Nights of Azure review - Gust succeeds at a darker action RPG
Nights of Azure is one game that almost slipped under this JRPG fan's radar, and it very well may slip under the radar of many others due to its lack of marketing and being a Gust-developed game.
I was sure the combat would be slow and the game overall half-hearted when loading it up the first time, but that assumption was pretty far off the mark. Nights of Azure is a far more solid action RPG than it first appears.
What's typical of your average Gust titles that carries over here is a soft, pleasing art style and an unusually friendly relationship between the game's two female main characters, Arnice and Lilysse. Outside of those two facets and the developer name on start up, it doesn't fit the usual Gust MO.
Story and characters
The story of Nights of Azure follows half-human and half-demon Arnice as she tries to save her close friend and new Saint, Lilysse, from becoming a sacrifice to seal the Nightlord -- a demon whose influence sets fiends out at night, essentially trapping humanity indoors once the sun sets. Arnice must decide whether to let the Curia, the association in charge of keeping the Nightlord sealed, sacrifice Lilysse or whether she should find her own way to deal with the Nightlord and save her friend.
The story is an interesting ride as Arnice collects more information about the Curia, the Night, and the Nightlord, and attempts to make Lilysse accept there may be other options while trying to carry them out.
Arnice and Lilysse's relationship is framed as a close friendship, but in many instances it seems like the characters have a relationship a little closer than just "friends". Developer Gust has a long history of hinting at lesbian relationships in their games, and here in Nights of Azure it's done in a mostly tasteful way, but is a more important facet to the story and characters than their other titles. Their love for each other, whether romantic or platonic, is Arnice's driving force.
The story is certainly unique and I couldn't wait to see how Arnice and Lilysse were going to interact next and the next twist in Arnice's struggle. Story progression is fed to the player in in-engine cutscenes and visual novel-style dialogue, and it's not dull for even a moment.
Gameplay and Servans
Players won't find a world to explore here, as Arnice simply chooses where in town to go via an overworld menu, or simply explores the few areas in the hotel she and Lilysse are staying by orders of the Curia. The meat and potatoes of Nights of Azure lies in its simple but fun combat.
While most of your time in-game will be spent on the field combating fiends, you also spend a fair amount of time whacking on them in the Arena for money and Blood rewards. The Arena is optional but recommended.
The game's combat is much akin to modern 3D hack n' slashes, with fast attacks, flashy moves, and a fair amount of damage sponge enemies. What sets it apart is the use of Servans, AI-controlled fiend partners that do everything from attacking or tanking to healing under Arnice's command.
Servans act on their own by default, but the player can give them orders to follow, use teamwork, attack relentlessly, drink blood to recover some HP or SP, or use their powerful Burst ability to mow down the enemy or support the party.
Arnice can have four Servans in her party at a time, each one with their own individual Burst ability. Players should form their party based on Servan stats, their personal weapon preferences, and their Servan's Bursts.
There are several Servans to summon via Actualization, which breathes to life fetishes (not the pervy kind) Arnice finds on her hunts. Each type of Servan has its own stat growth, active abilities and passive abilities, and each can be equipped with one item.
Much of the fun in Nights of Azure comes from the Servan system as a whole. They follow you automatically when out on the field but you trigger their Bursts manually, and each Servan has a different Burst. Trying out different party compositions is part of the fun, as is using the Servans in battle and popping off their Bursts to make huge Chains for additional Blood (Arnice's experience and special currency).
While the Servans are little powerhouses, Arnice herself controls well and has a versatile set of weapons she unlocks as she levels up.
Blocking, dodging, and beating on fiends is the order of the day for Arnice and players will find she doesn't have much trouble dispatching the fiends that stand in her way, even the larger boss fiends she has to slay to progress the story.
The combat gameplay is fun, but generally easy. I myself did not have much trouble pushing through the game at all, and according to many Japanese reviews this seems to be the average player experience.
The lack of difficulty isn't exactly a bad thing since the gameplay is still quite fun, but it would be nice to have difficulty options for more experienced players, especially those who would want a more challenging experience on second playthrough.
Arnice can also transform into one of four powerful forms once she's beat on fiends enough to fill her bar, and the form she can transform into is based on the affinities of the Servans accompanying her. Her transformations are all powerful, each one with its own specialty, and adds further variety to boss fights.
Visuals and music
Nights of Azure's soft art style itself is very pleasing, and its transfer to the game's overall aesthetics and character models are true to artist Yoshiku's designs.
Graphically the game is a bit of a letdown, and it is clear this title was also developed for the PlayStation 3 and on a less-than-massive budget. The character models themselves are directly taken from Yoshiku's art, but they often suffer from clipping due to their rigidity. Servan models suffer clipping as well, but it is less obvious.
In-engine cutscenes are what suffer most from the rigid models, as you see characters interact with one another and their clothes clip through their arms or whatever else comes in their way. It's not a huge issue, but it is something that is noticeable.
There are some framerate drops on the field, particularly when both Servans and bosses are using abilities. This is definitely noticeable, but ultimately these slowdowns do not last long and do not impact the overall gameplay experience.
Most of the music in Nights of Azure is pleasing but immemorable, sans a few exceptions -- my personal favorite being the the vocal track played at the Altar of Jorth. Some tracks certainly do stand far above the rest, but ultimately I couldn't see anyone throwing money at the soundtrack.
Nights of Azure was a huge surprise in just about every aspect, and proves you can't always judge a game by its (developer) cover. Gust did something different with this action RPG, and it turned out to be an intriguing and fun experience from start to finish. To be honest, I feel a bit bad for initially disregarding it.
I don't believe this niche title will make its way to many JRPG fans' game of the year lists, but it's more than a welcome addition to the PlayStation 4's RPG library and deserves more attention than publisher Koei Tecmo can afford to give it. This is evidenced by the total lack of marketing and a few typographical errors throughout the game--but that doesn't make it less worthy of attention from fans of the genre and it's a great effort from Gust as a new IP.
Nights of Azure will be overshadowed this year by bigger PS4 JRPG releases like Star Ocean: Integrity and Faithlessness and Final Fantasy XV, but its release being so early in the year means fans of the genre can pick this up and enjoy it in full before the big boys come and steal all the spotlight.
Full disclosure: Writer was provided a review copy of this game by the publisher.