2017 was a pretty great year for RPG fans and fans of video games in general. Everyone's aware of that by this point. We all happily lived through it, trying to squeeze in all of the new entries to our favorite series such as Persona 5, new IPs like Horizon: Zero Dawn, and new takes on old staples like The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. Most of us will still be playing catch-up throughout the early part of this year as we try to finish up our playthroughs of these often lengthy games. Needless to say, I don't think most of us had enough time to get to everything that we wanted to last year.
So, understandably, a few RPGs flew under the radar. Battle Chasers: Nightwar is one of those games.
I believe I first noticed Battle Chasers in a random Nintendo Direct early in the year, which in hindsight is an odd sort of irony considering that the Nintendo Switch version of the title has since been indefinitely delayed. What immediately stood out to me was the western-comic book style artwork despite the fact that the game had adopted classic JRPG style mechanics such as a relatively traditional turn-based battle system. I remember thinking to myself "this looks like some weird offspring between Final Fantasy and Darksiders." Well, turns out I had a good reason for thinking that.
The commonality between Darksiders and Battle Chasers is one Joe Madureira, co-founder of Vigil Games and the original writer of the comic book series Battle Chasers in the mid 1990s. After leaving his comic book series on a cliffhanger to start his career in video games, Battle Chasers was left unfinished while Madureira and Vigil games went on to develop the Zelda-inspired action title.
After Vigil games shut down and the Darksiders IP eventually moved over to Nordic Game (now THQ Nordic), Madureira went on a different path. In 2015, he and fellow Vigil Co-founder Ryan Stefanelli founded Airship Syndicate and introduced their new project on Kickstarter: a return to Battle Chasers in a form resembling a JRPG,
Battle Chasers: Nightwar is an Arcanepunk comic book story with classic (conditional) turn-based combat. The premise of the game's narrative is pretty simple and straightforward: your party of archetypal rogues ends up crash landing their airship on a mysterious island simply known as the Lost Continent. After being attacked by some sort of pirates or bandits and forced to crash land, the group rallies themselves to try to overcome the surprising predicament they suddenly find themselves in. In that process, the party slowly uncovers a nefarious plot to revive an evil demon to full strength, and it becomes imperative to end the ritual before the whole world finds itself in peril.
I went into Nightwar without any prior knowledge of the Battle Chasers comic, and there's a little bit of background that's left a bit ambiguous. 5 of the game's 6 party members already know each other from the outset of the game, and only the broad strokes of their history are ever established. We learn that Gully inherited the weapons of her lost father Aramus, which puts a target on her back due to their apparent significance.
Garrison, Calibretto, and Knolan are all experienced people of various talents who seem to be loyal to Gully due to having known her father, and Monika is a rogue that while not strictly allied with the group, seems to have shared history with them. The story told in the game is largely self-contained, with only small threads branching out to these unestablished extracurriculars, so the end product ends up working pretty well even if you go into the game with no knowledge whatsoever.
The group of five ends up allying themselves with Alumon, a mysterious figure from a local tribe of blood mages who is directly involved with the events taking place on the island, and he largely acts as the game's guide and liaison to the player; explaining many of the locations and characters to the party as the various facets of the narrative come into play.
These six characters make up the playable party of Nightwar, and the ways that the cast is differentiated in battle is probably the game's largest strength. While each character has obvious strengths and weaknesses in combat, none of them come across as being pigeon-holed into limited roles - many of the characters can serve multiple purposes when combined into a 3-person battle party.
For instance, the aforementioned Alumon can deal a lot of high-level magic damage but also comes with a lot of healing and barrier capability. The wizard Knolan can heal effectively as well, but also focus on magic damage or debuffing enemies with hexes. Monika can likewise debuff enemies, but also serves as a functional evasive tank or a high damage dealer. Gully can tank and share barriers while Garrison is a damage specialist. Long story short, most every character is great at multiple things, and each of their specific roles in a given battle will depend on the circumstances at hand.
