When reviewing a Role-playing game, it is often easy to make unfavorable comparisons to other, higher quality titles that have shaped our preferences. “Sure this game attempts to evoke the same feeling as Chrono Trigger, but it isn’t as well-made, and therefore a mediocre product.” A game with some imperfect element may be dismissed because of said element, whether or not that has long-lasting, meaningful impact on its gameplay loops. As a reviewer and an individual determined to evaluate the influence and impact of this medium, I often find myself lapsing into these comparisons and criticisms, hoping for a higher standard of quality in a artistic format that is still, realistically, in its infancy.
But what if a game surprises you? What if it impresses you despite its flaws? What if you approach a title with relatively low expectations and discover more than what you bargained for? These are questions I found myself asking as I came to enjoy my playthrough of Azure Saga: Pathfinder. This love-letter to turn-based combat by Indonesian developer MassHive Media is by no means perfect, but it manages to strike a nostalgic chord while still possessing layers of depth, resulting in a game that I couldn’t help but enjoy. What exactly are its strengths and weaknesses? Read on and find out.
Azure Saga puts players in the shoes of Synch, a spacefaring individual who finds himself in over his head as he crash lands on an alien planet with little means of survival outside of his trusty droid, Noide. You will find yourself exploring locations from a ¾ isometric perspective, switching over to more detailed character models during 2D, turn-based combat. Exploration is rarely more than getting to the right location in order to hit a certain switch, but the map is slowly revealed as you enter each new isometric square.
More often than not, players are encouraged to return to town from each dungeon and rest up via the few warp points that appear around each map, which act as definitive progress markers and often appear just before important engagements. While there aren’t very many environmental puzzles – a specific one appearing mid-campaign in particular being rather harsh and convoluted – they rarely interrupt flow all that much and are almost always simple enough that they don’t slow the player down. The aforementioned brutal puzzle is one dealing with a lost-woods like maze, which we’ll discuss a bit more once we touch on story.
Battles pit three party members against a maximum of three enemies, and despite their simplistic presentation, offer a surprisingly satisfying amount of complexity. Turn order is based purely on character placement, with the uppermost slot always acting first. While this rids the game of a meaningful speed stat, it also offers strategic nuance, thanks in part to the ability to swap party member positioning as well as members in reserve at the start of the player combat phase without penalty. Switching healer Clery to the top position means you’ll be able to heal at the start of a turn, or keeping her in one of the later positions means you can clear away potential poison damage.
Having a character utilize an item earlier may grant the player the opportunity to use a skill down the line. The stun status inflict, as well as a fainted state, means that a party member cannot be moved around in the turn order, which can allow enemies to gain an advantage that cannot easily be surmounted. Though this may all seem fairly standard, it’s how Azure Saga builds character abilities and skills around this concept that makes the combat so rewarding.
Each character has a standard attack option as well as skills that drain MP, but the addition of Fury Attacks and Unite Skills complicates things. Fury Attacks are similar to Final Fantasy VII’s Limit, as character gain access to them the more damage they deal and receive. Their effects vary dramatically, yet all fit the archetypes that each character represents quite nicely. Unite Skills, on the other hand, are where Azure Saga truly gets its experimental feel. With more than fifty Unite Skills in the game, these require a specific combination of skills from all three active party members, costing extra MP across the board to cast, but granting intense bonuses.
While a scant few of these can be discovered via monoliths scattered throughout the game world, most will require some work in order to uncover (or checking a guide, which does exist). These skills have specific uses and are high-risk, high-reward, seeing as they target different groups and types of enemies and exhaust all other combat options when selected. Additionally, every character can be put into a defensive state, where they will counter incoming attacks and regain a bit of MP.
Although there are times when grinding might occur before a boss fight, there are many occasions where simply applying different tactics to an engagement will yield better results. To this reviewer, that is the sign of a strong combat system: one where options and exploits require not just character progression but clever thinking and observant behavior. Even if one finds themselves grinding, the steady stream of character upgrades (which come in the form of defensive, offensive, and passive abilities) means that players will rarely need to boost their party more than one or two levels before giving a boss another try.
