Whilst I wasn’t familiar with the short-lived Battle Chasers comic series, it’s fusion of fantasy and steampunk – apparently know as arcanepunk – shares much with creator Joe Madureira’s subsequent work on the adventures of the Four Horsemen in Darksiders. Battle Chasers, however, takes its narrative influences from high fantasy, and more precisely the likes of Joe Abercrombie and George R.R. Martin. This Western fantasy style is married to a deep battle system straight out of the very best JRPGs.
As with many of the most successful fantasy texts, Battle Chasers is centred around a band of mismatched and dysfunctional adventurers banding together to defeat a great evil. In this case, we have the orphaned daughter of a great ruler, Gully, and her sworn protectors Callibretto the metal golem, Garrison the troubled swordsman, Kholan the cranky mage, and the obligatory busty fan service rogue, Red Monika. All of these bring their own particular skills and battle techniques to the party, but only three can be selected at any time and taken into battle.
This conventional approach does add to the strategic aspect of the game, but is held back by the equally oldschool choice to not have unselected party members accrue experience. This design choice, combined with the slow addition of extra characters at slightly higher levels, means that many of the team can swiftly become too weak to be of use. Although lower level team members will gain bonus XP for defeating more powerful enemies, in practice this proves frustrating as they are often killed in one hit. I would have much preferred for a more modern approach to character growth by sharing XP, even if inactive members were kept a level or two behind.
There are three main sections to the gameworld: the world map, dungeon exploration and battles. Exploring the world map has you following the nodes on the map to find towns, dungeons and battles. Enemies are visible on this map and can sometimes be avoided, although it is generally best to take every opportunity to fight. As you progress you’ll be able to bypass much weaker enemies that no longer give you XP, although you can choose to battle them in order to complete the challenges set in each area. These are a simple matter of defeating a certain number of a particular monster or enough monsters in an area to be rewarded with bonuses to your stats.
As might be expected of a JRPG, there are plenty of stats to balance and increase as your characters become stronger. Your basic stats are complemented by perks – specific character buffs that you can alter to suit particular setups. Each character has two different sets of perks from which you can choose, roughly to boost attack or support skills. The ability to offset the strengths and weaknesses of character builds or equipment here is a welcome addition to the strategy of Battle Chasers and illustrates how well realised and developed the battle mechanics of the game are. Each character has something to add to combat and, although the levelling mechanic means you will probably settle on a particular team, pretty much any combination can be viable.
Within the battles themselves, a number of traditional mechanics are refined with each character having the expected HP and mana bars to manage. As you attack, a burst attack bar also fills. This will be familiar to Final Fantasy fans as it works pretty much identically to Limit Breaks. The key difference here is that it is shared by the whole team and so you can choose which Burst will be most useful in any given situation, as they range from heavy attacks to healing or defensive abilities.
Perhaps the most original aspect of the battles, however, is the Overcharge ability. As you use standard attacks they add Overcharge to your mana bar, enabling you to carry out more powerful attacks without using up your limited supply of magic. This Overcharge only lasts for the current battle, encouraging you to use it and go beyond the basic attacks. This one addition goes a long way to solving one of my main personal gripes with JRPGs – not wishing to use up magic reserves before a boss fight.
Exploring the dungeons has much in common with action RPGs like Diablo and Torchlight. Enemies and traps are visible and there are lots of loot containers littered around, as you explore them in real time. As with many action RPGs, the dungeons are randomly generated, meaning that there are rewards to be had by revisiting a previously cleared dungeon. This is an interesting design choice, although it does add an element of chance that feels a little out of place with the completionist pleasures of traditional JRPG dungeons. This randomness is perhaps best shown early on by the crafting aspects. Items can be forged, potions brewed, and equipment enchanted but only when the appropriate table is found. As you progress, you will be able to carry out this crafting at the hub village, but it is only late in the game that enchanting will be possible without relying on luck.
Unfortunately, my time with the game was affected by a number of crashes and a smattering of bugs when playing on PlayStation 4 and with the day one patch applied. Thankfully the way the game is structured helps keep their impact to a minimum, as it regularly autosaves and means that you lose relatively little progress, however they’re far too frequent to overlook. Airship Syndicate are obviously working to fix these issues as soon as possible.
There is so much to love about Battle Chasers’s take on the JRPG. Its strategic elements, well-crafted characters (although the attempts at self-referential humour with Red Monika’s physique are not always successful), brilliantly judged battle system, and satisfying crafting all combine with a good, albeit not groundbreaking, fantasy narrative. Sadly it’s plagued by frequent crashes which impact the score at launch, but this game is otherwise easy to recommend for fans of the genre.
Version tested: PS4