Throughout the game's eight dungeons, I hardly ever found myself having to run the same battle party out more than a couple sorties. In some dungeons, Alumon was my strongest healer while Gully Tanked and Monika focused on damage. In other places Alumon could focus on being a magic-focused cannon. Obviously, the gear and traits that they are equipped with will help narrow down what each is best at, but never to a point where the game's remarkable flexibility is lost.
The dungeons themselves are at the core of Nightwar's gameplay progression. While tackled in a linear order as the game's narrative dictates, they are randomized each time you enter, with only a few key puzzles holding steady from instance to instance. The rooms are interlocked in a random array in a manner very reminiscent of Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories. The game encourages you to play the dungeons multiple times each: not only are there semi-random events that can net you unique loot and bestiary entries, but you can even choose between three difficulty levels. Successfully completing a dungeon on Legendary will net you greater rewards than just breezing through it on normal mode.
Dungeons are also primary sources of materials for crafting, lore entries for Perk points, and of course battles for experience. While dungeon puzzles are normally not much more elaborate than flipping switches in a certain order or moving platforms around, there's enough variety in the randomization that it never felt like too much of a chore to revisit a dungeon whenever I needed materials to craft a particular item. Or if I wanted to trek through a place a second time with the goal of having a specific character reach a certain level.
This does play into one of the game's weaknesses, however. Inexplicably, characters in the active party do not receive any experience points. While it's a headache in and of itself to have to play a shuffling game to keep everyone at equal level status, the selectable dungeon difficulty mechanic exacerbates the frustration found in this process. I would often undertake my first run of any given dungeon on the normal or hard mode -- not often did I find myself adequately leveled enough to tackle Legendary difficulty on the first try.
Upon clearing a dungeon, the party I used would find itself greatly overleveled compared to the three people I had kept in reserve. So if I wanted to tackle the Legendary difficulty, I would almost certainly have to use the same, properly leveled party members. If I wanted to swap things out and change up the party, this meant I would have to redo the dungeon on a normal difficulty before undertaking anything higher. The other alternative would be to simply bench a party member for the duration of the game.
I feel like this frustration would have been greatly alleviated if reserve party members saw some passive exp, even if it was only half of the normal amount or some other compromise.
The game has its fair share of other classic RPG trappings, such as a crafting system, an arena, overdrives/limit breaks (in the form of Burst attacks), and a decent selection of side content including a functionally limited but charming fishing mini-game. For instance, pirate airships will attack the party on the regular past a certain point in the game, which can lead into an optional boss fight if the player continues to engage them (rather than avoiding them). One of the NPC traders will also reward the player for undertaking a series of enumerated Hunts, optional boss fights which will net exp, money, and valuable crafting materials. The list of optional and side content isn't extraordinarily long, but there's enough to not feel railroaded to the main story progression.
Lastly, a comment needed to be made about the general aesthetic of the game. Lots of titles have used the "comic book style" cutscenes, from the Sly Cooper series to Max Payne, but I feel like this is one of the stronger entries with that particular style of cinematics. Not only is the art style mostly consistent between the 2D scenes and in-game 3D models, but the strength of the developer's history with Comic-style storytelling shines through in the storyboarding of the scenes themselves. The voice-acting is adequate and doesn't detract from the experience too much. I'm not sure of the experience of each of the actors but the specific direction of each of the game's characters is well done.
Outside of the unorthodox pairing of gameplay and presentation, Battle Chasers: Nightwar isn't that remarkable of a game on paper. Many of the mechanics are largely borrowed from other games and the narrative merely exists to move the party from one dungeon to the next -- practical but not altogether captivating. That stated, Nightwar is a game that ends up slightly more than the sum of its components, partially due to the novelty of the package as a whole, and (admittedly) somewhat due to the nostalgia of the turn-based rpg at its core.
Versions tested: PC