They Only Come Out at Night
Released in Japan back in October 2015, Nights of Azure introduced players to a darker tone than what most fans of developer Gust’s titles were used to. The beautiful colorful backgrounds and cute happy-go-lucky characters of the Atelier series had been replaced with decrepit dark alleyways and a mysterious sword-wielding half demon. This transition from the developer’s usual cutesey aesthetic to something decidedly more grim was a triumphant one thanks to the leadership of Deception and Fatal Frame producer Keisuke Kikuchi and the masterful art style and character designs of Yoshiku. With high praise from fans and critics alike and the West’s love for a more dark and gritty play style it was only fitting that Nights of Azure find a home in the North America and Europe.
Dark and mysterious tone aside, Nights of Azure is, for all intents and purposes, a story about true friendship. 800 years prior to the game’s start, the “Lord of the Night” was slain by a holy warrior. However, upon being defeated, his demonic blue blood covered the earth like rain; rotting and corrupting everything it touched. A large portion of humanity were poisoned by this blood and transformed into creatures called “fiends”, who stalk the streets at night slaughtering anything they can seek out. The boat-despising and seasick protagonist Arnice is a holy knight who serves a group called the Curia, whose purpose is to protect humanity from these creatures of the night.. Upon arriving on the uncharted island of Ruswal, Arnice is unexpectedly greeted by her old classmate and childhood friend Lilysse, who as a priestess has the ability purify the blue blood that Arnice gathers during her battles, and can also act as her guide around the island. Their friendship will soon be put to the ultimate test though, as Lilysse comes to find out that the Curia have requested that she be the next Saint who is to be sacrificed in order to keep the Lord of the Night sealed away for another period of so-called peace. Arnice refuses to believe that her close friend needs to be sacrificed and against the Curia’s plans, decides she should find another way to keep the Lord of the Night at bay. Lilysse, on the other hand, is proud that she’s been chosen as a Saint and accepts that she’s to be sacrificed in order to help mankind.
Nights of Azure’s story, albeit dark and gloomy, does have a nice dose of well-needed humor throughout its campaign. After a few chapters in, Arnice will come across a thieving merchant named Lloyd along with a perverted doctor and demonologist named Professor Alucard . These two odd characters wind up taking residence in the Hotel Ende, which is run by the Curia to house members of their establishment, and also aid others who wish to battle the fiends. They constantly berate each other, and their playful banter had me both laughing and rubbing my forehead in uneasiness, which for me is a good thing. Also, a rather humorous big part of the story is Lilysse’s inability to make cupcakes or to cook anything all for that matter. As the campaign moves forward, it becomes a running joke on which character has the guts to taste one of the saint’s new recipes or drink come odd concoction that she proudly whipped up. All the humor moved the story along very nicely and also added a big heap of charm to all of the characters.
The aforementioned Hotel Ende is located at the center of the island’s map and will act as the main headquarters where you will spend your time in between missions. It’s here that you can equip items that you’ve found in battle and also sell or purchase upgrades from the hotel’s manager, Simon (can you see the Castlevania references?). The story will progress here as well and is easily done so by interacting with characters that have the word “event” in a thought bubble above their head. Some of these events can be ignored, but if you’re really interested in learning more about a character’s backstory and the game’s lore I strongly suggest you not skip them. A hotel wouldn’t be a hotel without a room, and you’ve been set up in one of the best suites in the building, but I really didn’t see much reason to visit since there isn’t much to do in there. The hotel as a whole gives off the feeling of a ghost town and is full of areas that just seem empty and rather underutilized in contrast to the amount of detail seen throughout its décor.
Enhancing Arnice’s abilities and leveling up is achieved by spending the Blue Blood that she’s accumulated during battle, and this is all done via a dream sequence that can only be accessed by using the elevator in the hotel. It’s an odd design choice to have to level up in such a way and not just gain new abilities during battle, but most leveling up sequences have a piece of the game’s story built around it. Another odd game design is that the artifacts you collect in treasure chests or dropped by fiends during battle cannot be accessed until you return to the hotel. On several occasions I was excited to find an item, but by the time I beat the stage and its boss I completely forgot I found said item. Getting excited about finding new gear is downplayed since attire such as top hats or other articles of clothing when equipped do not change characters visible appearance at all. Adding to the disappointing items is the confusing menu that is in place for comparing them. For instance, when an item is selected an up blue arrow and red down arrow will be displayed letting you know how that item will affect your current stats, but every item I found didn’t seem to help since most of the time removing the current item drops a large amount of points in one category but add very little in another. It was a rare moment when I finally found an item worth keeping, and by the time I was able to equip the item I’d notice that I had found a stronger piece of equipment during my travels anyway. There are just too many items in the game and most just seem like filler and not worth even keeping.
