Nights of Azure PS4 Review

I find it refreshing when a company breaks up their flow of expected releases with a new intellectual property. Gust is such a perfect example of this, and anyone who follows Japanese RPGs has probably heard of the studio. Since 1997, the developer has released 17 Atelier games across multiple platforms. Gust’s latest game is still an Japanese RPG, but moves away from turn-based gameplay and into the realm of hack-and-slash, real-time action with a twist of role-playing elements. The game comes with a darker theme than fans might expect from the developer, but one thing Gust followers will notice is that Nights of Azure upholds the studio’s love for beautiful art styles and female leads.

The focus of Nights of Azure is around the two main characters. Players take control of Arnice, a heroine who is a knight serving an organisation known as Curia. Arnice is special, since her blood is a mixture of half-human, half-demon, making her rather great at her job, which is to hunt and destroy the nasty creatures that inhabit Rusewall Island, a place somewhere hidden in what looks like to be the North Sea. The other main character, Lilysse, is also on the same island. The two are long time friends since childhood, who are reunited when they are tasked with taking down the Nightlord, the ultimate evil in this world who will make it succumb to all time darkness. The last time the Nightlord was defeated was due to the sacrifice from a Saint. Sadly for the world, this is only an temporary solution, and so a new Saint is required to offer herself to seal away the danger. Unfortunate for Arnice, her friendship with Lilysse is blossoming into more than that, but as their love for each other grows, the lingering outcome of Lilysse being the new Saint is pain the two ladies have to deal with.

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There have been plenty of stories in various medium where a main character has the dread of giving up their life to save the world, so that is not much of a unique trait for Nights of Azure. One enjoyable part of the story though is the relationship between Arnice and Lilysse. Arnice is the strong type, the one who doesn’t want to believe that the only option for Lilysse is to die, while Lilysse is the clumsy one, but deep down is smart to come to terms with her journey’s end. While the game never says these two are lovers, it’s visible through their actions towards each other, and that is Nights of Azure‘s greatest achievement, it manages to display the affection of these two female characters without having to scream it at you, or come with any shaming. It comes across as normal in this world – no one bats an eyelid – and that is an wonderful thing to see. It’s only soiled by some of the fan-service that crops up a little. It also helps that the two characters are enjoyable to be around, making their on-screen presence a pleasant one during this 20 hour adventure.

But the story isn’t excused from problems, especially when it comes to Nights of Azure‘s pacing. There are a lot of cutscenes that are simply filler, adding nothing to the story or to the development of the characters. I don’t mind small inclusions for characters to show their fun side or to allow downtime from the seriousness of the overall plot, but there are plenty of stop-start scenes between the game’s action that happens way more than I liked. It interrupts the flow of the game, and some scenes don’t go anywhere or add any insight to the personality of the characters involved. It’s a pity that the dialogue (or maybe the translation?) in those scenes feels bland, because deep down, Nights of Azure is trying to showcase a mature theme about love, death and the moral conflict of using what is bad to pursue a goal for love or something good.

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Producing an Action RPG is something new for the development team, and it seems that they did not want to make it over complicated. It’s very easy to grasp the combat mechanics in Nights of Azure. Arnice has a light and strong attack that can be mixed up for some very basic combinations, a dodge and a special attack that will zap the skill points for a damaging, flashy combo. Combat is simpler than a Dynasty Warriors game, but to be fair to that series, those have been adding more strings to the combo system that you can mix the action up a fair amount. In Nights of Azure, I felt I was limited in my combo strings. There are eventually four weapons, the starting sword, dual blades, a bow and a hammer (all easily switched with a d-pad direction), that mixes up the monotonous of the combo animations, and you can transform into various demon forms for mass damage and easy monster eradication, but there isn’t anything deep to experience with this game’s basic melee combat. It’s incredibly fast action, but ultimately falls to repetition as the game progresses on.

