Waifu Wars on the High Seas!
Mobile games are a sore spot for me. Mobile technology has increased to the point that modern phones and tablets are veritable powerhouses capable of running full console ports and emulating games almost as well as PC hardware. In the case of games like Player Unknown’s Battlegrounds, the mobile version is pretty close to the game’s console ports in terms of quality. However, a great deal of the time developers tend to make their games flagrant cash grabs continually goading the “player” into spending exorbitant amounts of money on precious in-game currency. Sometimes even egregiously enough to have even a SLIGHT chance of getting something good (I’m looking at you, Transformers: Earth Wars). Thankfully, a decent or even great mobile game comes around every now and then that makes the grind enjoyable and treats the player with a modicum of respect. Azur Lane happens to be one of those games.
I happened to see some ads for Azur Lane peppered across my Facebook feed periodically, and with a future trip coming up I decided it might be at least somewhat of a good time sink for at least the duration of the trip. I checked it out on the Play Store and it was actually fairly decently reviewed. Going in blind, I was expecting a clone of Kantai Collection (Kancolle for short), hoping to cash in on the otaku-based waifu craze of making a fleet of ships that have been anthropomorphized into cute anime girls. I was mostly correct, as that is the core basis of the game, but while I was under the impression Azur Lane was a fellow product made in Japan to compete with Kancolle, it is actually a product first originating from China.
Gotta Build ’em All!
With over 300 ships to build and upgrade, Azur Lane has plenty of content to go around.
Made by Shanghai Manjuu and Xianmen Yongshii for iOS and Android and later ported to the US by Shanghai Yostar, Azur Lane takes place during an alternate timeline for World War II. The player finds themselves tasked as a commander of a naval fleet fighting the Sakura Empire, and you need to build a formidable enough fleet to win the war. The story doesn’t go particularly deeper than that, and any interactions between ships and their battles serve to flesh out their characters a bit as well as tap into the knowledge WWII buffs love to have on tap. For instance, Laffey, the ship I chose as my starter, makes constant references to Hiei. This is in reference to Laffey’s actual battle against Hiei and other Japanese ships at the Battle of Guadalcanal. There are all sorts of subtle historical references sprinkled into the ships’ dialogues, and catching them if you’re familiar with WWII history is a nice touch, although if you’re not it may seem as though they’re saying some nonsensical things at times. Almost all lines are voiced as well, which is nice too.
The ships you enlist to your fleet make numerous references to their real-world counterparts.
Battle is the primary interface in Azur Lane, and there’s plenty of fighting to go around. Players make a variety of fleets consisting of two teams each, a vanguard in front and a main fleet supporting from the rear. Your main fleet consists of battleships, battlecruisers and aicraft carriers raining down artillery fire and air support while your vanguard does most of the shooting via destroyers and light and heavy cruisers. Building your fleet, you can select from either story missions, daily special missions, exercises against other players, or event stages if a special event is going on. The story and event stages place you on a map where you can select which fleets to take down making your way to the enemy flagship. The enemy team can ambush you with surprise fleets and air strikes though, so plotting a course of action in the most efficient way possible will save you a bit of damage along the way. Your fleets have an ammo counter which serve as their stamina, and when they run out they’ll do less damage, so there are plenty of reasons to avoid ambushes as much as possible.
Blood on the Water
Azur Lane’s battle maps are full of enemies to fight and earn plentiful rewards
The actual battles themselves play out much like a Bullet Hell (or Danmaku) game. Your main fleet glides in formation across the ocean on screen while enemy ships (both anthro and actual ships) appear on the opposite side and start spraying you with fire. You can manually dodge the bullets and torpedos or you can set the ships to automatically fight if you’re sure their opponents won’t damage them too much. There are plenty of shots you can’t dodge, but your ships’ evasion determines if they will be hit by them or not. Depending on what ships you have in your fleet, you can select special skills that, after a cooldown timer, you can use to deal heavy damage to your enemies. Skills like air strikes, torpedo barrages, and heavy cannon fire can help even the tides in battle, especially against heavy hitting flagship battles. You have three minutes to complete a standard mission, with grades ranging from an S for a perfect performance to a D for your fleet getting wiped out, with the better you do resulting in better rewards and EXP. You can get items ranging from currency to upgrade items, or even new (or additional) ships.