Fortunately, Nights of Azure‘s battle system is implemented leaps and bounds better than the game’s clunky menus thanks to Gust’s decision to implement an action RPG style over the studio’s traditional turn-based combat. Hack-and-slash slash is main ingredient here, and it’s extremely satisfying, albeit repetitive, up until the latter part of the game. Controls are broken down into light, heavy, and special attacks that can easily be strung together as combos. Pulling off a combo and capping it off with a powerful special attack felt very rewarding, especially when juggling several enemies at once, as their blue blood splattered beneath my feet. The special attack will require a significant amount of SP to pull off, but it’s extremely powerful and totally bad ass. Arnice’s has a total of 3 meters to pay close attention to: HP, SP, and a special meter that can be filled by performing attacks and combos. Once the Special meter is full, she has the ability to change form and become a fiend crushing powerhouse for a set period of time. The demon form acquired at the start of the game will accompany a few other forms that Arnice will gain access to throughout the campaign. These forms will offer different ways to play the game and add a much needed freshness to a combat system that eventually gets repetitive.
Joining Arnice in battle are familiar-like creatures called Servan who can be given orders during combat. These Servan are broken down into set categories such as healers, defense, and offense and can be called upon at any time to assist Arnice in battle. Servan will gain experience with each use and can also be equipped with items found throughout the map or dropped by defeated enemies. At the beginning of the campaign, you will have a set amount of Servan but as you progress more will join you in the fight. During break sequences back at the hotel these characters can be interacted with and will offer insight, backstory, and sometimes humorous banter that, again, adds to the games charm. Unfortunately, with each Servan come two meters that you must pay close attention to that in return can become confusing since you’re going to be mainly focused on your own. On a normal battle screen you will have HP and SP for you and each of your Servan and also your special form meter which leads to a total of 11 meters to follow. It’s a bit overwhelming seeing all of this, especially during boss battles, but Nights of Azure’s difficulty seems to always be set on easy mode, so taking your eyes off a meter isn’t completely punishing. Throughout my campaign I believe I only died once, and that was just because I forgot to pause the game while jotting down some notes. Unfortunately, a difficulty setting is nowhere to be found in the options menu, and I think that will be a disappointment for gamers looking for more of a challenge.
Throughout the story you will be able to unlock and choose where at on the map you would like to begin your night of fiend slaying. Nights are broken down into 15-minute increments and if you reach the end of the countdown you will find yourself back at the hotel, but I never felt the need to rush or saw the timer get even close to the 0:00 mark, since doorways that lead back to the hotel act as checkpoints and are placed in the middle of each area of the map. If you use these doors your night will end and you will be able to start a new night either at the beginning of that section of the map or the doorway in the middle. Traversing the map during battles can be very confusing, since it’s only displayed in small portions and the lack of a compass or waypoint is really a design flaw that should be patched with an update further down the line. There have been countless times I just didn’t’ know what part of the map I should be on in order to progress the story simply because I was lost or accidentally entered a part of the island where nothing was going on. Since the full map isn’t accessible, it was hard to determine what exit I should be working my way toward because some parts of the map have several exits that lead to different areas. Because of this I found navigation extremely confusing. But as I said before, the game is pretty easy, so getting lost wasn’t a total letdown, but it did add to the games repetition.
Nights of Azure is an overall fun experience that I would recommend to gamers who want a good story and don’t mind a relative lack of challenge. Clunky menu navigation, a map that surprisingly lacks a compass and waypoint, and a few other issues hold it back from being great. However, I believe the overall tone and great character designs overshadow these issues, but they should still be considered before taking the plunge.
Final Verdict: 3.5/5
Available on: PlayStation 4 (Reviewed) ; Publisher: Koei Tecmo America ; Developer: Gust Co. ; Players: 1; Released: Match 29, 2016; Genre: RPG ; MSRP: $59.99
Full disclosure: This review was written based on review code supplied by the game’s publisher, Koei Tecmo America.