The world of Battle Chasers has been slowly growing at the hands of writer and artist Joe Madureira since 1998, leaving readers hanging with issue 9 back in 2001. While still intending to continue the series, Madureira moved to the gaming industry to develop various projects before returning to Battle Chasers once more. Though fans did not get the return they were hoping for, the newfound developer Airship Syndicate led a successful Kickstarter campaign that brought Battle Chasers: Nightwar to life.
From the ground up, the title is stunning in its art direction that largely draws from a Western steampunk fantasy style with a few minor nods to Eastern Asian culture. The overworld map has a sketchy, angular feel like the party is running on an actual hand-drawn map. In the dungeons, chambers are lush and minutely detailed, the chunky environments smoothly textured and brimming with colour and memorable set-pieces. Coupled with the dynamic lighting, each provides a unique and atmospheric experience that is a joy to explore. Modelling for player characters and monsters is masterfully crafted, with rich textures, and boasting intense animations bringing them to life in and out of combat. My one complaint here is that sometimes these animations can prolong what would otherwise be a quick encounter. Besides that, the attention to detail is a delight as players face off against foes large and small in visceral battles filled with action. Enemies do run the gamut of palette swaps, but most come with extra details and trappings that still make them unique from their weaker predecessors. Largely due to its comic book background, all of the female characters (save Gully) lean toward the typical male gaze. The designs are not as egregious as in many other titles, but it is worth noting the art direction took this turn with the scant few female characters the game has to begin with.
Jesper Kyd and Clark Powell’s soundtrack further backs up the game’s mesh of modern with classic. It adds urban beats and style over haunting piano in battles. A variety of battle themes play throughout the game in different areas, all of which seem to subvert traditional pieces expected of the genre. Some of the dungeons offer more traditional menacing tones, while others lend to quiet notes insinuating much loss and pain. The Western and East Asian cultural mashup is more prevalent in the instrumentation as instruments blend with the modern beats. It is a delightful soundtrack that offers a lot of variety, suited to each situation, over the many hours of gameplay. The sound team has also done stellar work with their effects, as crunchy attacks, rusty gates, and creaking doors all add the final touches that bring the world to life.
Storytelling largely happens with cutscenes executed as a comic book in motion, clearly denoting the title’s roots. Crisp art brings these scenes to life alongside solid voice acting. Players catch up with the party, who have clearly been adventuring together for some time, as they near an island rumoured to harbour vast amounts of the precious resource, mana. They are set upon by sky pirates and forced to abandon ship as it crashes, stranding them. Play begins with three party members: Gully, daughter of the legendary hero Aramus; Garrison, the troubled and broody swordsman protector; and the sentient mechanical golem Calibretto who has also pledged to defend the girl. Two objectives become immediately clear: find your other companions, the wily independent rogue Red Monika and the curious old wizard Knolan, and then get off the island. As players continue through their journey, they will uncover a deeper evil lurking, with major story beats played out after each dungeon’s completion. Character development largely happens with each rest at the inn, giving players a look into the hearts and minds beyond the brawny comic book facade. The adventure paints a grim tale that is standard fantasy fare, but well told nonetheless, with stakes that matter to the characters enough to compel players along.
For all its clearly Western design, Battle Chasers: Nightwar is built upon the foundations of the traditional turn-based JRPG. To explore the island, players move the party along paths of the overworld map between different points of interest, fast travelling with Blinkstations where available. Most points on the map are dungeons or exploration areas, as well as the hub town of Harm’s Way. This hub diverges from traditional RPGs in that you interact with each necessary store on the overworld map as opposed to exploring a fully rendered village populated by NPCs with homes to pillage. Most of the stores can be upgraded throughout the game like a roguelike, yielding better stock and, eventually, tables for the crafting and enchanting systems. It offers standard fare, but also two storefronts unique to Battle Chasers: Nightwar. The Altered Bestiary (a great nod) offers rare loot and some sidequest opportunities to help to the party reach its full potential, while the Collector takes rare collectables in exchange for Shadow Coins, which are then used to acquire some high-quality items. Players will see a lot of Harm’s Way as it is the only town in the game; with every KO they will find themselves back at the inn and tavern. It offers plenty to do despite the truncated presentation with its interesting assortment of NPCs and useful shops, along with the odd secret or two.
