Platforms: PC, PS4, Xbox One, Switch
If you’ve played a lot of turn-based RPGs you probably can’t recall the number of times you’ve selected Attack from a list of a commands, slept in Inns, explored overworlds, and battled just for for XP before a boss fight. It’s all second nature to at this point so it’s a delight when you get the chance to play a game that embraces its roots while still building on its past like Battle Chasers: Nightwar does.
Developed by Airship Syndicate with Joe Madureira (one of the key minds behind the Battle Chasers comic and Darksiders series) at the helm, Battle Chasers: Nightwar is equal parts classic turn-based RPG and innovative modern ideas. While it’s still held back a bit by some of the limitations of the genre, it does enough to set itself apart where it really counts.
Art Comes To Life
From the opening cutscene, before you even reach the game’s main menu, it’s clear that BC:NWs’ art direction is on another level. Madureira and his team have done a wonderful job capturing the style of the comic with a mixture of steampunk and traditional fantasy vibes. You can even notice some leftover influences from Darksiders if you look closely; especially when comparing Garrison, one of the main party members, and War from the original Darksiders.
The game’s story is entirely unique and knowledge of the comic is not required to play or enjoy this game. All told, it could take a few dozen hours to play through all of the game’s content. There are plenty of sidequests, like clearing out a sewer of spiders, and distractions, like fishing and gambling, sprinkled around to keep you busy, but for the most part you’ll want to stay on the critical path and enjoy the surprisingly good voice acting.
While the narrative itself doesn’t exactly inspire a whole lot of creativity, it gets the job done. Most RPGs are defined by the stories they tell, but the real standout feature with BC:NW is the excellent turn-based combat system.
At first it appears to be just like any other run-of-the-mill turn-based combat system you’d see on classic SNES-era Final Fantasy games. The developers at Airship Syndicate have actually packed in a lot of original ideas here. You have a lot of the JRPG staples; attention to health and mana, XP gain, and weapons and armor, but it’s what they’ve added on top that makes such a big difference.
Each ability that a character has costs a certain amount of mana to use. Like a character’s health, mana does not regenerate after a battle and can only be regained from using healing items/abilities, leveling up, or resting at an Inn. You have what’s referred to as “Overcharge” in BC:NW. Overcharge is earned on top of a character’s mana pool and is used first when casting an ability. So let’s say you use a basic attack that does a little damage and gives you 15 overcharge. Your special abilities that do more damage may cost 10 mana, but in this case if you used it on your next turn then you’d spend 10 overcharge instead.
Overcharge totally changes the dynamics of combat in a turn-based RPG. Anyone that’s ever played one knows that typically you just save up your mana until the boss fight in fear of running out in a crucial moment. The concept of Overcharge totally jettisons those concerns. Now, every battle can be exciting and full of special abilities instead of just the big ones. It gets rid of a lot of the monotony most combat encounters result in. This makes battles fun again since Overcharge is reset to 0 for every character at the end of each battle.
The way BC:NW handles its status effects and other elements also contribute to deeper strategy. Multiple abilities can cause effects such as “Sunder” which makes all physical attacks do more damage or “Bleeding” which slowly causes damage over time. Other attacks can stack on top of those statuses, like siphoning health away from a bleeding enemy. Some battles even have multiple waves of enemies without a break between to increase the intensity.
Finally, there are also “Burst” abilities and character-specific “Perks” to earn. Over the course of a fight you’ll build up your Burst meter which can then be expended to enact a cutscene-fueled special power. It’s like a supercharged ability. Outside of combat you’ll gain access to passive Perks that do things like increase your critical hit chance or enable to you to gain Overcharge passively over the course of a fight.
Innovation Through Iteration
Similarly, BC:NW continues to feel both fresh and familiar outside of combat as well. At first glance the overworld is much like the overworld in any turn-based RPG you’ve seen before. This time they’ve sprinkled a bit more activity around. Instead of freely roaming, often aimlessly, there are specific trails and paths guiding you from one point to the next. You can also pick up treasure chests here and find small exploration areas and points of interest.
There are also zero random battles in BC:NW since you can see where enemies are located on the overworld map. When exploring a dungeon, you can actually see the enemies wandering around next to your own characters. Each of your party members also has access to a “dungeon skill” that lets them do specific actions while exploring dungeons.
For example, Garrison can perform a quick dash movement that serves two functions: dodging traps and starting fights with Haste. Other characters can do things like stun enemies before a fight, or break down a wall, and even heal party members. Dungeons also have a replayable elements since you can explore them again. They will have semi-randomized loot, enemies, and an altered layout based on which difficulty you choose.
Old Tropes Die Hard
For all that BC:NW does right conceptually, it does stumble a bit with bringing it all together into a seamless package. One of the biggest gripes with the game is that characters only earn XP if they’re actively engaged in combat. Since there are six different characters to pick from, it feels like you’re being punished for having a preferred party composition and discourages further experimentation. Since many of the items in the game are character-specific it ends up rendering much of your loot useless. In addition, only half of the available characters can travel with you at any given time.
For a game that does so well with optimizing and improving on classic turn-based battle systems, a lot of the punch is lost with how tedious some fights feel. There’s no way to speed up the action selection proces or put it on autopilot. This is baffling since similar games featured this literally decades ago.
That last point wouldn’t be as big of an issue if there wasn’t much grinding. Yet, as a JRPG-inspired adventure, there is plenty of grinding to go around in this one. There are odd difficulty spikes here and there. By the time you reach the latter third of the journey you’ll likely end up needing to repeat old dungeons to get extra XP for the late-game fights. The procedural system makes this less painful, but it’s still a form of replaying content.