More interesting to me was the addition of Servans, which wholly reminded me of those unappreciated Lost Kingdom games on the GameCube by From Software. Servans are small demons that can be summoned to hang around Arnice and help her in various ways. Unlike Lost Kingdoms, Servans have health and magic bars, and will stay summoned until their HP is drained. Each Servan fills a specific role – attackers, defenders, healers, trickster – and so it comes down to deciding which one will benefit you the most. Servans are control by AI, so they go about their business based on one of four commands that can be issued. Arnice does have some interaction with her Servans, as activating their skills – usually a buffed version of their standard move – can be done at the cost of skill points, which are also used to summon the Servans.

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Arnice can only activate four at a time, but being able to switch deck allows for multiple groups of four, but you cannot summon a Servan from a different deck,  so having variety in each set of four is recommended. The combat with the Servan makes the game on the easy side. You never rarely get challenged unless enemies are higher leveled than Arnice or it’s a boss with a few dirty tactics up its sleeve. Servans gather experience points from battle and become stronger through leveling up or feeding them items called fetishes. These fetishes can also be summoned into new Servans to build a small collection to use as you see fit. A little touch is that these Servans do have character – they aren’t just soulless monsters to abuse – and while their dialogue is repetitive in battle, during their chill out sessions at the hotel, they will chat about random topics with Arnice.

The Hotel is a key building for Arnice and her friends, acting as a hub for everything that isn’t exploring the city’s locations. Plenty of cutscenes happen here, as it’s where the majority of the characters hang out. Story missions and side quests are colleceted from the hotel. Due to the story, all missions are set during night and are given a 15 minute countdown before Arnice is sent back to the Hotel for safety. The timer seems worthless, as missions are quickly over and sections of the map are split, featuring teleport points that unlock once discovered. I never once felt like I was stressing because of time restraint.

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Most side quests are kill x number of monsters or find an item in an area of town, and game likes to make sure Arnice is revisiting locations. Side quests help to gain money to buy or import items to equip on Arnice or the Servans, while blood from killing enemies is used to level up Arnice. The hub is the only place where she can level up, making her quite different from the Servans, who level during combat. Daytime quests are nothing more than short snippet of text that buff passive skills. It would have been nice to see these optional advents add more to the game, similar to Persona 4‘s character dialogue with NPCs during social links.

Visually, Nights of Azure is an interesting one. It’s not a showcase for the PlayStation 4, due to the game also being on Vita and PS3 in Japan. That said, there is something appealing about its European x Gothic visual style. Gust has been using this darker cel-shading technique for some of its second trilogy PS3 Atelier games, and seeing it on the PlayStation 4 showcases the game’s vibrant, yet dark aesthetics. It’s a crisp, clean looking title with lovely character models,but their animations are stiff. The game suffers from having interesting themed environments turn into mundane and boxy designs, and the overall presentation is spoiled with frame rate issues during combat, as chugs will occur for a second or two when the action gets packed with enemies or special effects. There is only a Japanese voice track available, unusual, as the Atelier games normally come with an adorable English voice cast. The soundtrack is a mixture of guitar riffs for its combat and more calming ambient, almost jazzy elevator music, for its quiet situations, but it never excels at being anything other than fairly enjoyable for the moment.

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Nights of Azure has a story that could have been great, especially with its same-sex relationship between the two main characters coming across as natural and not judged in the game’s world. There is a hint of good here that gets spoiled with the game’s filler content that does not benefit the characters’ or the game’s pacing. Action can be flashy, and the idea of Servans is one I totally dig, but is too straightforward and eventually leads into repetitiveness due to this simplicity. Nights of Azure can be enjoyable for what it is – an adequate action game with RPG elements – and some people will find sections to like, but it’s not one of Gust’s best, let down with a lack of depth, stopping it being as gratifying as the recent Atelier games. Either way, this should not put Gust off from creating more new titles, as these shortcomings could be fixed in another attempt in the future.

6 out of 10