Worth noting is the game’s robust menu, holding all the info the player could need about the world, the party, their crafting recipes, and more. While fairly straightforward, there is a LOT of information and sidebars to navigate. Because of the amount of systems covered, these menus can feel a bit cumbersome, especially when managing the character perk system. While it doesn’t ruin the experience, the lack of optimization in Battle Chaser: Nightwar’s menus can cause some aggravation due to tedium
Random encounters are the bulk of the game’s combat system, visible on the map and initiated on contact. What’s neat is that once you reach a certain level in each area these battles become optional, removing the tedium where weaker foes lurk. In the first few battles, I found it takes a moment to get used to the party assembling on the left against their foes on the right as both sides wield Actions, Abilities and Bursts to deadly effect. Actions are instantaneous basic attacks and support manoeuvres that often build Overcharge, a sort of bonus mana that is crucial to strategy in this game. The numerous Abilities draw on Overcharge before mana and execute at various speeds to influence turn order. To turn the tide at a crucial moment, each character has Burst abilities, powerful instantaneous moves that draw from the Burst bar that recharges as PCs attack or receive damage. Battle Chaser: Nightwar’s combat feels great and familiar, offering a lot of tactical flexibility to suit each situation. Learning what actions and abilities to use at the right time to capitalize on Overcharge generation or compound on status ailments keeps combat flowing. In more protracted encounters with bosses, or in Combo battles and at the Tolkas Arena where foes come in waves, the full breadth of the system avails itself, allowing players to plan many turns ahead. Battle Chasers: Nightwar combines some of the best JRPG methods with modern execution, making for an intense, rewarding experience.
Adventuring out across the island and into Exploration Areas and the randomly-generated chambers of each Dungeon is again similar to RPGs past. The party runs through an isometric locale populated by beasts to find treasure and secrets aplenty. As before, interacting with enemies starts a battle, though how many notice the party matters, since “the more, the merrier” may not always apply here. When in these areas, characters and most monsters have a Dungeon Skill that can be used to affect the world around them. Gully’s ability to smash down walls can also deal damage and stun foes before entering combat, and an enemy slime’s ooze can poison the party if tread upon. Furthermore, many of the dungeon’s random rooms contain traps, causing damage or a host of ailments with each misstep to plague players in coming battles.
Clearly, the team at Airship Syndicate wanted there to be more to the dungeon crawl than besting random encounters, as these factors will keep players on their toes. Beyond the struggle to survive, clever puzzles, ranging from riddles to sequence memorization, offer more lateral challenges to players, offering rewards or an escape when solved. An interesting mechanic adding to the game’s replayability are the difficulty settings for each Dungeon visit, allowing players control over the risk and reward. Further encouragement to revisit the Dungeons comes with tracking down pages of lore and filling in the bestiary. This title rewards players for discovering more of the world’s unique setting. Valuable items are earned for each completed collection of lore, while Beast Perks unlock after defeating specific numbers of enemy types and grant passive combat bonuses. Adding merit to mundane tasks is a welcome and refreshing spin on the craft of world-building, beyond lore for lore’s sake. Unlocking the secrets of each corner of the island and its denizens is a thrill as these meaningful challenges present themselves.
As one would expect, the heroes level as they gain experience in battle. However, achieving certain results, like defeating multiple foes at once or dealing massive damage with the killing blow, earns you more experience. With each level gained, the party feels more powerful as they often gain a new Ability and Perk Points. Perks for each hero are broken into two categories: one rewarding a more defensive and supportive style while the other is more aggressive. Assigning perk points will either upgrade Actions and Abilities or apply passive benefits that can bolster combat power. Furthermore, every 20 points devoted to a particular category unlocks exceptional passive abilities as reward. While levels cap at 30, Perk Points can still be earned through the Tomes of Knowledge. At max level, many enemies remain somewhat of a threat, ensuring players cannot simply steamroll everything they encounter. This may not be for everyone, but I quite enjoy the game remaining a bit of a challenge, demanding full use of the tactics and abilities at my disposal late game.
When not battling the forces of evil, the game offers plenty of meaningful side content. The Beastmaster Raha offers Hunts, powerful foes that can be found and defeated, earning some ample experience and rewards. Each character has an ultimate Burst Ability, all earned through different means. Of course, each hero also has an ultimate weapon, again, obtained through a variety of quests and puzzles (an unsurprising surprise). Battle Chasers: Nightwar also boasts a robust crafting system, allowing players to forge and enchant mighty weapons and armour as well as brew potions. Finally, the party can go fishing! Dungeons and exploration areas offer fishing spots that transport the player to a simple fishing minigame. Players cast a line and fight with a fish, earning collectable entries in their fishing journal as well as “fish chunks” which can be traded to the Fishmonger for shadow coins. Fishing eventually reaches a plateau that forces players to upgrade their gear to attract rarer fish. While it scratches the collector’s itch, this minigame feels a bit tacked on in its simplicity and makes for a fairly meaningless pastime. Fishing aside, however, the game’s extra content is fulfilling and rewarding for the effort players put into it.
Akin to nights in the basement, with a party gathered around a friend brooding behind the DM’s screen, Battle Chasers: Nightwar feels like a classic romp in a dungeon with some dragons. Though the adventure is new, it still feels familiar. Airship Syndicate has impressively refreshed some staple conventions with modern concepts, maintaining a comfortable level of nostalgia that exemplifies the best qualities from RPGs of yore. It’s just fun to load up and be enchanted by.