Outside the Lines
Out there in the gaming world, there are a number of series that are known for sticking to one thing, whether they do it well or not. Koei Tecmo’s Warriors series has button-massing hack-and-slash down to a science. The Zelda series generally sticks to their eight-dungeons-and-a-final-boss kind of formula, with some change-ups here and there. Tales likes its action-RPG gameplay and mid-story gut punches. Its what the series are known for, and its what gamers expect and even become fans of, so there’s not much reason to stray greatly from the formula.
Sometimes, though, the series reach out and try something new. Warriors has their “Empires” subline that injects strategy gameplay, Zelda has Zelda II and its unusual side-scrolling setup, and Tales just recently released Tales of Link, a shape-matching game at its heart. While experiments like this can be hit or miss, they can help to bring in whole new demographics to a long running series, and give current fans something new to try.
Rarer, but not unheard of, are entire companies that stick to one thing. For example, the creater of the game we’re looking at today: Gust. Gust is a Japanese developer well-known for creating JRPGs with strong item-crafting/alchemy aspects, with their two most well-known series being Atelier and Ar Tonelico. In the last few years, the company has become especially well-known for its relatively laid-back slice-of-life-esque Atelier entries that have made it to the West.
However, with the game we’re looking at today, Gust decided to try something brand new: a hack-and-slash action-RPG.
Developed by Gust and published by Koei Tecmo, Nights of Azure was released in the US on March 29th, 2016. The game was released as a PlayStation 4 exclusive.
Bathe in Blood
Nights of Azure takes place right here on Earth, on an uncharted island somewhere off the coast of England. Years prior to the start of the game, humanity fought a war against a demon known as the Nightlord, and managed to defeat him. However, upon his defeat, “Blue Blood” emerged from the Nightlord and his monsters and washed over the world, turning those who come in contact with it into demons. Nighttime is now ruled by these demons, causing many to fear even sleeping.
Now, years after the war, signs appearing in the moon are foreshadowing the Nightlord’s return. In order to keep him sealed, a person known as a Saint must perform a ritual. Enter Arnice, a knight in the employ of a mysterious group known as the Curia, and tasked with ensuring the Saint follows through in this ritual. Arnice arrives at the uncharted island, where she has a chance encounter with an old friend: Lilysse.
As it turns out, Lilysse has been selected as the Saint. With this revelation, Arnice sets out to protect Lilysse from the ever-expanding demon horde and assist her in resetting the seal on the Nightlord…at whatever cost.
The main story behind Nights of Azure is intriguing, if not particularly groundbreaking. One of the selling points of the game is that the story is one of the darkest that Gust has written, but there is little that I would call exceptionally dark or dramatic.
Outside of the main plot, the game falls into Gust’s trademark laid-back non-urgent style with the relationships between its characters. Between missions, you’ll be getting to know your characters, assisting them in picking out art to display in your base of operations (a hotel), and sampling Lilysse’s baked treats. While these quieter moments to develop the characters are appreciated, the sudden switch between heavy plot and light-hearted antics can be abrupt and jarring.
Unfortunately, the translation job for Nights of Azure is something that I’d best describe as “rushed and unedited.” There are awkward line breaks abound in dialogue, glaring typos here and there, and some particularly stand-out mistranslations. One obvoius mistake I noticed occurred during shopping screens. Selecting items prompts a dialogue box asking some permutation of “Are you done shopping?” What it should really be asking is “Do you want to purchase this?,” as selecting yes or no decides whether you purchase the items or not.
Master and Servan
As mentioned earlier, Nights of Azure is Gust’s foray into the action-RPG arena, presenting a hack-and-slash style that I found pretty similar to the PS2 game Chaos Legion. Arnice starts the game off carrying a single sword, with a couple of attack options available: your typical soft-hit and hard-hit attacks. She also has a special attack available at any time with the press of the X button, so long as you have enough energy to use it.
The game’s unique mechanic (and the source of my comparison to Chaos Legion) is the ability to summon various creatures called Servans to the field to assist you. You can have a team of four different Servans equipped to call on (with the eventual ability to swap between teams on the fly), and while your lead Servan is pre-summoned at the start of each stage, the rest have cost energy to summon.
