At first glance, it seems like Battle Chasers: Nightwar might just collapse under the weight of its own ambitious complexities.
The first game from developers Airship Syndicate, Nightwar takes place in the universe built by studio lead Joe Madureira in his comic book series Battle Chasers, but it doesn’t require knowledge of the original work. Rather, it’s a role-playing game built for people who yearn for the days of traditional turn-based combat in a richly detailed fantasy world.
Battle Chasers: Nightwar isn’t all old-school; it’s conveniently modernized in many ways (especially in how it handles overworld traversal), but retains many hallmarks of the older titles it draws from — for better and for worse. But more than anything it’s strikingly beautiful, and despite being packed full of systems, it never does cave in on itself.
Nightwar opens with a gorgeous hand-animated cinematic sequence, which sets the visual tone for the game. It has a striking style, clearly inspired by its comic book source material. While few sequences in the game are animated to the same degree as the opening, Battle Chasers nonetheless carries a remarkably memorable art style that bleeds into almost every part of the game.
Nightwar’s steampunk-meets-fantasy landscape comes alive with environmental detail: Birds chirp and flutter on the world map, dungeons are rich with soft-focus foreground and background objects, and the various 3D modeled objects throughout the world are unique and visually distinct. This level of detail kept me driven to explore, knowing that another beautiful landscape or character could be right around the corner.
That motivation to keep going is key, too, because Nightwar also has a lot of grinding. One of the less-exciting holdouts of its JRPG heritage is in the game’s difficulty scaling over time. Each playable character has their own level and skill tree, and they are only given experience points when directly involved in battle. Since the player’s squad can only fit three characters at any point, I found myself frequently grinding for experience on a less-used character in order to get them back up to the level of my more active party members.
Nightwar pushes into a system more modern (and more convenient) with its dungeons. The game has a number of optional and core-path dungeons that, upon initial completion, can be re-entered with a randomized room layout. It’s not a complete randomization -- you will still experience the same overall rooms -- but puzzles might be different and room exits and entrances will be shuffled. It helps avoid some the tedium of re-doing each dungeon, though, inevitably, seeing the same four or five puzzles still gets a bit boring.
Other than dungeons, there are a multitude of other activities that Nightwar offers, from fishing minigames to specialized hunts (where you are tasked with finding and killing a specific, unique monster) to simple world exploration and treasure hunting. The heart of the game though, is in the combat system.
And what a combat system it is.
Battle Chasers: Nightwar’s battle system is built on the same foundations as any number of classic JRPGs, yes — but what it does with that system is unlike almost any game I’ve seen before. The simple number of possible attacks, skills, perks, status effects and combinations therein make each battle a unique experience, each a small minigame unto itself.
Battles in Nightwar are always conducted between your three party members and one to three enemies. Characters have both a health gauge and a mana gauge, which is fairly standard for the genre, but there are two other bars to keep an eye on: the overcharge gauge and the burst gauge.
Overcharge is built when certain standard attacks (that is, attacks that don’t use mana) land successful hits. Overcharge is then added to the mana gauge, giving the character a temporary extra mana reserve. Overcharge also becomes a special resource that can be tapped into by certain character abilities — for example, the swordsman Garrison’s Warblade ability drains the entire overcharge stack and adds its amount to the damage of Warblade. Having more overcharge means dealing more damage.
Burst, on the other hand, is built slowly from turn to turn. It’s shared throughout your party, and when it reaches a charge level (one, two or three, depending on your progress in the story) it can be used by any player character to discharge a powerful burst ability, free of any other cost. Burst abilities, due to their rarity and power, are something akin to a summon in the Final Fantasy series, complete with their own unique, short animations.
Burst and Overcharge, especially when coupled with Nightwar’s dizzying array of status effects and possible actions during a battle, make each encounter into a juggling act. Perform a regular attack to build Overcharge, spend Overcharge on a damaging ability, heal up with mana, perform another regular attack to refill the mana bar with Overcharge, spend a Burst point on a mass-heal, and so on. It’s a system that seems absolutely obtuse when unfamiliar, but easily learnable when playing.
To that end, no small praise must be heaped on Battle Chasers: Nightwar’s progressive tutorialization. All those paragraphs of complicated battle instruction I just listed out are given to the player slowly, but not slow enough that battles ever seem boring. Nightwar introduces each new mechanic contextually within the story and gives players enough time to understand each quirk, starting small and then challenging their prowess with a particularly difficult boss battle.
The first few hours are well-tuned enough that I didn’t find myself grinding overly often. Fighting the enemies in each dungeon gave my characters enough experience to not worry about the boss at the end. However, when new player characters started to be introduced, and my familiar party balance was rocked by a new character’s specific nuances, things got more complicated. As mentioned before, the more fun juggling act of the combat is somewhat frustrated by the less fun juggling act of constantly grinding for experience on weaker characters.
Additionally, Nightwar makes some strange balance decisions that weren’t always to my taste. The game emphasizes team synergy, and that means that keeping your entire team alive drastically improves your chance at survival. But having relatively few effective methods of healing your entire team at once often led to disastrous attempts to spread heals between multiple characters, which meant losing out on valuable opportunities to harm my opponents. These balance issues didn’t ruin the otherwise exhilarating combat for me, but there were moments where they stuck out.
Where Battle Chasers: Nightwar’s fights kept me engaged, its story is merely acceptable, nothing groundbreaking. The plot is mostly concerned with stopping an evil necromancer from… doing evil necromancer things. The strongest aspects of the narrative draw on character relationships between the protagonists, established mostly in the opening act of the game. For a game based on a pre-existing property, it doesn’t feel too overwhelming to jump into. The main crew are close enough to existing character tropes to feel slightly familiar to a new player, but have enough twists on the formula to warrant further interest.
While there isn’t much in the way of strong character arcs, even without reading the comic I found these characters interesting and well-written. Many of my favorite sequences in Nightwar were the character interactions that you get when resting at an inn — a short conversation between two or more party members that gives you a glance at their internal chemistry. The femme fatale assassin Red Monika has a heart-to-heart with young heroine Gully, and they end up having a fun night out together. Or the polite war-machine Calibretto discusses with the gruff swordsman Garrison how he worries that the man is too cavalier with caring for Gully. Moments like this take a game that’s primarily concerned with fighting and complex mechanics, and pull it back down to a heartfelt character level view.
The voice acting, also worth noting, is superb — some of the best I’ve heard in a Kickstarted title. Each character, though not fully voiced, has enough lines acted out to get a firm grasp of their personality and speaking style. Between the writing, acting and animation, it’s easy to get lost in the conversations and scenes between characters.
I didn’t go into Battle Chasers: Nightwar expecting much of anything, given the development studio’s relative youth as a company and the spotty record of Kickstarted games. However, Nightwar’s focus on style and character, coupled with a mostly excellent combat system, kept me hooked for much longer than I had imagined. Whatever your familiarity with its source material, this game builds a beautiful world with a surprising amount of depth just beneath the surface.
Battle Chasers: Nightwar was reviewed using a final “retail” downloadable Steam code provided by THQ Nordic. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.