In the 11th century the Lord of the Night – a demonic entity who tried to drown the Earth in an eternal night from which no human would ever awaken – was defeated and sealed away by a human girl known as The First Saint. Upon his defeat, his blood showered the world, transforming whatever it touched into beings known as ‘Fiends’ – creatures that came out at night and threatened the people of this world. This battle took place above an island off the coast of Europe. Ever since its conclusion, this island’s existence has been kept secret from most of the world, as this is where the Fiends are now strongest.
Ever since then, every 10 years a new Saint is chosen by a pseudo-religious organization known as the Curia to be a sacrifice to renew the seal on the night. A guardian is also chosen – a warrior with close ties to the Saint – to protect her until she can reach the sacred altar upon this mysterious island where the sacrifice will be made. This guardian is given the title of Holy Knight and must train to be strong and loyal enough to protect the Saint through what is to come. Our protagonist, Arnice, is chosen to be the Holy Knight for the newest Saint, a long-time friend of hers by the name of Lylisse… and that is where Gust’s action RPG Nights of Azure begins in this alternate Earth, hundreds of years later.
Swords, Familiars, and More
Arnice is given a special weapon, known as the Demon Sword Jorth, which she uses to defeat Fiends during the game’s nighttime sequences. At first, Jorth is merely a sword. As the game progresses however, she’ll unlock the ability to transform it into a variety of different forms including a pair of daggers, a gun, and a hammer. Each weapon, even the two different sword forms, feels drastically different to use and offers a variety of strengths and weaknesses to the game’s action-based combat.
The actual combat controls are fairly simplistic. You have two standard attacks for combo purposes and a special attack that consumes your MP, you can swap weapons, and you can dodge. Each weapon does have its own set of attacks and its own special attack, but overall the character combat is fun but doesn’t really do anything special. What really spices up the combat are your Servans, which are essentially teams of demon familiars you summon to support you in battle.
Each team consists of up to 4 Servans which you can summon to provide buffs, damage, or healing in combat. Summoning a familiar costs MP, but they perform a special ability called a ‘Servan Burst’ when summoned, so there’s a bit of strategy behind when you summon them. Additionally, they have their own special attack which consumes their own MP bar. The combination of fairly simple action gameplay and strategic Servan micromanagement creates a very dynamic and engaging system. Especially when you start getting access to multiple weapons and multiple teams of Servans (later in the game you can bring up to three Servan ‘Decks’ with you, allowing you to change which Servans you can summon at a moment’s notice), it becomes a very involved system.
Last, but certainly not least, Arnice has the ability to assume an empowered form when her transformation bar fills. This form is dependent upon the Servans in her active Deck, allowing you to choose between several different forms. Most of the forms somewhat mirror the style of her weapons, with one of them being relatively balanced, one being fast and quick, one being ranged, and one being slow and hard-hitting. My favourite of the above forms was the caster which had restorative abilities and a variety of pretty effects – as well as a gorgeous blue outfit.
A Feast for the Eyes and Ears
While the game’s graphics are not hyper-realistic, this is a very pretty game. The character models are well-drawn and distinct, the cinematic sequences offer a pretty spectacle, and the combat animations look great. The one real place where the animations look a little stiff and awkward is when you just see the characters walking. For some reason they couldn’t get the same level of elegance into their walking movements as they managed in the running, fighting, and even dancing animations.
The art direction in this game is beyond reproach, from my perspective. The backdrops are gorgeous, the monster design is adorable, and the character design is fantastic. I really enjoyed the visual aesthetic of the bosses. Each one looks vastly different from the others, even the two dragons, and the humanoid ones look fitting for the Victorian/Industrial era aesthetic they’ve got going on. I also was really drawn to the outfits of the various characters. The men had really elaborate, yet suitable, garb for their personality and profession, and the women’s outfits, while not exactly conservative, were very beautiful. They weren’t the normal ultra-revealing school-girl outfits that we see all too often (not that I have anything against those!), and it was a nice change of pace. Well, most of the time. There are a few cases where they fall to the absolute extreme of sexualisation… and that is more the pity, because it is fairly counter to the game’s normal aesthetic and stands out to the game’s detriment when they do.
But as pretty as the game’s visuals were, the music was the game’s greatest asset… this game’s soundtrack is absolutely stellar and brought to mind fond memories of Nier and Journey with its unique utilization of classical instruments. There were a few tracks that I absolutely fell in love with, and I can tell you that I will be looking for this game’s soundtrack. They also did something that I always am a fan of, having the voice actors – who portrayed their characters extraordinarily well, I might note – sing some of the songs themselves. It really ties the whole soundtrack together and makes it feel like it truly belongs in the game. The soundtrack never steals the stage, but it is always there in the background, doing whatever it can to ensure the game has the right emotional tone…
The final note I wanted to make here is relating to one of the game’s unlockable extras. After you complete the game you unlock a music player, which allows you to listen to any of the game’s songs and read a little comment about how the composers came up with the song. Some of the comments pertain to their inspirations, or the emotions they wanted you to feel, or even the specific instruments/vocalists they chose. It’s an awesome way to give a little more credit to the composers who, quite frankly, don’t often get the recognition they deserve. I strongly recommend that, should you play this game, you take some time to read through the comments and listen to the various tracks again – especially Indignation, which is my personal favourite.
