When this game got revealed last November, I got all kinds of excited. Arcane was still pretty fresh in my mind, and I’d be interested in the League of Legends world for a while, due to the fandom making a lot of material around that particular world. On top of that, I’d played developer Airship Syndicate’s previous game, Battle Chasers: Nightwar, quite a few times (twice on PC, back to back, then once on my Switch). I knew what I was getting into and my hype was very much real.
Before you start the game, a cinematic plays that looks almost like it got ripped off Arcane. The graphics are amazing and the voice acting top notch, as they establish the background for the titular antagonist. It’s a bit of a standard affair, but told with a sort of style that got me quite hyped for the game to come.
Unfortunately, this is the only time that great style is going to be used. From this point onward, cutscenes will be done in a sort of motion comic setup using the art of Joe Madeira, or at least someone uncannily similar. That struck me as slightly odd; Airship Syndicate had worked with Maderia before on BattleChasers, but that had been his property, while LoL (League of Legends) certainly isn’t. Still, the art is pretty darn good and motion comics pack some punch.
Even more unfortunately, these cinematics take a back seat to how most of the plot and dialogue is actually delivered in the game. Here we get a scene that should be familiar to any longstanding JRPG player:
These portraits are, as you can see above, gorgeous. They’re also incredibly static. They use precisely one picture for every character. That means we see the same stoic expression for just about everybody. Ahri has that glowing orb of spiritual energy on hand whether she’s caring for Yasuo, agonizing about her past, delivering quips to enemies, or exposing exposition.
It grows very tiresome, and I found myself tuning out after a while. The voice acting is top notch, but they can only so so much when I’m supposed to stare at unmoving pictures. These conversations drag so long that my Switch would often go into sleep mode. I love that they develop the characters and give them interactions and personality, but the static art makes it incredibly hard to keep focus (and I read comics for fun).
The characters are pretty well fleshed out, which surprised me. They obviously picked several characters that people would know and had some lore. They each feel pretty genuine, and to my surprise, they actually learn and grow throughout their adventure (this most assuredly did not happen in Nightwar). There’s nothing too groundbreaking about any of these. They are interesting though.
The story initially follows Miss Fortune, who’s taken over Bilgewater Bay, a sort of ramshackle pirate and smuggling community (where you’ll be spending the largest chunk of the game). She’s recently fought off her nemesis, Gangplank, and is trying to establish her rule over the territory. Mist rises, bringing with it undead and the problems you’d expect.
Then we shift to Illaoi, who is arguably more of the protagonist for the game. She’s the priestess of the Buhru people, who seem to worship a fairly merciless Kraken goddess. This makes it interesting, as she follows this strict code and is a fairly devout follower. The religion seems to prize motion and currents, which also make sense given the locale (and feels pretty well developed). It’s also fascinating because Illaoi feels complex: she has no qualms about sacrificing people to her goddess, learns to question her own religion, and seems to have at times a dry sense of humor. Plus, she’s open about affection, outright inviting Braum (strapping door lover) into her bunk at one point (he declines).
The tale sort of gathers from there, with the various characters caught up in this battle against the Mistwalkers (the game’s term for undead, who are more spirits given form by a dark mist than anything). It’s got a rousing tale and it feels well told, even if there’s nothing particularly groundbreaking about it. You’ll be along more because the characters are interesting. they even give them optional times to talk to one another to further flesh out relationships and goals. Again, the standing portraits do make this sometimes a bit of a drag: it’s essentially like listening to an audio drama, but it can be engaging.
Combat is where this game really shines. It’s turn based, with three of your champions on the left versus three foes on the right, but it takes some inspiration from how Final Fantasy X operated in introducing a bar at the bottom of the screen. Icons represent characters, and they flow along three different lanes: speed, balance, and strength. Each time a character’s portrait hits the left edge of the bar, its their turn. You can select an instant ability, that usually has some building effect and grants you overcharge, which functions as temporary mana. Then there are the lane abilities, which use that overcharge or a characters’ mana pool to enter one of the lanes and do increased effects.
It makes every combat highly dynamic and pretty interesting. Likely you’ll spend turns using instant abilities to build up various effects and overcharge, then more powerful abilities, adopting strategies as you go. This builds from Nightwar’s previous ideas in an absolutely marvelous way. In point of fact, the turn based systems and battle Airship Syndicate produces might be my favorite JRPG based combat system period. It’s incredibly dynamic, just complex enough to work, and often feels balanced.
