Once again, this isn’t the game review post I had planned next. That one is still on its way. But I can’t possibly post more than two proper reviews at a time — I have to bullshit endlessly about personal experiences and feelings sometimes, and this is one of those times. Though this is also a sort of game review depending on how loosely you care to define that term.
Today I want to write about a gacha game, one of the only such games I’ve ever played: Azur Lane. Yes, I fell into that hole a couple of years ago, though thankfully I didn’t go into debt for it (though again, I’d rather pay the publisher of this app than my fucking student loan creditors if I had a choice between them.)
Azur Lane is a simple game at its core: a naval warfare-themed horizontally scrolling shmup with the usual bullet-dodging, fighting smaller enemies leading up to a boss, and training up skills that have various offensive and defensive effects and cooldown times and all that, together with a light visual novel element. But that’s not what makes Azur Lane special. Though people do play the more traditional “game” part of the game plenty, I don’t think this not very remarkable shmup gameplay1 or the story that accompanies it are the reasons this mobile app has done so well.
No, the reason this game and others like it took off is without a doubt its massive collection of cute girl and hot lady characters to roll for, this time around in the form of “shipgirls”, or anthropomorphized versions of mostly World War II-era warships.2
Well, what did you expect? To fight with realistic-looking ships that make sense? Why do that when you can fight with busty fox ladies with giant guns strapped to them instead? This was apparently such a genius concept that the makers of Azur Lane were far from the first to use it — rival naval warfare mobile game Kantai Collection did it before Azur Lane, and the manga Arpeggio of Blue Steel did it before either of them. So maybe you could say developers Manjuu and Yongshi ripped the idea off, but then again, as long as you rip an idea off and do well with it, people won’t complain. And I’d say they did pretty well with it, considering they kept me in the game’s clutches for about a year until I finally got free of them.
But how did they manage to capture me? I have three potential reasons why that I’d like to share, even if I don’t have any kind of inside knowledge about this industry — it’s all from my view as a brainwashed consumer.
1) The quarantine
Yeah, I’m blaming COVID first of all for my fall into a gacha game. It’s being blamed for contributing to most of the ills in society anyway, so why not this one too? I moved house in April 2020, at about the worst time to do so. By the time I was done and had started working from home, being locked in for an indeterminate time, it seemed natural to seek out a free game to dive into. And I made the probably ridiculous decision to go the gacha route.
2) “Free to play”
And of course, that “free” should be put in quotes. The commonly used “free to premium” model of these sorts of games is well-known. It’s so well-known that I don’t think I need to write about it in too much depth. South Park did an episode about it years ago, and that explained it well enough — draw the player in with the promise of free gameplay to take up some of the space between the other mundane bullshit tasks of the day, then put up some kind of shitty paywall or a challenge that’s possible to beat on your own but a whole lot easier if you open your wallet.
To be fair, though I don’t have much of anything to compare it to, Azur Lane seems like it’s not really too bad about that insidious free -> premium model with regard to the gameplay aspect. At the very least, it doesn’t seem to be nearly as pay-to-win as I’ve heard some games are — the game is generous with the cubes you use to build new ships, handing them out pretty freely as long as you log in and play a bit on a regular basis. Azur Lane also features the standard special events during which certain super/ultra-rare shipgirls are featured with higher build rates, along with the occasional collab with another IP. And though people get annoyed by them, even the relatively crap ships that drop constantly and fill up your dock space, the ones you’d normally sell off, can be thrown into a decent enough fleet to play around with. Though players naturally do go for those SSR/ultra-rare ships, and it is possible to buy more of those cubes with that premium in-game currency all these games have if you want to be a whale.
