Battle Chasers: Nightwar is a wonderful fusion of comic book reality and setting, but with the foundations of a noughties JRPG masterpiece. Much like the denizens of Joe Madureira’s creation it’s of an odd sort, but it all comes together wonderfully.
Madureira’s Battle Chasers series, for those unaware, was a comic series which stepped away from the traditional superhero focus, instead following the story of a peculiar band of misfit heroes through an arcanepunk setting: a girl seeking out her father, a wildcard free spirit, a wizened, if dotty, mage, an enchanted golem, and a warrior left nearly broken by recent events. The ragtag band all had their own reasons to head off for adventure, however, how that ties into the game is -currently- unknown.
I’ve played around four hours of Battle Chasers: Nightwar; a quick go at PC Gamer Weekender earlier in the year, another peek at EGX Rezzed, and a longer, dedicated session late last month at a closed-door event in London. Of the three runs, the first two ended cataclysmic, my party piled up in heaps on the floor following my failing to properly adapt to the game’s combat system. The third, however, a full demo from town to *cough* big boss battle went without a hitch, with tutorials, structure. and escalation at a much better pace.
That said, while the game certainly has the look of a carefully structured adventure-come-RPG there’s a clever spread of systems at work which manage a lot of the level generation. Each of the dungeons are procedurally pieced together on entry, just as soon as you’ve assigned a difficulty for it. With the computer handling the dungeon assembly the game then advances the plot via counts of success, discovery of pieces of lore, and the turfing up of select bespoke dungeon-chunks that the game has pulled from. In fact, the game could have been comfortably pitched as having taken on elements from the increasingly popular rogue-like sub-genre. Players certainly wouldn’t have cried out in objection after a short play, as it follows a lot of the tropes; turn-based combat, procedural levels, tough combat, and punishing deaths – when the player falls they lose everything on their person except for their equipment. Design decisions no-doubt made as to encourage players to be more careful in their combat and in the selection of difficulty when it comes to the point of entering a dungeon.
It all makes for a game that, if you approach it as a JRPG you may find it a little too hard at first, and if you approach it as a roguelike you’ll find yourself surprised at the impressive quality of the artwork, and many design quirks that take it outside of the boundaries of both both genre. While the combat and exploration scene abilities are impressively implemented, it’s in moments where characters and grunt enemies converse in combat, or special combat animations play out, or you stumble across one of the clever puzzle rooms, that the game transcends expectation.
I’ve spent enough time pussy-footing around discussing the combat, so I suppose I should just jump into it. Combat in Battle Chasers sees players control three of the six of the game’s characters at any given point in time – a demon hunter, Alumon, joining the titular five. Once engaged in combat -be that through encounters on the main map, approaching enemies on the local, adventure, dungeon maps, or being surprised by an event- the game switches to a side-on, two dimensional view, reminiscent of early JRPGs like the pre-VII Final Fantasy series but with the BC:N’s high-quality artwork.
Combat turns play out through a kind-of Turn-Queue system. Characters are presented on a bar on the left-hand side of screen, and are then moved up and down based on status, or the amount of time that their next action might use; certain abilities use multiple turns, certain effects can stun characters, knocking them down the queue.
Where the game gets interesting is in the fact that each character has four pools of energy: Health, Mana, Overcharge, and Burst. The first two are obvious enough to most, although it’s definitely worth pointing out that developers, Airship Syndicate, decided to have it that health and mana didn’t resolve and restore outside of combat. This puts the focus for healing onto inventory items and character skills, skills which use up one of the other three bars.
Overcharge and Burst both charge up based on attacks; Burst charging for every attack, while Overcharge does so based on the character’s moves that are used – but Overcharge also resets after each battle, and that’s due to the fact that it’s an essential mechanic to a game that doesn’t want to give you mana – it’s a mana substitute. Deliver a wicked uppercut to an enemy for a small amount of damage, but gain 10 or 15 Overcharge, precious battle juice that keeps your mana pool aside for when you really need it in an emergency.
Attacks come in three forms; standard attacks which mostly execute in one turn, these build up Overcharge; special attacks which have much greater impact, normally take two turns AND use mana, or if you’ve accrued it, Overcharge; and, finally, Battle Bursts, which play a short comic-book, or three dimensional, sequence and deliver completely battle-changing effects. Battle Bursts, much like FF limit breaks, are immensely powerful, however also require some serious time to charge up. They’re also available in several levels of power, a good test of player patience, although I never even fired off a second level one, instead using them to clear through enemies quicker and get back to exploration.
When not fighting wolfmen, haunted spirit sword things, robots armed with flamethrowers, and bandits, most of the game is spent in the dungeon view. Enemies visibly move around amid the traps and junctions of the dungeons, with combat with them triggering on touch. Exploration is practically mandatory, as the game has extremely generous levels and variety of loot, and no fear of handing it out. Each of the characters has a unique ability which can be used several times per dungeon each with their own uses; from Garrison’s dodge-dash which lets you easily pass moving, spinning traps, to Gully’s ground-smashing stun which gives you a few moments to dodge past an enemy you don’t want to fight.
As I mentioned earlier, the dungeons can be loaded with various events to break away from the combat and trap evasion. One area I came across had a riddle on a wall, and three chests gated away ahead; as it turns out, two of those were not just traps, but mimics. Another simply contained a magic box that I could put a piece of equipment in; I did, and later found the box containing an upgraded version of what I’d put in.
As I said earlier, death will rob you of everything you’re carrying, this puts an extra focus on carefully managing your mana and potions, as well as possibly not taking gambles when you know that you could lose it all with a mis-step. This makes every level-up, or upgrade (gained via finding lore around the world) even sweeter, as each character has their own ability tree which they unlock as they level, revealing potential for deep, complex ability load-outs and subsequently very specialised tactics.
Despite your killer ability set up, carefully chosen equipment, and keen management of mana, you’ll likely fall at some point, losing all those items and and extra junk you’ve collected. In this chase you regroup in Harm’s Way. That is, the town Harm’s Way, which is the hub town in the game. It’s complete with a handful of shops, a fortune teller’s den, and the obligatory tavern, there’s actually a fair bit to do there, and getting back there after besting a dungeon is no-doubt extremely relieving.
Fans of JRPGs from the dawn of the polygon, or fans of the ever advancing rogue-like genre, will be very comfortable with Battle Chasers Nightwar – that’s it’s greatest strength and weakness, both of those subsections are especially niche. That said, the fantastic art-style makes the game look approachable, and the -largely absent in my plays- tutorial might well plug those gaps.
Battle Chaser Nightwar launches for Nintendo Switch, PS4, Xbox One & Windows PC on the 3rd of October this year.