Servans offer a wide variety of abilities, ranging from offensive to defensive and some that are support-only. Each one has an ability that is activated upon summoning, and afterwards they will run on AI, assisting you in various ways. Each Servan also has their own energy pool, which you can use to command them to activate special skills. There are a fair number of Servans available in the game, which are obtained by collecting items called Fetishes within each stage. Between stages, you can spend the Blue Blood you collect from fallen enemies to turn these Fetishes into Servans.
Setting up and utilizing your Servan teams is the highlight of Nights of Azure‘s gameplay, as they allow you to tailor your loadout to your own playstyle, or to the challenges ahead. Whether you prefer to play defensively or go in guns blazing, there are a surprising number of options.
The trouble in the battle gameplay comes in the amount of time it takes to make all of these options available. Arnice’s moveset is extremely limited at the beginning of the game, and the initial Servan loadout given to you is rather uninteresting (and quickly becomes useless). However, new skills and Servans are doled out in small amounts, and not nearly often enough, making the first few hours of gameplay rather dull.
I mentioned it in passing earlier, but the use of Blue Blood is another major mechanic of this game. While you can collect gold throughout the game to use in various shops, the Blue Blood you gather can be used in multiple ways: creating Servans from Fetishes, purchasing special items, or increasing Arnice’s skills. Unless you’re willing to put your nose to the grindstone, rationing and allocating your Blue Blood between these uses becomes important throughout the early and mid-game.
After my first session with Nights of Azure, I was left wondering, “Why is this a PS4 exclusive?” The way I would describe the graphical presentation of the game is rather low budget. While some of the character designs are interesting, their animations leave much to be desired. Arnice’s hair whips around wildly and clips through itself if you’re moving any faster than a slow walk. During most dialogue scenes, characters move and animate in obvious programmed cycles, rather than any attempt at seemingly natural movement. Facial expressions are limited, leaving characters with awkward smiles on their faces during heated arguments or darker plot points.
I often say that certain titles don’t push their consoles to near their potential, but this game just doesn’t feel like it even belongs on the PS4. Lo and behold, though, while doing some background research on the game for this review, it turns out Nights of Azure was a multi-generation release in Japan. The game was also released on the PS3 and Vita overseas, which explains quite a lot; it feels like it was developed for last-gen systems and then ported over. This really begs the question, though: why choose to only localize the PS4 version?
Like I said, though, at least the character designs are mostly interesting and unique. Arnice and Lilysse have a bit of fanservicey over-endowment in the breast region (and said breasts and their…bounciness…seem to have the smoothest animation of anything in the game), and Arnice gets stripped down to the smallest bikini you can imagine during certain moments, but their designs in general are done well.
Keys and Screams
Much like the story and gameplay, the music of Nights of Azure has two distinct modes: laid-back and chill, and blood-pumping action. During battle segments, the game is accompanied by standard action game power rock: wailing guitars, driving drums, some strings in the background, and an occasional choir or two. The music here is listenable, but doesn’t really stand out.
The quieter pieces during the character segments and time between missions, though, is much more of a highlight. There’s a number of excellent piano and string pieces on this soundtrack, and you’ll hear most of them during these quieter moments. These pieces fit the character interactions and lighter segments well, and are great tracks in their own right.
The game also includes voice acting during cutscenes and battle, and it is in Japanese only. While I might not understand the language, though, the acting is rather lackluster. A number of performances (especially that of the manager of your base/hotel, Simon) come off as flat and nearly monotone. Others (like Lilysse’s, in my opinion) reach the other end of the spectrum and come across as being way too overacted, to the point of sounding like a satire of anime voice actors.
Are You Done Shopping?
Overall, while most of the battle gameplay in Nights of Azure develops into something entertaining, the package as a whole is rather lackluster. The lack of effort in translation and editing, along with the disappointing visual style, practically scream “budget game,” so much so that I had to check and confirm whether it was or not. This game is definitely not worth a full-price release.
However, looking at it through the filter of “budget game,” Nights of Azure provides some decent entertainment with a good soundtrack. The story is more than passable, and the battle system is entertaining once you unlock more skills and Servans to use. If you can hold off until it goes on sale or discount, or can find it for rental, this game is worth a few days of quick fun. As a new $60 release, though, I would look elsewhere for your next gaming investment.
~ Final Score: 5/10 ~
Review copy provided by Koei Tecmo for PS4. Screenshots taken by reviewer.