Joe Madureira is an artist I wasn’t aware of until the Darksiders series. The first Darksiders is a game I hold very dear for plenty of reasons; the Zelda-style dungeons, the Metroidvania exploration, the engaging yet accessible combat, and, of course, Madureira’s art. My attention was immediately drawn, then, when I first caught sight of Battle Chasers: Nightwar. Nightwar is a Kickstarter funded, JRPG inspired game set in the fiction of Madureira’s Battle Chasers comic series. Turn-based combat and dungeon crawling are, of course, nothing new, but Nightwar takes enough liberties with the classic genre to produce something distinctive, albeit familiar.
The game is played in a few different phases. Travelling the world from point to point on a map, traversing explorable areas and dungeons, and fighting in a traditional turn-based system. Explorable areas play as an isometric dungeon crawler, with each character having a couple of abilities to rely on in the field. Dungeons are randomly generated upon a new visit and involve some light puzzle elements and environmental hazards. Wandering through a dungeon isn’t especially thrilling, but it’s a fun enough way to break up combat and structure the progression towards a boss or goal. Combat breaks out when an enemy is encountered both on the world map and in explorable areas, providing the real meat of the game.
Battles see your party of three taking on whatever characters or critters cross their path in a rewardingly strategic system. Each fighter takes their turn according to their haste, rather than their place in a cycle, meaning a quick fighter might get a few turns in before a super slow one. On each turn, a combatant can instantly make an action or use an item or begin casting an ability. Abilities have variable casting times, meaning coordinating your team’s moves are crucial. Timing a buff on an ally before their attack or a heal before the enemies strike them down means making strategic decisions, while each abilities speed is to be weighed against its effectiveness in each situation. A handy ticker keeps track of the order in which turns will occur, making it easy to always be informed and aware of timing.
There are plenty of status effects to afflict foes with and try to keep your team clean of, with quite a few actions and abilities being heavily influenced by which buffs and debuffs from which the attacker and target are utilising or suffering. Burst Attacks are special, immediately cast moves that expend a burst meter that builds throughout combat. These eventually come in three levels, so casting a third level Burst could mean wasting the opportunity to cast three first levels. The final component of Nightwar’s unique system is Overcharge. This is an auxiliary mana pool, generated by certain abilities and actions. If you’re out of mana, there might be some actions you can take to generate some more. Certain attacks scale with the amount of Overcharge built, too, so generating and expending it is just another variable in each decision.
Outside of battles and dungeons, Battle Chasers: Nightwar has a fair bit going on systematically. Crafting, buying and selling gear and items is, of course, paramount to succeeding in battle, so the complications in the process here got on my nerves. Each vendor is placed in a central hub, but having to back out of speaking to someone just to walk a few steps to open a different list of goods can get a little annoying. The potion maker doesn’t sell all of the items needed to craft certain flasks, naturally, but the Beast Master a few seconds away does. Checking the needed ingredients at the potion maker, backing out, walking over to the Beast Master, opening up their shop, buying the ingredient and returning to craft the flask takes maybe thirty seconds, but there are enough unnecessary little chores like this that they began to wear on me.
More significant, is the limited access to the crafting stations for other items. They exist in dungeons and explorable areas, so you might need to teleport to a different part of the map, travel to a certain location and make your way within it to use a forge. In some instances, you’ll just need to find one in a dungeon. Because dungeons are random, though, you’ll need a bit of luck for it to be any better than entirely inconvenient. The limited access to this stuff didn’t encourage me to travel back and forth and generate new versions of completed dungeons but just discouraged me from engaging in it at all.
Nightwar’s main quest is an archetypal story with few outstanding ideas. The characters, however, are well developed and designed. I was excited to add new allies to my party and see what they could do, and their personalities speak through their combat and style as much as their dialogue and motivations. Each character feels cared about, with attention given to who they are and what care about, even if their adventure itself is largely forgettable. A new conversation between the party would play out every time I rested at the inn, really reaffirming the clear passion and love that brought them all to life.
That same passion is consistently evident in how the game is presented. Characters look and move sleekly, always true to the visual identity thoroughly attended to by every enemy, NPC and environment. Attacks hit with thunderous thuds and swift slashes. It always feels so good to down a baddie in one blow. The painterly, yet rigid look of the world feels like concept art come to life, with moody lighting and atmospheric weather effects selling the aesthetic. The percussive piano pieces of the soundtrack separate themselves from the typical fantasy stylings while always feeling appropriate to and reflective of the Battle Chasers setting. The wonderful visuals and music do an exceptional job of adding warmth and vibrancy to what, in reality, is a very mechanical and procedural video game.
Outside of the main quest, there’s no shortage of little extra things to do. The Beast Master will reward the completion of hunts, which are bosses found outside of dungeons through extraneous circumstances. There’s a bestiary to fill, giving you insight to monsters during combat once you’ve taken down enough. There are fishing holes throughout and a log of what you have and haven’t caught, as well as better poles and lures to buy. There’s a combat arena with several levels of challenges to partake in. It’s nice to have these extra objectives to consider while reaching new parts of the world, giving a reason to explore some areas other than the next dungeon.
The main issue I take with Battle Chasers: Nightwar isn’t a flawed execution of a mechanic or, but rather, an omission of communication to the player through game design. There are some significant difficulty spikes in the game, and it doesn’t always feel fair. The importance of certain mechanics in combat isn’t taught gradually through encounters, but suddenly the understanding is required for success. I felt like I was beating my head against a wall at a certain point, only to realise that I needed to approach an encounter in a way that wasn’t difficult, but I’d never had to dabble in until then. Returning to a finished dungeon to generate another random layout on a higher difficulty is the best bet to keep characters levelled up enough to have a fair shot at the main quest. If you’re not proactive about doing so until you need the extra experience, however, the earlier dungeons will be so behind you that the completion rewards have no significance. It’s especially frustrating because besting a challenging opponent with smart strategies is so satisfying. When you use all your potions, still fail, and have to try again without them over and over, though, it tends to break the spirit.
Battle Chasers: Nightwar is a clever and well-conceived RPG with rewardingly deep turn-based battles. The excellent music and visual design more than make up for the lacklustre narrative, with memorable, likeable characters and a stylish world. Some of Nightwar’s extraneous systems feel like unnecessary time-sinks, but the awesome combat shines through at every point.