The landscape of Japanese video game culture is ever-shifting and constantly growing. With the advent of free-to-play mobile games, popular titles have been able to quickly snowball into massive franchise thanks to the easy accessibility of a quick to download phone game. Back in 2013, an unassuming mobile and web-browser game called Kantai Collection took Japan by storm, soon becoming a huge series across the world. It combined realistic naval combat and military base management with anime-girl versions of your favourite historical naval cruisers.
Two years later, that was overshadowed by a very different mobile game named Fate Grand/Order, but in 2017, déjà vu struck the world of mobile boat-girl gaming with the Chinese-developed web game Azur Lane. It combined realistic naval combat and base management with anime-girl versions of your favourite historical naval cruisers. That sounds pretty familiar…
With a formula for success to follow, Azur Lane has become a global franchise, spawning anime and oodles of merchandise in the process. Now, much like Kantai Collection once did, the world of Azur Lane is being brought to home consoles with a gorgeous new 3D adventure.
Calling it an “adventure” might be a bit of a stretch, though. While Azur Lane: Crosswave turns the world of the mobile game into a fast-paced third person arena shooter, don’t expect a massive blockbuster full of thrills, spills and mind-bending set-pieces. The modest console action game from Idea Factory and Compile Heart does what many of their other games do and delivers a title full of charming art and endearing dialogue that’s strung along with modest gameplay. The result is a story mode with an initially simple setup that quickly goes way deeper than I ever would have expected, thanks to the abundance of visual novel cutscenes and incredible voice acting.
When the Sakura Empire discovers that recently defeated Siren enemies are dropping mysterious cubes, they devise a joint-nation military exhibition event as an excuse to get more ships to help them collect and research these mysterious objects. Shimakaze and Sugura, two ships that are new to the world of Azur Lane, get caught up in the middle of this mystery as the protagonists of the story.
Azur Lane: Crosswave is one of those games where broad knowledge of the original setting is enough to get you through the story – there aren’t mountains of lore and chapters of mind-bending character arcs to absorb in order to understand the story here. Once you learn about the four nations involved in the campaign and understand that military battlecruisers in Azur Lane all happen to look like horny anime girls, you’re ready to go. Fans of the series will get a kick out of seeing countless familiar characters interact and references to prior events, but even as someone who isn’t that involved in the ongoing story of the original game, I quickly found myself connecting to the characters and enjoying all of the goofy slapstick charm of the writing.
While Azur Lane: Crosswave features characters from the nations of Eagle Union, Royal Navy, Sakura Empire, and Iron Blood, the Sakura Empire is undoubtedly the main focus of the game. Story protagonists Shimakaze and Sugura belong to that nation, as do nearly half of the playable roster. While the lack of characters from Iron Blood and the modest amount of ships from the other two nations is a bummer, there’s still a whopping 29 different ship girls to play as. On top of that, 35 other girls are featured in the game as illustration-only support units that can offer you buffs and extra abilities in battle. A few big names in the world of Azur Lane are conspicuously absent from this console debut, but upcoming DLC aims to bring many of them to the game.
While there’s an abundance of love and care put into the narrative and visuals of the game, the gameplay doesn’t stack up quite as successfully. Battles in Azur Lane: Crosswave see you and up to two other ship girls diving into real-time combat on the open seas, where you’ll be firing a variety of ballistic projectiles at rival ship girls and a small assortment of repetitive mob enemies. Initially, combat might seem pretty featureless – while there is a third-person camera and you are certainly shooting bullets, most of your projectiles automatically lock-on to your enemies – but there’s a mild layer of strategy arises from the need to expertly position yourself on the water during battle to avoid enemy fire. You’ll also have to regularly upgrade and enhance your gear between missions to keep up with the escalating difficulty of each fight.
Unfortunately, the increasing challenge of each battle is never something you can overcome with learned strategies and deft reflexes. You simply need to continue to level up so that your numbers get higher every time your enemies numbers get higher, but you’ll spend the roughly 10-hour campaign doing the same slightly monotonous shooting against the same types of enemies in virtually identical maps. The result is a disappointing facsimile of the combat from the original mobile game that fails to deliver the same snappy pseudo bullet hell action that the original is known for.