Generic expectations can be a double-edged sword. Stray too far from established norms and you risk alienating your core audience, while adhering too slavishly to conventions leaves you repeating overly familiar ideas. Azure Saga: Pathfinder is a great case in point. Everything from the title to the exploration and combat looks and feels so familiar that you’d be forgiven for thinking you had played it before.
The backstory to Azure Saga explores some interesting and topical issues, before settling into a very Final Fantasy inspired blend of magic medievalism and futuristic technology. Rather than the usual unexplained juxtaposition of these two distinct aesthetics, the wider narrative arc revolves around explaining how the collision of cultures came to pass. This is all wrapped up in an overall storyline taking inspiration from sci-fi narratives about colonising other planets following the complete exploitation of resources.
Our plucky hero, Synch, is sent out from a convoy to scout out a potential planet, only to crash and be stuck in stasis for an unspecified amount of time. The ways in which Synch and his android companion struggle to adjust to the limitations of their new surroundings and the suspicions of the primitive locals makes for some entertaining exchanges. The different races present on the new planet are easily mapped onto conventional fantasy or sci-fi tropes, but are mostly well realised.
Although the story of ASP is an interesting one, it is continually held back by some seriously dodgy translation. Many exchanges contain numerous spelling or grammatical errors, and often fail to make any sense at all. This aspect is a shame, as the storytelling is perhaps the key way for such a title to stand out from a crowded genre. It is worth persevering with, but would certainly benefit from a translation patch.
Checking off more of those genre boxes, everything is as you might expect with the gameplay. Exploration takes place across a series of cute static isometric screens, making navigation relatively painless. The automap is refreshingly clear and occasional save points within areas let you teleport between them to assist with backtracking. Whilst this is all positive, it tends to remove much of the challenge and thrill of exploration with only a handful of locked off areas to remember once you progress further.
This gives the game a feeling of ‘my first JRPG’ at times. Of course, many far more expensive titles are just as linear as Azure Saga, but the overall presentation means that this linearity is laid bare. Moving around the map is frequently interrupted by the inevitable random battles that characterise JRPGs. The frequency of these battles tends to make the game feel bigger than it is, but does mean that grinding is generally not necessary.
Given the simplicity of exploration and the highly routine fetch quests that you take on, the main bulk of the game must be found in the combat. This will immediately look familiar to genre aficionados but, although it adds no specific new innovation, the ways in which it combines mechanics makes for a surprisingly successful system. Your characters all have a range of standard attacks, special moves that use MP, combination attacks based on your team makeup and limit breaks – known here as fury attacks. Once you fill out your squad with a range of characters, there is the potential for some great strategic combat here.
Perhaps the single best feature of this combat system is the ability to switch your party members each turn. This means you can customise your battle team for particular moments; a feature that is especially useful in the more difficult boss fights. Swapping out vulnerable healers for tank-like warriors when the going gets tough or bringing in magic users to exploit enemy weaknesses gives the combat a welcome level of complexity, but as is so often the case in JRPGs the vast majority of encounters descend into little more than pressing attack. This repetition is exacerbated by the frequent use of palatte swapping to pad out the enemy list.
Azure Saga: Pathfinder is a competent but generic game that will likely only appeal to fans of the genre, to fall back on a reviewer’s cliché. The cutesy graphics and interesting ecological sci-fi narrative are effective and the combat mechanics skilfully bring together inspirations from across the history of the genre, but it does little to innovate the JRPG. I spent most of my playthrough ticking off an imaginary bingo card of genre clichés in my head and was ready to shout ‘House’ way before the final boss. That being said, if you are in the market for a JRPG and enjoy all the trappings of the genre then there is plenty here to keep you entertained.
Available for PC & Mac