Seven months after arriving on other platforms, and nearly three years after its Kickstarter success, Battle Chasers: Nightwar finally brings its brand of classic turn-based combat to your favourite ‘homeheld’ console. While this is firmly in the JRPG mold, it streamlines features and makes life easier for busy gamers who lack the time for a triple-figure hour count. Of course, there’s grinding to be done if you’re so inclined, but in a genre where players can be encouraged to push through to hour 20 before the game gets 'good’, this feels like a breath of fresh air.
Not on paper, mind. Story-wise, you already know the score. After crash-landing on the Lost Isles, a small group of heroes begin searching for their friend Knolan, an old mage who was investigating an explosion of mana-based activity in the region. The hub village of Harm’s Way contains all the amenities and side-quests you’d expect, and you move across a ye olde cartographical overworld battling enemies en route to free-roaming Exploration Areas (non-randomised locations including fishing holes, small outposts and caves) and Dungeons. Icons on the map indicate the enemies you’ll need to beat along the way.
Once you’re strong enough, running into those icons won’t automatically initiate a battle – instead you’ll be asked if you wish to fight the ‘lesser’ enemy. These easy encounters no longer offer XP, only loot, so avoiding them is a welcome option (although it would have been nicer still to simply grab the loot from the villains without actually battling á la Earthbound). Exploring the overworld – beautifully rendered with clouds and ocean waves outlined with ye olde ink – will reveal fast travel points called Blinkstations.
Your initial party consists of gentle-giant/golem Calibretto, brooding warrior Garrison and young Gully, daughter of Aramus, the ‘leader of men’ who’s been missing for years. Later you’ll be joined by grouchy mage Knolan, rogue beauty Red Monika and a mysterious cloaked hunter, Alumon. These heroes are charged with protecting Gully from anyone who would seize the legendary gauntlets she inherited when her father disappeared.
So far, so predictable. Airships, ancient orders, slimes, sorceresses, fishing – you name it. However, Battle Chasers began as an American comic back in 1998 and that influence helps set it apart from anime-heavy JRPGs and their often cookie-cutter protagonists. The archetypes are present and correct, but peppy, irreverent dialogue stops things getting overwrought, and there’s a freshness and verve in the writing and art that elevates the game above standard fare. Snappily animated cutscenes and top-notch voice work capture the spirit of the comic, as do the speech bubble quips that pop up during battle. You’re free to engage with as much or as little of the story as you like, with most of it confined to notes found in dungeons. Developer Airship Syndicate is well versed in the genre and ticks all the requisite boxes without feeling slavish to the formula or forcing lore down your throat.
The base mechanics will be familiar, too. You run a three-character party, each one with specific moves or ‘Actions’, plus separate ‘Abilities’ that require mana to execute. ‘Overcharge’ is generated by using normal attacks and deposited into that character’s mana meter. This surplus disappears once a battle finishes, encouraging experimentation over conservation. A communal ‘Battle Burst’ meter soon unlocks (likewise charged by executing ‘Actions’) which opens up powerful screen-shaking moves for each hero.
‘Combat Knowledge’ unlocks as you battle the same enemy types enabling you to see their health, the moves they’re queuing up and also consult a bestiary for hints about their vulnerabilities. The clean UI communicates everything clearly and big attacks look and feel suitably meaty. Some top HD rumble work enhances this – certain moves create an audible frequency from the tiny motors which begins high before descending to a chunky thud on impact. Battle animations look great too, although we’d have welcomed the option to skip them or speed them up.
The Battle Burst system unifies your members into a tight unit, although it’s easy to get comfortable with the flow of a particular trio and, therefore, disinclined to break it up with a new hero. We grew quite attached to our initial three and even though late-comers are appropriately levelled when they join the roster, they never quite fit our groove. Levelling up unlocks moves and perk points which power a dual system enabling you to spec (and respect at any time, at no cost) each hero towards your preferred playstyle. Putting points into Gully’s ‘Avenger’ tree will improve attack stats; alternatively, pump them into the ‘Guardian’ branch for better protection.
There’s lots to keep track of, but small quality of life features help minimise busywork. All debuffs, including bleed damage, poison and burn, are dispelled with cleansing moves or potions in battle, but automatically disappear once you’ve won. Likewise, downed party members revive with nominal HP at the end of a fight which speeds things up no end. You accumulate loot to craft weapons, armour and consumable items in shops and dungeons. Missing an ingredient? Not necessarily a problem! A percentage meter indicates your chance of success, so throw in whatever you’ve got and take a gamble. Alternatively, using extra materials may produce a more powerful item to carry into battle.
Dungeon layouts are generated randomly from a selection of component pieces and bespoke scenarios will randomly occur inside. Each has a dozen-or-so chambers and they’re beautifully realised, recalling the painterly style and palette of Bastion. Battle Chasers is a colourful game and even the darkest, dankest environments are never dreary. While hardly ground-breaking, it’s clean, attractive and coherent with the hand-drawn aesthetic. Although combat is always turn-based, dungeons introduce real-time elements, with hazards to avoid and each character having their own skills.
Calibretto, for example, can heal the party or fire his arm cannon at roaming enemies, producing damage and burn debuffs once the battle proper begins. You select from three difficulty levels at the entrance, with commensurate loot upon completion. Collapse during a boss battle and you’ll simply restart nearby on all but the hardest difficulty. You can replay dungeons for XP or shinier rewards, and side-quests offer an opportunity to level-up without excessive grinding.
Not unexpectedly, loading screens appear with area transitions, and battles sometimes display a brief loading bar before starting. More disappointingly, larger locales or areas with rain and snow effects do exhibit slowdown on Switch. That said, these framerate drops don’t impede the main gameplay as they would in other genres, and the loads have a negligible effect on the game’s pace. Obviously, improvements through patches would be welcome, but we didn’t encounter anything catastrophic and the ability to play on-the-go is ultimately worth the occasional performance dip.
There’s no touchscreen integration either, although the controls function well enough to make it a non-issue. What is included is a ‘scanned’ game manual accessible through the pause screen, complete with staples down the spine and blank ‘Notes’ pages at the back. It’s a nice little detail and exemplifies the care and attention that’s gone into the game.
Despite a title that suggests it came out of a name generator, Battle Chasers: Nightwar is a satisfying slice of JRPG that forges a confident, colourful character of its own from formulaic ingredients. The approachable comic style, plus a couple of neat mechanics that encourage experimentation, give it a freshness that belies the age-old systems at its core, and it doesn’t waste your time with filler. Depending on your skill, you’ll probably spend around 30 hours on the critical path – comparatively breezy in RPG terms – though there’s plenty of side content to occupy you beside the main quest, plus a trio of heroes you’ll probably shun on your first playthrough. Disappointing performance dips aside, it feels at home on Switch. Ultimately, it’s the same old story – numbers go up! – but it’s shot through with an infectious exuberance and attention to detail that reinvigorates old tropes.