Fortunately, experience is gained at a very consistent and agreeable rate. Players can also experiment with equipment, which can be found throughout the world by finding hidden chests, completing side quests, and gathering enemy drops in order to boost certain stats. Additionally, enemies drop powerful gems that can be slotted into equipment or combined in town in order to push character capabilities even further. It is more or less a fully-featured RPG, complete with its own fishing game, coliseum, and more in order to offer plenty of variety for the player to enjoy.
Aesthetics and Narrative
While Azure Saga doesn’t have extremely ambitious goals in terms of narrative or aesthetic design, there is something uniquely charming about its odd mishmash of artistic elements. While its plot twist is telegraphed very early on, there are still a number of well-established and earned narrative twists that appear throughout. Almost every character is given strong motivations for joining the party and forming bonds with one another.
Synch in particular stands out as a character with a multifaceted perspective of the world, both curious of its workings while also clearly concerned with his own mission. All of these characters and great narrative ideas are squandered somewhat by an awkward localization, however, which features a number of grammatical errors and some odd word selection. Still, the game sets itself up well enough, and the delivery ends up working out, for the most part.
This localization can harm the game the most during quests and specific puzzles. Sometimes, the game is more mysterious than it needs to be, and certain objectives are obscured due to how NPCs tend to speak, or hints are doled out. This is one of the more irksome aspects of the game, but it has only proven a true impediment in one instance. Still, one would hope for a cleaner script, especially for such a text-heavy genre.
I won’t mince words: Azure Saga looks weird. Its semi-deformed characters are cute to look at while navigating dungeons and fighting in combat, but the character portraits are semi-realistic, instead. Although some costumes seem more inspired by Eastern animation and abstractness, they don’t read all that well on an anatomically correct character model. See: Clery’s… “chest window.” Likewise, the character models in the isometric environments are more deformed than the battle models, which leads to an aesthetic inconsistency that isn’t helped all that much by the bland, somewhat familiar environmental assets found throughout the game.
There are a few moments where Azure Saga truly seems to stand on its own, and its almost impressive that these character designs remain faithful across these three visual styles, but it doesn’t necessarily work to the game’s benefit. In terms of music, the game has its own distinct instrumentation that can be epic and enjoyable at times and irritatingly generic at others- in specific, the town theme will make you want to spend as little time there as possible.
On one hand, Azure Saga’s appearance and script issues make it look like a bit of a jumble. On the other, the actual gameplay is so thoughtfully put together that it cancels out most of the issues I have with the game. Slowly and surely, even the title’s awkward dialogue won me over, and the variety of party setups it offers (bolstered by the narrative choices) make for some truly enjoyable gameplay.
It is a title I have been reluctant to continue due to how much I enjoy exploring, unlocking, and overcoming its world design and gameplay mechanics. Certainly, it is no masterpiece, and it may even appear to be a generic title, but the simplicity of its dialogue in spite of its surprisingly well-thought-out narrative are what sell this cozy feeling of a SNES-era RPG with better presentation. I say “better,” though that doesn’t always mean “consistent.”
Azure Saga reminds me of a Phantasy Star-like concept with a bit more commitment to world-building and character. It blends science fiction and fantasy in ways that were unexpected and delightful, if only because I was worried that the writing wouldn’t be as smart as it actually was. There is plenty of challenge and variety to be found in its systems and mechanics, which is why it does receive a pleasant recommendation.
If all of these gameplay elements weren’t present in order to support the title, I wouldn’t say it was worth consideration. But if you enter into the game with low expectations based on its first impression, you may end up liking it quite a bit. As a generally skeptical reviewer, that Azure Saga: Pathfinder managed to redeem itself in my eyes should be proof enough of its charm, complexity, and execution.