Developer: Gust Corporation
Release Date: March 29, 2016
ESRB: T for Teen
Gust Corporation is definitely a creature of habit. Not that that it is necessarily a bad thing. I mean, I generally enjoy my near-yearly dosage of addictive item-crafting madness that comes from various Atelier titles, as well playing the few and far between successors to the music-centric role-playing-game: Ar Tonelico. It is just that, well, there is not much on their resume except for those types of RPGs.
This is why their newest localized title, Nights of Azure, ends up feeling like a surprise from Gust. For one, it is pure action-RPG when they have pretty much only made turn-based RPGs (let's pretend that Ar Tonelico Qoga's combat system does not exist when I say that...). Second, it is a title that plays around with an intentionally darker setting.
If you have seen any of the media for this game, it'll likely bring the relationship of the two heroines into question. Which, to answer the question in advance: Yes, the main characters Arnice and Lilysse are in-fact a couple... sorta. And. surprisingly, their intimate relationship is not done in a tasteless fanservice-y way, as it often feels like subtext than anything else.
Anyway, the reason for their close relationship has a lot of do with the setting. Many years ago the "Nightlord" was slayed by the First Saint. But, in the Nightlord's moment of death, he also caused the world to be irrevocably changed by raining his blood upon the land and causing the "Eternal Night". The blue blood that the Nightlord emitted caused much of what it touched to turn into demonic fiends and also allows the Nightlord himself to be revived at regular intervals.
So, the player assumes control of the newest Knight, or Agent, of church-like organization called the Curia by the name of Arnice. Arnice is tasked with killing fiends (possibly the Nightlord himself) and to also protect the Saint's successor, Lilysse, who can possibly delay the revival of the Nightlord with her sacrifice.
Nights of Azure secretly feels like a successor to Atlus's PS2 Devil Summoner titles. While there is no detective work involved (or the chance to beat up a mechanical Rasputin), Arnice can summon demons, or "Sevran", to fight at her side much like Raidou Kuzunoha. Actually, for better or worse, Nights of Azure also feels like a product of the PS2 era as well.
As an Action-RPG Nights of Azure feels very disjointed. That is not to say it is not fun at times. Arnice does have some flashy moves with her handful of weapons, various obtainable demon summons, and strong transformation abilities. Even a few of the late game bosses have a couple of clever gimmicks that they show off. However, the core structure more than wears out its welcome with many baffling design decisions and excessive backtracking. It also does not help that the combat is generally not deep or challenging enough to hold you over during that time. It feels like it is made by a development team without a strong grasp on how to structure an actual action-RPG.
This issue surfaces in a lot of ways. One very odd design decision it has is a time limit that constantly looms overhead every time you go out, and you have to return to the main hub (a hotel) before or when it expires. There really does not seem to be a strong reasoning for it existing beyond how leveling Sevran works, since it tallies their levels when you return. This alone can lead to many tedious moments with levels if the timer expires before reaching a boss's room or sporadic stage checkpoints. Miscellaneous tasks like accepting quests to kill monsters or pick up items, or a challenge based battle arena, also don't add much to the game either. The title is at its best when it showcases new battle scenarios as well as new sevran/abilities to play with, and that is more rare (and grindy) than it should be.
To add to the monotony of the level design is the necessity to revisit many areas for either main story quests or to see a new areas open up. Even though the world is apparently about to end, you are still required to do a lot of generally pointless tasks for the fairly flat supporting cast of characters. The male characters in particular basically have one shtick that almost defines their entire character, since one is obsessed with researching demons while the other is in love with money -- both are fairly annoying throughout.
It is a shame because it really feels that Gust had some solid ideas in store for the setting, but no characters that are mature or deep enough to tell it. This includes the main heroines as well which don't make their development very believable despite being the key towards saving the world. It becomes even more strange as characters will casually mention very dark things in relation to the world, but without any gravity behind it. For example, one of the quests that steers towards the "best ending" implies how an entire island was set aflame by the Curia, despite having humans and demons live peacefully there. That story device almost immediately gets brushed aside like it never happened by Arnice as well as the one who said it.
Still, not all of the good narrative ideas go to waste. Honestly, my favorite part of the storytelling is actually buried within several text-only short stories that you unlock. They certainly are not at the level of Lost Odyssey's fantastic "A Thousand Years of Dreams" content, but it does make Arnice's and Lilysse's relationship feel significantly more believable than how they act in the main story. Not only that, the core premise of the setting makes far more sense by simply reading the last chapter of these stories (that you unlock by beating the game the first time).
Perhaps the biggest treat of the entire game is actually the soundtrack. Unsurprisingly, it has the key composers of recent Atelier games, which have setting a fairly high bar with their musical scores as of late. It does not reach the level of some of the phenomenal tracks in Ar Tonelico titles but Nights of Azure manages stand on its own. There a lot of variety from operatic pieces, jazzy themes, to the occasional Castlevania-esque rock pieces that pleasantly accompany certain bosses and stages.
For the good intentions that Nights of Azure has as an action-RPG it stumbles in the most baffling ways. In raw mechanics, it would have been totally competent, but it actively finds various ways to more than wear out its welcome with excessive padding and an intrusive gameplay structure throughout. It also does not help that the storytelling and characters fall noticeably flat for a setting that actually has several neat ideas. If you can put with its many annoyances throughout Nights of Azure is a curious, albeit misguided, Action-RPG that does have some fun moments.
+ Fun moments in certain battles in addition to the various Sevran companions
+ Neat concepts are played around with for the world-building
+ Good soundtrack
- Chapters feel deliberately padded out by having you revisit areas or to randomly obtain items multiple times
- Combat is fairly shallow and is a cakewalk throughout most of the game
- Generally flat writing and characters
- Awkward time limit and leveling up structure
Overall Score: 6 (out of 10)
While it makes a lot of strange missteps, from a disjointed gameplay structure and awkward storytelling, Nights of Azure is a curious and occasionally fun endeavor from Gust Corporation that has several distinct ideas as an Action-RPG.
Disclosure: This game was reviewed using downloadable PS4 code provided by the publisher.