Azur Lane has had a rather rapid rise to the upper echelons of gacha gaming. Once, it was derided as a Chinese “clone” of the Japan-exclusive Kantai Collection. Now, less than a year after its official English release, Azur Lane is arguably bigger than the game it’s accused of ripping off. The learner is now the master – of adapting fearsome 20th-century warships to the popular “sexy anime lesbian” form factor.
With phones and tablets under its belt, Azur Lane‘s ship girls have turned their gunsights on a new horizon: the choppy waters of PC and console gaming. Their first incursion comes in the form of Azur Lane: Crosswave.
Azur Lane: Crosswave (PS4 [Reviewed], PC)
Developer: Compile Heart, Idea Factory, Felistella
Publisher: Idea Factory International
Released: February 14, 2020
Azur Lane: Crosswave belongs to a fine game industry tradition: Taking a popular IP and adapting it into a 3D action game of some sort, not unlike what was done for Hyrule Warriors or Girls und Panzer: Dream Tank Match. In the core mobile game, Azur Lane, battles are conducted via a turn-based strategic grid. Actual combat encounters are done via 2D shoot-’em-up-style scrolling-screen encounters. Players maneuver their characters through patterns of enemy fire and destroy hordes of enemy sprites.
Crosswave opts to ditch the turn-based strategy aspects for something more akin to a visual novel that has a battle system. Players select battle encounters from an overworld map, then control a party of three “Kansen” – the in-game term for the ship girl characters – on a 3D field, firing their weapons in all directions at enemies coming from every which way. Enemies range from normal-sized ships to flying fighter planes to other Kansen themselves, and they lay down patterns of fire that need to be avoided.
Each character has a class that corresponds to a warship hull type. Battleship Kansen like Suruga move more slowly, but pack powerful cannons that deal major damage to armored targets and other Kansen. Destroyer Kansen like Shimakaze and Laffey are speedy and can dodge incoming fire, but they’re fragile, and their pea-shooter guns are mostly good for dispatching planes, forcing them to rely on slowly moving torpedo volleys to clear the field. Aircraft Carrier Kansen like Saratoga can launch their own planes to destroy other aircraft and bomb surface enemies. Every Kansen has a unique set of skills to do things like increase their damage output or reload speed.
Between battles, players can change and upgrade their equipment and level up their Kansen’s skills, as well as unlock new playable characters. Through use, Kansen can also level up their affection for the player, allowing them to be bound to an “Oath” – read: married, complete with a ring – for additional stat bonuses. A handy Photo Mode allows players to capture the happy moment for posterity and/or social media clout.
The battles can get hectic, and even exciting, particularly when lots of fire is on-screen, or when doing the tougher “EX” missions, but they always feel short and restrictive. The playable space on each battle map is tiny, hemmed in by invisible borders, and each battle is extremely short, denying players entry into that flow state one experiences when playing shmups. This is a situation where Azur Lane: Crosswave‘s attempts to replicate the mobile version’s structure have backfired.
Short battles are good for a mobile game designed to be played repetitively and in short spurts, but on a home console or PC title it makes for a disengaged, staccato pacing, where players might spend twenty minutes in various conversation scenes, only to load into a 30-second battle. Further, battles don’t really escalate in terms of challenge, for the most part. Increased difficulty simply functions as a gate based on a player’s progress in upgrading gear and levels. Almost every mission plays out the same way, and with so little time to actually fight individual Kansen – both enemy and ally – feel almost identical to play as or fight.
Azur Lane: Crosswave is unremarkable as a battle experience, but it is a well-realized piece of fan service for fans of Azur Lane, which, on balance, might be the more important thing.
The narrative isn’t particularly complex: Azur Lane‘s world has four competing nations: The Eagle Union, Iron Blood, Royal Navy, and Sakura Empire, all patterned after a belligerent of World War II. The nations maintain a peaceful but friendly tension between them, as they face a threat from a mysterious fifth faction: The Sirens. Key to their defenses are the Kansen, female androids wielding special weaponry and channeling the spirits of historical warships. When a battle with the Sirens leaves a number of physics-defying glowing cubes scattered about Sakura Empire territory, the nations call together a “joint operation” to collect and research the mysterious new resources.
It’s a fairly thin excuse to get a ton of characters together and interact, and it does the work: Azur Lane: Crosswave features 29 playable Kansen from all four factions, with 35 more selectable as “support” units in battle, with more still planned via downloadable add-on. Of course, given that Azur Lane‘s roster of Kansen is more than four hundred strong at this point, a good many girls aren’t included. Further, the narrative focus on Sakura Empire characters, led by Suruga and Shimakaze, results in a somewhat unbalanced roster in their favor, with the German-based Kansen of the Iron Blood getting a paltry three playable characters at launch (Prinz Eugen, Z23, and Bismarck). That said, many of the fan favorites, like Eagle Union’s Enterprise, the Royal Navy’s Hood, and more do appear in the game.
Better still, all the Kansen included have full voice acting, and the outfits they practically spill out of are rendered in high resolution. It’s a pleasant game to look at, provided you can overlook the fact that Azur Lane‘s character design sensibilities have always trended towards “unsettlingly horny.”
The writing also comes through, adding plenty of opportunities for every character’s personality to shine through via a boatload of conversation scenes and events. The topics range from discussions of the main plot and cryptic hints at the darker aspects of Azur Lane‘s world-building to just shooting the breeze about sweets. Players that like to explore fanfiction-like “shipping dynamics” will find plenty of fodder as several pairs of characters with long histories in the main game find the time to have heart-to-hearts and work out their beefs.
I mentioned earlier that Azur Lane: Crosswave was like other licensed anime games, but perhaps the game it’s most like along that diverse spectrum is an entry from the Neptunia franchise. The focus on characters just interacting, and weighting the content far in favor of that, even at the expense of regular gameplay and narrative cohesion, will strike a familiar chord if you’re an experienced Nep-Nepper. In fact, that Neptune herself is playable in-game via a free add-on, and the Neptunia girls were recently added to the core mobile game last year.
In the end, that’s the real draw of Azur Lane: Crosswave, rather than its gameplay, which is more of a formality. As such, your reaction to it will likely depend on how receptive you are to Azur Lane itself. Existing fans and open-minded lovers of cute anime girls gabbing will find much to dive deep into, but everyone else is probably better off taking some shore leave.
[This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]