Maybe not what you’re expecting, but in a good way.
The Era of the Gachapon is upon us. Fate GO is the most popular video game on Twitter and Nintendo has gone to the gacha well more times than they’ve tapped into Kid Icarus. And if you want to get your fix rolling for anthropomorphic WWII ships to smash against each other like bathtub toys and of course, pretend-court, we now have Azur Lane for that. It has become a large multimedia property complete with an anime tie-in, manga series, character songs, and limited edition sausages. From the combined efforts of Idea Factory, Compile Heart, and Felistella, the IP’s newest product is Azur Lane: Crosswave, the series’ first foray into console gaming. It is a momentous debut, no doubt, sporting a prestigious developer pedigree that, of course, you all know from the Neptunia series, because you have excellent taste in video games.
I won’t bore you with the details, because you would stuff me in a locker and call me a nerd, but Azur Lane the mobile game is not only a serious drama but a sci-fi mystery involving universe hopping, time travel, and soul swapping. Consequently, Crosswave takes place in a different continuity whilst still being “canon”. In this timeline —a word that I use with no conviction because I honestly don’t understand if Azur Lane diverges in time, dimensions, simulations or all three— the world has miraculously avoided all war until now. All weapons have instead been developed as a means for sport, and all wars were replaced with military exercises. This makes for odd mentions of things like “the second world military exercise” but it’s not too dissimilar to the approach to tank combat taken by the Girls Und Panzer series. Hence, all conflict is a sport. It’s a dangerous sport, mind you, like Boxing or UFC, but a sport nonetheless.
This set-up easily allows for one of the best parts of the game: The dynamic between the main characters. Suruga and Shimakaze are the newest recruits of the Not-Japanese navy, which is hosting the latest military exercise. The former joined the navy more out of obligation than anything else and, being rather shy, just wants to live quietly as a rank-and-file member. She is, however, too talented for her own good. This, combined with her quiet and polite demeanour is easily mistaken for stoic dependability, so she is quickly saddled with prodigious klutz Shimakaze as her partner. The latter one has the skill to match Suruga and a lust for glory, but an almost non-existent wit. The two find themselves at odds from the word go and have to spend the entire game figuring out even the most basic of social graces around each other. It sounds simple and even a bit clichéd, yet I’ll be damned if I didn’t laugh at Suruga’s constant dismay. The more she tries to not stand out by failing, the better she does at any given task, which only sees her saddled with more renown and responsibilities, much to Shimakaze’s delight.
Some stakes are raised near the end, but it’s never anything actually meant to get you on the edge of your seat. By the end of my 9 or so hours with the game’s story mode —the first 2 of which were almost all dialogue— even one of the villains wasn’t entirely convinced anything major would be going down. It is a campaign intended to have some dumb fun with guns and girls, rather than the convoluted post-modern epic of the mobile game.
Crosswave really is a game that lives and dies by its personality. The gameplay, whilst fun, is not going to win you over if the story’s visual novel has you groaning in aggravation from the start. On some level, you have to be down with anime girls in dumb outfits discussing video games, bentos, and military ordinance. I find a good gauge for that is seeing how much your interest is piqued by the phrase “this game basically has a green Konata”.That means, however, that you also have to at least tolerate some elements that may strike you as coming off in poor taste.
Before I jumped into this game, all I knew was that John said it’s “the horny gacha”, which is really saying something in the genre that includes Fate’s take on Jeanne d’Arc. From a certain angle that is true. There is no denying that plenty of character designs in Crosswave were made that way for the audience to ogle. Even characters with more conservative attire are sometimes purposefully posed so you can peek at their underwear; and there is a character who’s literally just a normal girl not wearing trousers, all of which is superlatively silly. The idea that the best complement to engaging gameplay is gawking at attractive ladies —or even attractive guys, in a more progressive world— has never really made much sense to me, regardless of how much one may enjoy that in their own time. Apparently it makes sense to a lot of people, though, and Azur Lane is decidedly for those folks.