And Azur Lane, like the rest of its mobile gacha game cousins, is without a doubt financially supported by its whales. So how do you convince those deep-pocket players to throw money at you without irritating and transparent gameplay paywall obstacles? This leads me to the third and by far most important reason I kept playing this fucking thing for a whole year, and the reason this post is being written:
3) Shipgirls (or Shikikan-sama’s battle harem)
Azur Lane has enough to it for me to call it a “proper game”, however you’d define that. The shmup stuff can be a fun diversion for a few minutes, and while neither the main nor the side stories ever grabbed me, I can see some players enjoying the visual novel aspects of the game, especially those who are into the naval warfare theme. Players can collect shipgirls named after historical ships from alternate universe versions of countries based on both the Allied and Axis powers, though the story is far more of a science fiction/fantasy than a typical alternate history one, far removed from the terrible aspects of World War II or of real-life war in general.3
But as stated above, I believe the collection aspect of the game is its real draw. I’m obviously not the first one to have this thought — I think it’s commonly assumed about these kinds of games that players are in it largely to build a collection of whatever main asset the game offers. And while the cubes needed to get all these shipgirls are easy to get as long as you don’t obsessively chase after those 0.5% drop characters during events, the girls themselves aren’t the only assets you can collect.
No, the even stronger draw seems to be the many alternate skins available, the great majority of which are naturally only for sale with that premium currency I mentioned. Not only does this game offer hundreds of characters to suit any player’s taste (as long as said player is into anime stylings and is interested primarily in female characters) but also skins for many of its more popular shipgirls to suit various occasions. And while many of these skins are nice and wholesome, some are as lewd as you’d expect, with a few coming as close as possible to the 18+ line without crossing it.
But now here’s one of the usual questions that come up about these gacha games, and specifically about paid skins: why in the hell would anyone pay for a bunch of .png files you can find on the game’s wiki for free?4 It’s a reasonable question considering premium currency in these games doesn’t come cheap, and especially since said .png files can be saved forever, but the ones bought in game may well be gone the day the game goes out of service.
The best answer to this question I can find is back in the game’s collection element. The player takes the role of the Commander, in charge of a naval base that somehow includes shipgirls from every faction, throwing together all the hostile countries together into one pot without conflict breaking out. I’m not sure how that works — I’m sure the game’s story has some explanation that I don’t remember because I played it a while ago and maybe wasn’t paying much attention — but it’s the only way to make the game itself work, since you’ll be building and housing shipgirls from all over this alternate universe Earth.
On the contrary, aside from the constant war talk you might expect from a game like this, a lot of it feels much more slice of life, involving the various shipgirls’ relationships both with each other and with you, their Commander (or Shikikan, or even better Shikikan-sama as you’ll constantly be called, especially if you’ve got Akagi or other more formal-sounding ladies in your dock.) Assigning a ship as your secretary puts her on the main menu screen, where she’ll comment on your progress and make other quips or complaints or whatever at you depending on her personality.
If you keep one of these ladies assigned for long enough as your secretary ship, along with sending her into battle often but also giving her breaks to let her recover her morale, her affection should rise enough that you can actually commit to her with a ring and everything. It’s not called a wedding ceremony, but that’s damn well what it is. You even get to practice polygamy as the Commander, with the ability to marry your entire fleet if you wish, though extra rings beyond the first are once again locked behind that paywall (well, historically polygamists needed extra resources to support large families, so I guess that’s justified too? I’m monogamous myself, and you can probably guess who I got hitched to in game.)
And if you like a girl, well, maybe you want to buy her different outfits to dress up in. As far as I can tell, that’s the real core of the paid part of the game and the true draw for whales — pouring money into certain characters they like through those skins, which often come with their own custom dialogue. I can’t pretend to know how much of the spending on this game is driven by skins, but I can imagine it might be most of the spending, considering how damn many skins there are. And credit where it’s due: these guys got some excellent artists to work on their game.
While I do hate paid content when it constitutes a substantive part of a game, I can accept cosmetic DLC to some extent. When it comes to games made by developers I like such as Gust (for an example of a game I’ve just now completed, and more to come about it very soon) I might even view paying for that DLC as throwing extra money at a dev to support a niche game series I enjoy that doesn’t get nearly as much press as it deserves.
