I first heard of Azure Saga: Pathfinder in early March. By the time the guys at MassHive Media got back to us with a review copy, I had completely forgotten about requesting it. Cool, I thought while looking at the presskit; a 2,5D old-style JRPG!
I soon decided to redeem the key and try this title out. Would its trailer’s colorful scenery and catchy music meet my expectation? Would Azure Saga strike the perfect balance between visual novel and interactive journey?
Spacefarers, High Priestesses, and Ugly Monsters
It’s the future. Azure Saga: Pathfinder doesn’t tell us directly, but apparently humanity now survives in colonies scattered throughout the galaxy. According to the cutscene that opens the game, something went wrong. For one space pilot, what could have been a routine patrol turns into a life-or-death situation!
Past the lengthy and somewhat dispersive introduction, we learn that our protagonist managed to crash-land on an unknown planet. We’re soon introduced to a small cast of characters. There’s the larger-than-life hero, the loyal and pragmatic servant, the powerful but cautious high priestess. More will walk on stage later on.
Here, Azure Saga’s first bugbear rears its ugly head. At this point, whatever we know about the plot comes from outside the main narration. There’s a website to visit if we want to learn more about characters and story, but the game itself fails to deliver that information in a compelling manner. Forcing players to pause the action and look for the right menu destroys whatever feeling of immersion the devs might have wanted to build.
Eventually, things do get a bit better. One of our companions can scan enemies for bits of lore and the characters tend to open up as we get to know them. Unfortunately this risks to be too late for some players, who might have already lost interest. Lack of voice-over also means we’ll have to read, regardless of what’s happening on the screen!
Can I Have a Map?
I could stand having to jump through a few menus to learn more about the game I’m playing. I could accept a narration that, for better or worse, leaves the spectator hanging. Unfortunately, this lack of polish doesn’t seem to stop here. With each step, more and more rough edges show themselves. Some are only minor nuisances, others have the power to put us off completely.
Azure Saga: Pathfinder is an extremely complex game. Here we have this large world with its own laws, people, monsters, and even biomes. We have conspiracies and interspecies wars. Anyone would be itching to explore the environment around them and the title’s UI should be built with just that in mind!
Instead, we are served a series of clunky menus that are more confusing than useful. Opening the bestiary or reaching the quest log, for instance, takes just a couple more clicks than it should. There’s no mouse support whatsoever and the default keys are outright odd. We are allowed to remap them, but the new settings will be applied as soon as you input them. What does that mean? Basically that you’ll have to guess which buttons to press while you finish writing down your configuration.
Navigating the in-game world also feels rather painful. A map is actually there for you to use, but the maze-like levels will often force you to go back and retrace your steps. Add puzzles and random encounters a la Final Fantasy and moving from one location to the next ends up taking an excruciating amount of time. You’ll really need a good reason to keep playing; one that I struggled to find!
One Blow at a Time!
As we would expect from any decent JRPG, Azure Saga: Pathfinder features plenty of combat. Whenever our group meets an enemy, a turn-based battle ensues. We’ll tell each of our characters what to do and wait as the action unfolds. Perhaps aware of how quickly such a mechanic grows old, the development team decided to throw in something new.
Alongside the usual basic attacks and spells, our party can rely on so-called United Skills. These powerful strikes draw from the entire team’s resources to deal massive amounts of damage. United skills won’t immediately be available, though. On the contrary, we’ll have to discover and learn them through some sort of a mini-game. Match heroes’ spells by color and we’ll be able to unleash their full power. A fun little diversion, at least for a while!
Other than that, combat in Azure Saga: Pathfinder has a rather bland flavor to it. Enemies seemingly attack at random and I couldn’t notice any hint of them employing advanced strategies. The few bosses I encountered failed to feel unique or impressive. If anything, I thought they simply took a lot longer than usual to bite the dust.
Finally, besting our adversaries will allow the party to gain experience. Loot is also distributed after each battle. Eventually, our characters can level up and unlock new abilities. I hate to sound so negative, but even this aspect of the game could use some extra work. Character customization in Azure Saga: Pathfinder is somewhat limited.
Our heroes can acquire new equipment and cosmetic items, which is a plus. Crafting and fishing are also available, although I found them to be side-activities rather than something important. That’s about it, though. There’s no way to customize our party’s skillset or our characters’ attack attributes.
Does Azure Saga: Pathfinder Get a Pass?
I’m a bit conflicted. This title indeed has a few faults, but I wouldn’t burn the entire lot to the ground just because of them. Truth is, in its current state, I wouldn’t rush out to acquire and play a copy either.
Azure Saga: Pathfinder is a promising JRPG. The colorful scenery, the captivating world, and the pleasant soundtrack I was expecting are all there. Still, its UX design ultimately makes it hard to enjoy. I don’t feel like sitting through random encounters and mazes to discover more about the story. I’m not that into having to fight control schemes before I can fight in-game enemies.
The lack of customization when it comes to my characters also weighs heavily on the experience. Especially while role-playing, I want the ability to control every aspect of my playthrough. A game that doesn’t allow that directly limits its own players. It all reeks of pre-boxed outcomes and on-rail adventures.
Still, I won’t stop you from trying the thing out yourself! If you want to give it a chance, Azure Saga: Pathfinder is currently available on Steam for about 13$. Several pieces of DLC have also been released, all containing skins that – in my opinions – should have been made available as in-game rewards!