That said, the pervy design sensibilities really don’t go as far as they would have to for me to draw the line at this game specifically. If you can enjoy something like Guilty Gear with Dizzy, I-NO, and Ramlethal in tow, or get invested in the story of any given Fire Emblem, then you can probably enjoy Azur Lane. It is assuredly annoying that the overwhelming majority of games only want to pander to a presumed male and straight audience when it comes to fanservice, and it would be great if Azur Lane showed indications of changing that. But as things stand, it doesn’t contribute more to the problem than most other titles out there.
However, there is more to these designs than just their sex appeal. They’re the major selling point of the original mobile game, and it shows. Even designs obviously meant to get your blood flowing, like Kaga’s and Prinz Eugen’s, are very distinctive, stylish, and do a good job of communicating the character’s personality through posing and expression alone. Not to mention characters like Cleveland and Enterprise who are simply cool gals that could totally kick your butt (in a wholesome way). For what it’s worth, the writing is entirely devoted to slice of life and action beats. Despite reading much of the game’s optional story content, I never came across a scene where the ship girls compare breast sizes or convolute a reason to get touchy in a hot spring or any other staple of pervy Japanese games.
The gameplay is a more conflicted voyage. Perhaps the best description for it would be a shooter Dynasty Warriors or a lower budget Earth Defence Force. Whilst I enjoyed it greatly, I can easily see people loathing everything about it. Much like Warriors, difficulty is key in your experience. Most of the story mode will see you mindlessly cutting through hordes of generic ships and planes, only having to pay attention whenever a named character enters the scene. However, when the difficulty gets turned up, suddenly, you are playing an entirely different and much more frenetic game: Enemies are everywhere, the damage is high, you have to use every mechanic you previously ignored, and levelling only helps as far as getting you on equal footing for the fight. And in true Warriors fashion, the mindless early gameplay does jack with a side of shit to train you for the latter challenge. Although it’s hard to hold it against the game, since it is a reasonable assumption that most people would need 6 hours of practice before being able to tell what the hell is happening on screen at any given time.
If you weren’t inspired to change your team just to play with the girl whose design you liked the most, you certainly will once you hit the wall. Once you scramble back to the menus, desperate to find a lifesaver to keep your head above water, you’ll discover a rather deep variety of equipment, classes, and party-compositions. The different classes of ships all feature fairly distinct playstyles. The Destroyers are the fast strafing class meant to hold down the trigger forever; whereas Battleships are heavy and slow, only able to shoot once every couple of seconds, and have their dodge replaced by a shield which you must use constantly, since it’s their only practical means of avoiding damage.The light and heavy cruisers are intermediate classes between these two, and the Aircraft Carrier is a peculiar support class which summons varieties of attack planes instead of firing any weapons themselves.
Crosswave has 28 playable ships, plus free DLC character Neptune, but the differences within classes are your usual RPG distinctions of stats, gear slots, and a few skills. Instead, the reason to think about your party composition is the passive effects. There are 35 support ships (all fully voiced, to the delight of fans I would assume) that grant anything from healing, to higher armour, to more specific effects like doubling the damage of ships from a certain nation or having a random chance to summon friendly planes. This all compounds with the formation effects, which will enhance certain stats if your party meets specific requirements, like at least 3 members having silver hair, coming from a certain nation, or simply choosing to take the 2 protagonists into battle together. Although Neptune, the protagonist of protagonists, doesn’t count for this last one for some reason.
Couple this with 6 types of ammo meant to play off the class system, and the fact that you cannot have a ship fighting on both sides of a match, and this has all that fun menu fiddling action you want from a good RPG. It’s a good thing the loading screens are lightning-fast, never making it frustrating to constantly jump from the shop to your inventory. The monkey-paw trade for that, though, is that all the gear consists of ammo and guns, so I hope you don’t confuse a Single 120mm TB2 with a Single 127mm TB3. Whatever the heck those words mean.