You will obviously be doing a lot of combat, and it is almost always enjoyable, even if it can get a bit repetitive at times. Enemies do show up on screen, which means you could mostly avoid them, or you could use a character’s map ability to engage early with them and have a bonus. The issue here is that it’s incredibly difficult to run away or avoid an enemy once they spot you. It sort of takes away the benefit of having them on the map when they’re almost fixed encounters. I literally went through entire map screens with enemies hot on my tail (not helped by the fact that toggling the run/dash option is incredibly unintuitive: it requires clicking the left stick down. I did not discover this until hour 20 of my playthrough).
The last part of the game is exploration, which is also pretty well done and somewhat expanded. You control a singular character on the map, who runs through various environments. Different elements are interactable, and the game lets you find those out by clicking down the right stick. These can uncover secrets, grant boons, or just gather loot. It encourages you to explore, with all sort of fun additions. There’s even lore scattered about in longer written documents that are almost always engaging to read. These also accrue points which you can then spend to customize your characters.
As I write this, I’m beginning to realize just how many systems and options the game has built in. They do such a great job introducing these to the player bit by bit that it never really felt overwhelming to me. It probably helped that I played Airship Syndicate’s previous game a lot (nearly 200 hours) and so I had the basics going in. If my review makes this overwhelming, take heart in that the game’s delivery of it is less so.
The game is horribly balanced though. Not in fighting ,but in how they present information. As I earlier stated, sometimes those long conversations between still portraits will last for ten+ minutes, with my Switch going to sleep. I have literally not entered an input into the controller for thirty minute stretches of this game, while it bounced from cutscene to dialogue scene to dialogue to cutscene. Given that so many of these are static, relying on the voices, this drags.
Then you’ll have upwards of two to three hours of nothing but exploration. This could be through a particular dungeon or just an area of town. There were times when I’d almost feel like I needed a break partway through an area, particularly in the mid-game, where the areas get almost as convoluted as the systems. These could be broken up by those character conversations, but you’re essentially breaking up lengthy exploration phases with an audio drama. They do throw in puzzles, which are usually enjoyable and a nice change of pace
This is an often mentioned criticism of JRPGs, but it felt very apparent in this one for some reason. It took away from my experience.
Speaking of, there were two things that would make me hesitate to recommend this to players: the load times and the glitches.
Every single area takes time to load. This is often a problem with Switch games in general, but it really hits this particular game hard. Sure, they’d load a screen, but those loads sometimes took minutes. That’s upwards of two to three minutes per screen of loading. It got to the point where I’d play this game with a comic to the side, so I could alternate between listening to talking head to read something at my own pace.
This is amplified by the fact that the game is designed for player ease. There are several shops that you’re going to want to visit between each exploration phase: one that has special perks based on what you’ve earned, another that sells potions, etc., not to mention various quests. Each of these is put in a different place in Bilgewater which, yeah, makes logical sense based on a town, but is a pain in the butt for a player. I spent probably another 10% of my play time just running around town between missions making sure I’d caught everything.
For those keeping track, that means I spent probably around 12 hours of my playtime backtracking or staring at loading screens. That’s a big chunk of time, and it’s solely because the designers didn’t properly optimize their game.
Speaking of game optimization. I present, my glitches:
And those don’t include: stated numbers on items and abilities not matching up to their actual effect (i.e. a potion says it’ll heal for 300 health but heals for 500 instead), abilities not tracking, my character falling off the map and vanishing at one point, causing me to reload a save, the game crashing out completely and restoring me to the home screen, and many more!
That is a lot of glitches and bugs for a game that’s been out for almost six months now. They literally render this game unplayable at times. Mix that with the load times, the audio dramas, and the backtracking, and I got extremely frustrated with this game at times.
Which sucks. The battle system is incredible, one of the best I’ve seen. The graphics are eye-catching and well done. Characters are dynamic and well acted. The exploration is rewarding and fun. The lore is intriguing and made me want to delve more. There’s stuff in here that could make this one of my all time favorite games, or at least a contender for game of the year for me.
Instead, glitches, bugs, and poor optimization make this nearly unplayable. In its current state, I outright cannot recommend it to any but the most patient of JRPG fan.
4 with the bugs and glitches
7 without (it’s still not optimized or balanced; if they fixed load times or gave me better fast travel, it would be an 8 easy, maybe a 9).