Battle Chasers: Nightwar is an interesting game on a number of levels, blending different styles of role playing game together, but doing so while reviving a comic book world that has lain dormant for over fifteen years. It’s not the likeliest of revivals, but one that seemed to capture a number of people’s imaginations.
“I don’t even know that it is the right time,” Battle Chasers creator and studio founder Joe Madureira admitted, “it’s just there were a lot of converging factors. We started Airship Syndicate and we knew we wanted to make a game that we could do with a pretty small team, we loved RPGs, and so there was the debate about whether we create another new IP or just go with Battle Chasers.
“I was conflicted because I love the characters, but it felt like it was so old to me. I didn’t think people were going to care about it, it’s so long ago, and as a creator you always want to do new stuff. Going back to something old almost has a negative stigma, but when we did the Kickstarter and got the support that we did, it was pretty awesome.”
There’s definitely that interest out there, going off the success of the Kickstarter, which drew in $850,000, well in excess of the original half a million target. Joe sees two kinds of backer within the 14,000 that pledged.
“You have the comic fans excited to see the return,” he said, “but then people that weren’t excited with the comics were excited that there’s this RPG that’s a dungeon crawler and has some JRPG looking combat. Nobody’s really doing turn based stuff anymore, especially in the West, so I think it turned out to be the right time for it. The game’s not out yet though, right? So we’ll see how it does, but we really do hope that it is the right time.”
There is certainly an interesting mixture of different ideas within Battle Chasers. Adventuring sees you head from a rather structured world map down into a more Diablo-esque dungeon, where you try to avoid traps, see enemies patrolling back and forth, and so on. Come into contact with an enemy, and it’s not action RPG hacking and slashing, though, it takes you into a classic turn-based JRPG-style battle, albeit with a few twists of its own.
Joe explained, “Those are pretty much the pillars of an RPG: exploration and combat. We literally couldn’t have done an action RPG if we’d wanted to. First of all it’s party based because Battle Chasers is about a team, and the turn system just worked better for the combat stuff, but it’s also a game that we could do really, really well with our team size and our budget. If we tried to do a Kickstarter for an action RPG, it would be five times more, and that was real scary.
“We like strategy in the combat, but when you’re moving around, it always felt there should be more to the dungeons than just a grid where you fight monsters and open treasure chests. So we added some traps, we added some randomly spawning events and puzzles. The dungeons are randomly generated, but in the map layout and also within the rooms. It just seemed like this was the most fun way to do exploration and the most fun way to do party-based combat. So we thought, why don’t we just jam the two together?
“There was a lot of trial and error. We weren’t completely sold on it right away, but it just so happened that we found the right balance.”
The combat system has naturally evolved over the course of development – “We had card combat in there at one point,” Joe recalled – but it’s settled into a fairly traditional turn-based system with a couple of twists. Overcharge (AKA mana) isn’t a resource to conserve, but one that’s quickly built up and used within a single fight, while the team’s Burst builds with the use of standard attacks, letting you unleash three tiers of abilities and adding a strategic layer to the combat as you decide when and how to use it.
“We definitely wanted a simple system that was easy to understand but had some depth to it,” Joe said. “So generating overcharge is kind of cool, because in a lot of RPGs, you just spam your most powerful attacks and then drink a mana potion, or you’re real cheap about saving mana just in case you need it, so you keep doing the weak standard attacks. So we wondered, what if we gave people mana that only lasted that fight? Then they could use all their cool abilities, and if you don’t use it, you lose it anyway, so you might as well just do cool stuff.
“That’s where the Overcharge came from, and then the Burst meter is, it’s like a fighting game or something. It’s exciting to wait and wait and wait, and then you have the thing ready. The cool thing about this is it does carry over, so you can use it strategically and can save it for a boss. It’s shared across all three heroes, which I think is cool. It’s like, do you want to do one Burst with each? Do you want to do one level 3 Burst and use up the whole meter so nobody else gets to use it? It depends on which characters you have in your party and how much Burst you have.”
One thing that’s difficult to judge right now is how deep the game actually goes, especially as Airship have been showing the same demo for quite some time now, and one that lacks some of the procedural generation features.
Acknowledging this, Joe said, “We keep showing the same dungeon, but there are eight different dungeons in the game that randomly generate, and I think 10-ish micro-dungeons that are a quick little adventure with a boss. They don’t respawn, but you can find them in the world and do them on time. So there is quite a lot of variety, even though we keep showing the same dungeon over and over.”
There’s a pleasing art style to Battle Chasers: Nightwar, that to my eye manages to evoke a comic book style without relying on thick black borders and heavy drawn in detailing. There’s a natural softness to the graphics on screen that makes it feel a little understated at times, almost. However, it’s fascinating to hear how simplistic they actually are, to the point that the recently announced Switch port feels like a perfect fit.
“We definitely wanted to go a little more old school with it,” he explained. “We don’t use normal maps, the lighting’s very simple, whereas a lot of people are pushing the consoles to the max and trying to figure out how to do all the bells and whistles of the hardware. This game is very old school in a way, it’s just a 3D model with a hand painted texture on it. That’s how they made games 15 years ago! We felt like, for the look we’re going for, that’s all we needed and as a side benefit, it runs well and you don’t need a great PC or graphics card, it’s not very intensive.
“It’s more focussing on the art than the technology. We have an amazing art team, and it’s a very small team of three people, and they’re always in there fine tuning. ‘Let’s soften some shadows,’ or ‘Let’s add some depth of field.’ It really is just a testament to our art team. They’re just awesome! Especially on the environments and stuff, I don’t have to get involved, they just kind of run with it. They landed on this look, it was beautiful and they just keep making more and more.”
Finally, I had to ask Joe about his oddly cyclical career. While known as a comic book writer and artist, he was a founder of Vigil Games and a director on the original Darksiders. Of course, Vigil Games is no more after THQ dissolved, but it’s curious to see how Battle Chasers: Nightwar is being published by Nordic Games, who have since rebranded as THQ Nordic and recently announced Darksiders III.
“I’m not involved on the team, obviously,” Joe said, “but Gunfire is minutes away from our office and we’re friends with a lot of those guys and they do show us stuff from time to time. I updated the concept for Fury a long time ago, but I hadn’t seen her in the game until the reveal a few weeks ago, so that was pretty cool to see.
“I want it to do well, whether we’re on it or not. I just want 3 and 4 and whatever. Whatever comes after, I want the series to continue. It’s been cool to have had a part in that.”
Of course, Battle Chasers: Nightwar is Joe’s and the team at Airship Syndicate’s sole focus as they race through alpha to beta and gear up for release later this year. An interesting blend of contrasting RPG ideas and a revived comic book world, it’s a game that could easily appeal to a broad range of gamers and one worth keeping an eye on.