they just put shields on themselves that slows down the process of killing them).
And yeah, there are a few rough edges like that
While my overall experience was undeniably positive, there are a few things about the game that I didn’t care for so much. One is the overall speed, which feels weirdly sluggish. This isn’t as big of a deal in dungeons, but on the overworld map it can feel like your party is running in molasses. Another thing is the stats, which don’t always act like you’d expect. For example, hovering over an improved fishing rod in a shop has the red “obviously a downgrade” arrow even if it’s an upgrade. And sometimes when you craft an enchantment into a weapon or piece of armor (I didn’t even get around to talking about crafting, but it’s wonderful and gives you some freedom to customize) and it claims that it, say, reduces your defenses, that downgrade doesn’t show up anywhere on the piece in question before or after. And of course, there are a few bugs that I stumbled across like getting stuck out of bounds, though I found far fewer than usual and that’s impressive for a game so complex. The last thing I want to talk about is a one-off, but I really hope they change it. Late in the game, you fight some shadow versions of your characters. This is awesome because they’re the same level and have access to all of the same moves. What’s not awesome is that they can cheat and use more burst abilities than should be possible. For example, shadow Monika used her third-tier burst attack, only for shadow Gully to almost immediately use her second-tier burst attack. That shouldn’t be possible because the third-tier burst wipes out the bar for everyone.
Amazing graphics, but the real star here is the music
Okay, so the graphics look amazing, right? Very much like comic book art, and it really ties the whole thing together. The new characters are all designed to be very distinct and memorable, and every dungeon has its own theme that avoids the feeling that you’re spending all of your time in dark caves. It’s telling, though, that I don’t actually want to talk about the graphics despite how great and praiseworthy they are. No, I want to talk about how blown away I was by the soundtrack. I don’t even know how to describe it except to say that I was tapping my head along with the beat during the end credits without even realizing it, and probably on several other occasions where I didn’t catch myself doing it. A lot of the tracks here have an amazing groove like that. In a year that’s been full of great soundtracks, Battle Chasers: Nightwar could easily be the best of them.
*A review key for Battle Chasers: Nightwar was provided for the purpose of this review