Battle Chasers: Nightwar is the first game from developers Airship Syndicate. The studio is headed up by one Joe Madureira. If you don’t recognise the name you should recognise some of his work. He has his fingerprints on games like Darksiders and Dungeon Runners, and has drawn for comics like X-Men and Deadpool. Oh yes, and he also created the original Battle Chasers comic back in 1998.
At it’s core Battle Chasers is a steampunk meets fantasy JRPG. It’s an old formula, but Battle Chasers adds enough twists to its system to make it interesting and engaging. This is vital, as you will spend a lot of your time hitting various monsters in the face, and the combat system is deep and rewarding when you get it figured out.
A Painted World
The very first thing you notice about Battle Chasers is the beautiful animation that plays when you fire up the game. Burly men, buxom ladies and wizened wizards do battle with various monsters. The artistic style here pulls directly from the comic books and goes on to inform every element of the game.
The world in which you play looks gorgeous, not just because of the art direction but also because of the tiny details the team have placed in it. Cracked stones, little birds, clumps of moss and discarded machinery all combine to create a consistent and believable world. Nothing here is lazy, every nook, cranny and corridor is filled with detail.
You view the world itself in three different ways. First is the Overworld as your party moves on paths from area to area, finding secrets and monsters on the way. The second is the Dungeon view as you walk around the various combat dungeons and mission areas. Finally, the battle view as your party faces off against packs of enemies and bosses. The Overworld is the most simplistic as it is not designed for players to be in for long. The Dungeon view is gorgeous, and the battle view is home to some beautiful fight animations.
Each dungeon carries with it a unique aesthetic, from the wooden planks of a seaside bandit town to the damp caverns of a dark cave system and the stony walls of a creepy castle. Enemies are fully realised, with fantastic attention to detail. It is easy to tell at a glance that they have been designed with a lot of love and care. Weapons and armor are chipped and dented, and flesh is pock marked and scarred. Particularly bothersome spiders have giant skulls in their fur and enemy golems gleam and shine in the light of battle. The attention to detail that is paid to the world itself also shines through, not just on the player characters you play, but on every character you interact with, be it friend or foe.
The story in Battle Chasers centers around your party getting stranded in an unknown land. Initially split up, their focus is on finding each other. As they do, they run into enemies and challenges that let the player know that all is not right in this new place. For better or worse, they find themselves entangled in the tale that is unfolding around them.
All the usual archetypes are here. Gully the young girl with the inner power nobody quite knows the extent of. Knolan, the cranky but caring wizard. Garrison the burly warrior with a dark past. Red, the foxy rogue with lots of moxy. Calibretto, the robot who wishes to be more than the sum of his parts. It is tempting to think that we should have moved on from these kinds of archetypes by now but the simple truth is that the characters are all well written and endearing in their own way.
As a group, the core social dynamic centers around Gully and the rest of the party’s desire to protect and teach her. Things play out very nicely as the party rests and we are treated to conversations between different members. Garrison will sneak Gully out at night to fight. Calibretto will be constantly worried about her safety. Red will normally just make fun of everyone but occasionally comes dangerously close to expressing admiration or warmth for other party members. In the center of it all is Gully, barely aware that she is slowly changing all the people around her and knowing only that she wants to do the right thing and be brave. It’s extremely difficult not to like the characters and become invested in their relationships. The fact that all this occurs within some reasonable limited character interaction time is indicative of good, focused writing.
Outside of this, though, the narrative is pretty standard. There is a bad person who wishes to do bad things and our plucky heroes must throw a rather large monkey wrench into his machine. Along the way you will be able to add new characters to your party, but you always have to juggle which three you are actively using and leveling at any one time.
Fight for Your Life
Combat is the true meat of the game, though, and the way that combat works in Battle Chasers really drew me in. You have three main types of moves. These are Actions, Abilities and Bursts. Characters can also use items such as potions or they can choose to flee. Each character has a health bar and a Mana bar. Where it gets interesting is with Haste and Overcharge. Haste is how fast and how often your character can act. The turn order is always shown on the left of the screen.
The higher your Haste stat the more often you will be able to do things. Action can be performed instantly, but don’t hit as hard as Abilities. They do, however, generate Overcharge, which acts like Mana and is added to your Mana bar until you use it or the fight ends. Abilities tend to be more powerful but can take longer to execute.
In this way, fighting becomes a constant balance between softer hitting, Overcharge generating Actions, and harder hitting, but longer to perform Abilities. Throw in status effects like bleed, ignite, poison and more and you have a lot to consider. Some attacks buff the attacker, some debuff the target. Others will heal or shield an ally and some can even cost you health. I really enjoyed the endless decision making between what I needed to do now and what I predicted I would need in thirty seconds time. And it only gets more fun as you get deeper into the game and combat becomes a constant battle of prediction.
As the game goes on and you learn more about your enemies, it also benefits the player as you know what certain enemy attacks do and can either focus that enemy out as it seeks to cast its ability or heal and shield yourself as much as you can. It’s a deep and rewarding combat system and large fights and boss battles can be tense affairs.
Interestingly there is no real tutorial outside of some information on loading screens. All these systems are slowly introduced and clearly displayed while actually fighting. It is my favourite method of teaching the player, when done well, and it really works here.
Hunting, Crafting and Leveling
Like any good JRPG, Battle Chasers is filled with things to make, loot and level for your characters. All the usual armor and weapon options, rings and necklaces, and a multitude of potions and vendors are there to explore. You can experiment with builds that emphasizes certain stats and you can take on Hunts for NPCs or try your hand in a wave based Arena for powerful loot.
Small non-essential missions are spread throughout the world and there are plenty of things to be discovered and explored that are not necessarily tied to the main story. You can buy or make new armour, then at certain altars you can imbue these items with spells you have learned along the way that build certain stats. If you feel like you are running into a wall in combat you will often be able to break through by correctly applying new spells, or trying a new build on a character.
It is also essential to make your own potions, so buy plenty of bottles from vendors. The right potion at the right time can swing tough fights in your favour. And Dungeons offer good replay value, with three different difficulty levels and a new layout each time.
I honestly didn’t know what to expect from Battle Chasers, which is maybe why the game delivered so much more than I anticipated. It has three main strengths of artistic direction, combat and voice acting and moments within the soundtrack are truly beautiful. If I had to bet, I would say there are some moments inspired by the likes of Clint Mansell in there.
Nothing about the game is weak, though, and it always provides enough interest to keep me coming back to it over and over again. Even now, I know there will be things I missed, side missions I didn’t quite figure out, and I am already preparing myself for my next run through it.
For a studio delivering their first game, Airship Syndicate have provided a solid and assured title that will appeal to more people than just fans of the comic it is based on. If you have been on the fence about picking it up I can only recommend that you do.