Guns a’ Blazin
Azur Lane’s battle stages are fast and frantic, you’ll need to coordinate your teams well in order to survive
Aside from standard and event missions, players can also participate in exercises which serve as a PvP mode of sorts. You can win points in this mode that you can spend in a special section of the shop that has materials you can’t buy anywhere else, so it pays to participate regularly. The only downside is that the PvP mode is totally automated. This means that you can let the gameplay itself during these matches, but that also means you can’t provide any input to combat the other player. You’ll find your ships regularly running into torpedoes and hanging out in area of effect zones when you’d normally dodge them playing manually. Winning the PvP battles boils down to taking on opponents around your level and firepower ratings, otherwise, you’ll get stomped pretty easily if you aim too high.
Back at the shipyard you can manage your fleets and inactive ships. You can change and upgrade their equipment you earn through battles or buy at the shop, send them to the dorms to rest up and earn additional EXP, to the academy to upgrade their special skills, or change your secretary you have managing your shipyard for you. You can also retrofit certain ships with special materials that continually boost their stats the more you upgrade them. The final upgrade results in an entirely new ship that has significantly better stats than the original. It’s a long process to complete, but well worth the effort. Your secretary greets you every time you come back either through logging in or going back from the battle menus. Some ships are even animated, though this is relegated to the three starter ships you choose from. The animations are really nice, with their character models following your finger when you touch the screen or giving a cute reaction if you touch them.
Welcome Back Commander!
You can assign any ship to be your secretary on the main menu and greet you, although only a few are nicely animated.
While it’s unavoidable that mobile games will have microtransactions to at least some extent, Azur Lane handles them pretty well. In a little over a couple months of playtime, I have not felt the urge to spend currency on the game even once. I have a fully furnished dorm, 70% of the ships collected either through battles, events, or normal building, one ship “pledged” to (more on that later) and fully retrofitted, and I have gems set aside for a supposed upcoming dorm upgrade in the future. You earn multiple Wisdom Cubes used for building ships daily and coins to purchase furniture for your dorm daily, special ships used for upgrading your normal ships at least a few times a week, and clearing event stages isn’t too terribly hard. The only things that approach needing to spend money on would be character skins, which add no stats or change the playability of the game, they only change the character art. So, if you really feel the need to adorn your ship waifu in a revealing bikini or a cute dress, then you might need to drop a couple bucks into the game. Aside from that, the game is made to be played, not be a money pit.
Oh hai, I upgraded ur Laffeys
Certain ships can be upgraded via retrofitting, eventually resulting in a totally new, upgraded ship.
Being a game centered around collecting a harem of waifus based on warships, one would expect the fanservice in Azur Lane to be high, and you’d be correct. Ships you use regularly develop affection for you and go from stranger, to friendly, to a crush, to loving you. Getting a Promise Ring from the shop enables you to marry (or rather “Pledging” to them) ships that love you, and doing so boosts their stats a little. It’s pretty silly to marry a ship in a video game, but hey, it’s 2018 and we have people in the real world legitimately marrying holograms so what else is new? That being said, it’s not a requirement and doesn’t give too much of an edge over other things you can do like upgrading your gear or retrofitting your ships that are able to.
Ouch, that’s gotta hurt.
I have a feeling the devs know their audience well here.
Overall, I’m glad to have tried out Azur Lane and I’m totally hooked, which is rare for a mobile game. While the game can be a bit grindy at times, the amount of resources you have on tap means you will almost constantly find yourself making progress of some sort. The otaku driven nature of the game might be off-putting as well depending on what your threshold for fanservice oriented content is, but at the end of the day, it’s refreshing to see a mobile game that rewards skill fairly rather than being purely centered on chance like some other gacha-style games tend to lean on. If you’re looking for something to sink your time into and not be spammed with pleas to buy premium currency, Give Azur Lane a shot.
Final Verdict: 4/5
Available on: Android; iOS; Publisher: Shanghai Yostar ; Developer: Shanghai Manjuu; Xianmen Yongshii ; Players: 1 ; Released: May 25th, 2017 (China), September 13th, 2017 (Japan), March 27th 2018 (Korea), August 16th, 2018 (US) ; ESRB: T for Teen ; MSRP: Free to Play with In-App Purchases
Full disclosure: This review is based on a personal copy of Azur Lane downloaded from the Google Play Store