But I’m not Mr. Fucking Moneybags. I have to be sensible with my money, and I don’t really view Manjuu and Yongshi or any gacha game developer or publisher at all in the same light as a Gust or an Atlus (and even with them I have a limit.) Yeah, it would be nice if I had the resources to throw at this kind of game, but I get the feeling that not every whale can exactly afford to be one anyway. I never saw this happen back in the bad old days when I was practicing as a bankruptcy attorney, but I would not be surprised today to hear that a debtor had declared several hundred dollar monthly expenses on gacha games.5
So I resisted the call of those paid skins. As admittedly appealing as that USS New Jersey bunny suit outfit was.
I didn’t have any kind of big revelation before quitting the game, either — after a while, Azur Lane just got a bit dull. It’s still installed on my cheap beat-up tablet, but I haven’t touched it in quite a while, so my poor shipgirl fleet is rusting in port right now.
And that was my time in Azur Lane. I never brought it up here before aside from a few general remarks, since I didn’t have anything to say about its gameplay or story, and I doubt very much anyone would have wanted a post about me saying “yeah this anime catgirl battleship I just rolled is pretty hot” for too many words. Or maybe they would, since I seem to get way more views from Google when I write about spicy subjects like this. Readers know very well by now that I’m a degenerate anyway, so why not?
In any case, this post helped me put my feelings about Azur Lane and gacha games like it together in a hopefully semi-sensical way. I hope this also marks the end of my relationship with gacha. Genshin Impact looks really nice, yeah, but I can’t stomach any more rolls and don’t need the temptation of that premium option bullshit — the generally predatory nature of the gacha model pisses me off enough that I don’t want to think about it anymore. Though I might check out more of that Azur Lane anime one day just to see how bad it is — I hear even fans of the game weren’t crazy about it.
1 Though to be fair, aside from playing a lot of Touhou Project ten years ago or so I don’t know shmups that well, so maybe I can’t judge. I do have Mushihimesama on Steam but haven’t touched it yet. One day…
2 And yeah, for the fans of dudes out there, sorry — they really are all shipgirls. No shipboys here. Maybe it can be justified better by the fact that for a long time, ships were referred to with the feminine pronoun? Though I think that’s fallen somewhat out of favor with recent pushes to change pronoun usage in English.
To further go off on a tangent, the great majority of the shipgirl designs in both this game and Kantai Collection from what I’ve seen of that one are just “anime girl with gun/landing strip attachments.” You might call that a bit lazy and boring considering these girls are meant to represent and have the capabilities of warships, and maybe it is. But while more creative and fantastic sorts of mechanical girl hybrid designs might be interesting to see, they would also defeat the purpose for the large proportion of players who just want a cute waifu shipgirl to take into battle and aren’t into android or mecha-styled girls. At least that’s how I see it — I don’t know how much thought went into any of these decisions behind the scenes.
3 This removal is necessary considering that the real-life Kriegsmarine and Imperial Japanese Navy obviously sailed in support of horrific practices/ideologies, and these are naturally the two most prominent Axis-based entities in the game in the form of the Iron Blood and Sakura Empire factions. But Azur Lane takes place in an alternate universe setting where that never happened, and the German faction seems more based in the older German Empire that fell at the end of World War I anyway. That seems like a common path to take for writers going for a militaristic German setting but with characters who need to avoid those far more serious moral issues related to World War II — see also Tanya the Evil.
Though in Azur Lane, there are also two rival French factions modeled on the Axis-allied Vichy regime and the Free French resistance forces led by Charles de Gaulle, and that’s clearly a reference to World War II. And a lot of the shipgirls in the game have lines referring to specific events in the war. But maybe it’s better not to think too much about any of this. It’s a fanservice-filled alternate universe sci-fi game after all, not a work pretending to have anything to do with actual history.
4 I should mention there are a few animated Live2D skins that this argument doesn’t quite apply to — but of course those are sold at a premium.
5 Or would those be treated as gambling expenses, assuming they were all spent on extra rolls? There’s a question for my friends still practicing in bankruptcy. Either way, spending money for the chance to get cute waifu .png files that hold a one-sided conversation with you is still a far better use of your resources than buying NFTs.