A Story About Two Girls
Of course, Arnice and Lilysse are not merely friends, they’re very clearly romantically interested in each other and this is an obvious tragic love story. It’s really cool to watch their relationship grow as the two of them both strive to keep the other from harm, with Arnice desperately trying to protect Lilysse from her responsibility as the Saint and Lilysse trying to hide her feelings so she can go through with her duties to protect Arnisse from the looming eternal night. It’s a really touching romance that builds so organically over time, and the soundtrack does a beautiful job of making sure you realize that, as much as these characters mean to each other, this is not a happy relationship – this is a desperate relationship built on the desire to prevent a tragedy that they both know is coming.
The only real problem is a strange focus on various character flaws in some of the side characters. Lloyd is greedy to a fault and Alucard is a pervert, which is fine… it’s good to have characters to inject humour, but there are often entire scenes during this intended tragedy that focus on the two of them berating each other… it felt a little out of place, even if it often was comical. Fortunately, even these awkward side characters had roles in the overarching story, and the story itself is engaging enough that it kept me constantly wondering about what was around the corner… and constantly reflecting on what was going to befall these lovely young ladies.
Like any good story, the devil is in the details. There are so many subtle nuances that could easily be misconstrued if you don’t take the time to think about them… Alucard, while a pervert, has this strange desperation to understand the fiends and demons out there. He’s constantly taking the time to research them, even at considerable risk to himself. Lilysse is a very clumsy woman… but as she’s been forbidden from leaving the hotel (which serves as your home base) during the nighttime, she offers to help as a maid at the hotel so that she can be useful to Arnice. It would be easy to discredit the former as tutorial and the latter as fanservice, but both serve a great purpose in fleshing out this story.
The one other thing I wanted to just quickly call attention to… I was very glad to see that nobody in the game made a big deal in any way, positive or negative, about these girls being in a relationship. There was no huge emphasis put on it, it was just part of the story. Nobody made jokes, comments, or otherwise, about them. The characters (or the writers for that matter) didn’t go out of their way to shove it in your face as normal, right, wrong, or otherwise. In my eyes, this is how these types of issues should be handled… but that’s all I’ll say on the matter. I don’t generally like to get involved in the whole social justice thing, so we’ll leave it there.
This is not a long game. I was actually surprised by how short it was. That being said, the game feels complete, especially since there is a fairly significant catalog of optional content including the arena, an entire post-game story, and an extremely difficult challenge dungeon. The post-game story also unlocks the game’s true ending, which is not locked behind the relationship decisions the game poses to you. Those decisions unlock the game’s varied normal endings, and upon completing the game, they even allow you to alter your ‘friendship rating’ to allow you to see all of the different ending options without needing to replay the game again and again. Gust displayed a confidence in this game that is all too rare: the confidence to not force you through multiple playthroughs in order to see the full game. If you complete the game, you can just keep using your completion data to explore more of it, and see whichever endings suit your fancy.
Additionally, in order to provide an organic way to alleviate the game’s limited size, they broke it up into 15 (later 20) minute segments. You can only leave to explore in 15 minute intervals, at the end of which you’d automatically return to the hotel and the night would end. This may seem short, but I rarely felt like it was a struggle to do what I needed to do within that timeframe. Additionally, the game rewards you for making the most of these nights, offering you quests to gain rewards and, provided you spend enough time out of the hotel, allowing you to set a routine for daytime activities that will be automatically completed to award you skill points you can use to learn new abilities. It makes the time limit feel natural and breaks up the game into manageable portions.
The other thing I wanted to briefly mention is the game’s inconsistent difficulty. While I, mostly, never felt overwehelmed, there were a few points where the difficulty would spike erratically and I’d find myself suddenly struggling to continue. Not a huge problem, but definitely worth being aware of, especially if you find yourself struggling at a certain part. It’s probably not you, just persevere and it’ll probably calm down shortly after.
Despite, or perhaps in part because of, a few minor flaws, Nights of Azure is an extremely memorable game and one that proves that Gust can create a mature story successfully. The game is exciting, strategic, and has a remarkably deep story… but it won’t appeal to everyone. The subtle depths of the story will likely turn some away… but I hope some of you at least give the game a try because it is a fantastic experience with some of the best music I’ve heard in a long time.