Where Crosswave’s surprisingly ambitious systems and roster come apart is in the lack of variety. Yes, there are many ships, and even more battle scenarios. Unfortunately, at 6 ships per party and dozens of fights, you will be taking down the same foes countless times. Not unlike the Warriors series, either, where a big theatre is made every time you come face to face with someone you’ve defeated about 5 times that afternoon. The game being so hectic also makes it difficult for their personalities to come across in a fight. They may be bubbly and loud in dialogue, but in gameplay they’re just the silhouette on the other side of your bullet barrage, buried under damage indicators. I know Prinz Eugen has a ridiculous amount of health in every fight, she certainly feels different to fight, but I can barely tell you what her in-game model looks like
Warriors can at least stave off repetition with its many battle scenarios, all with their own gimmicks. But whilst Crosswave has 23 different sea levels, your ships float just as well whether it’s daytime, sundown, freezing or it’s the sea of a different dimension. Sure, the water reacts to combat impressively for a game of this budget, I never thought my Idea Factory games could look this good, but it does get rather samey. This isn’t helped by the fact that the actual arenas are all rather small. Despite the locations featuring islands, ice patches, and beaches, those are just skyboxes beyond the roughly square kilometre actually allocated for fighting. This is straight-up annoying: when nearly a hundred projectiles are flying to and fro, the last thing you want is to hit your back straight into a wall and have 10 planes rain bombs down on you. Furthermore, whilst the gunboats and the combat planes are all allowed to intrude into the battle area, the larger battleships are all segregated to just beyond the invisible arena walls. The only things allowed to cross the walls are projectiles. It is so much fun to weave and bob between torpedoes, bombs, and boats, and it’s such a shame the largest ships are excluded from them. Subtle differences between having two battleships close together at the centre of the map, or having them flanking the arena could make every encounter feel distinct and require considerably different approaches, but this opportunity is wasted. There’s even a funky special battleship in the story mode that seems designed for you to get between and under it, but the boundary makes that impossible. It puts a bittersweet note on even the craziest gameplay moments, making them feel small and confined every time you bump a wall.
One has to imagine these constraints are due to technical and monetary limitations, but all in all, the experience holds together better than you’d expect. I went through exactly 1 technical problem, which was just a few seconds of freezing in a particularly busy fight.
Also, this is rather nitpicky I know, but the girls never shut up. Ever. At a maximum of 12 ships per fray, there is nary a second of fighting when someone isn’t yammering about. At certain transitions you will be treated to the sound of all twelve ships shouting in unison, with a choir of boats and planes revving up alongside them. Even when you pause, whichever ship you’ve selected as your menu buddy will immediately start heckling you to pick the controller back up. I paused to take a swig of water and Ayanami had told me to stop dawdling around *three times*. Do you have any idea what that does to you? I can’t even talk about the music because I don’t think I got the chance to hear more than a few notes at a time. At least Suruga’s a quiet girl.
If you enjoy the somewhat uneven building blocks of it, Crosswave is a relatively well-stuffed package. There’s plenty of post-game quests and there is an extra challenge mode which is meant to provide you with some meatier and more involved fights. There are also fifty unlockable vignettes on top of optional story conversations, meant to fill you in on the personalities and dynamics of all the characters. Who doesn’t want to see anime girls playing Bokemon Bo, after all?
Crosswave has not sold me on playing the original Azur Lane game. Though it has some pretty fun shmup gameplay, I simply cannot stand gacha style progressions. But I can say that it has sold me on Azur Lane as a whole. I genuinely like many of the characters now, and I would totally be down to buy a Crosswave 2 that’s a little more ambitious with its map and encounter design. Maybe I’ll give the anime a spin. But perhaps the biggest endorsement I can give to this game is that I will be coming back to it for at least a couple months. “Snackable” is the word that comes to mind. It’s an ideal game to play whilst listening to an album, mindlessly blowing through stages. And it’s also good for playing a really involved and intense hour-long session at higher difficulties, without the commitment to events, updates, and other players that comes with things like MMOs or even fighting games. I do not recommend you intensely eat potato crisps for a whole hour, but I do recommend you take a dive into Crosswave if you’re willing to put up with turbulent tides.