For a developer that has built its reputation on turn-based RPG games, Gust’s choice to make Nights of Azure an Action RPG had me concerned when it was first announced. Thankfully, it turned out well, and they didn’t even need to whore out the Atelier name to make it work. It plays somewhat like a simplified Devil May Cry with the additional touch of monster catching and summoning to assist you in battle. That’s enough for the preview. If you’d like to know more about our new lady Arnice and her struggle against the Eternal Night, read on for our full Nights of Azure Review.
Look and Feel
Gust has developed a distinct art style over the years and it makes a welcome return with a few improvements and some awkward decisions in this game. If you like a bit of anime, the character designs, while somewhat unique in their own way, will ring a familiar bell. Almost too much, at points. Large breasted, long haired females: check. Spike-haired males: check. Dutiful butler type: check. I mean, there are clearly some tropes, but the animation quality surpasses that of anime game Gust has come through with before, and as a fan of their style, I’m glad about this observation.
Speaking of animation quality, I applaud the attempt at making the characters interact in a more natural way in this game, but truthfully, it’s limited to just the two main characters Arnice and Lilysse, and a lot of the time, it just feels awkward to the point of being near-cringe-worthy. Though it was easy enough to look past as the game attempts to portray their relationship, the dance scene (two, actually) and the hug from behind just felt completely off to me due to the stiffness of the models. Again, they’re improved well beyond that of previous games, and I’m glad these scenes haven’t just been relegated to an (admittedly awesome in previous works) anime cut-scene, but the models simply aren’t expressive enough. You can make the boobs jiggle but you can’t make the hug look real? That’s a hang-up for me. Hopefully future titles will have more effort invested in this regard, as well as including the other characters in on the advancements.
The mood is set by the game’s impressive soundtrack. From the laid-back Hotel theme to the sweeping Boss battle arrangements, I can hardly commend the team enough. As well as the music, the game features a mostly fully-voice acted cast (though only in Japanese). If there are any moments without voice-acted dialogue between human characters, it’s so minimal, I can’t recall it. This is important. There’s a great deal of dialogue in this game that could have quite easily been demoted to text-only, but they put the effort in to cover almost everything.
In combat, the visuals are standard. Combat animations are fluid, spells and effects come off well enough. No complaints, but no real standout moments either. Though the various character transformations and monster designs are impressive. Some monsters are callbacks to Gust’s previous games. In fact, many are. It’s a nice bit of fan-service.
Speaking of fan service, one moment that felt unnecessary was the “let’s have Arnice nearly naked in the dream world where she levels up” decision. The game claims its because the blood Arnice has to offer is more easily absorbed through the skin…. ok, Japan. I hear you. I’m not against it necessarily, but please don’t try to make excuses for your desire to look at anime boobs. Just do your thing if that’s what it is.
There are also some mistakes in the English subtitles. Not too often, but they pop up from time to time. Not translation mistakes, which would be fine enough, but typographical errors. Surprising that nobody caught those.
A huge compliment to the loading times. They’re almost instantaneous at every turn. The game’s not pushing graphical limitations, I know, but quick loading in an action-based game is vital, and they delivered this time.
One final thing: the way that fiends change as they level up is awesome. From vibrant colour changes to changes in size and features, a lot of thought went in to the fiend system and I truly enjoyed that.
On a whole, the Look and Feel of this game are completely as I expected them to be. The main character has a unique yet familiar design that, practically, often makes no sense, but who’s too fussed? She’s wearing goggles, a red tie and she’s kicking demon arse. The goggles and tie do nothing. She’s a variant Akame from Akame ga Kill. The music is the standout pick of its presentation and the performance is consistent throughout the game.
Here’s the gist: Night Arnice has been sent by the Curia organisation to investigate the fiend activity on Ruswal Island. She’s met by her old friend, Lilysse; a priestess in training, and they set off to reach the Ende Hotel. Along the way, Lilysse is taken by a creature of the night and Arnice sets off to rescue her. As she does, she learns of the Nightlord’s plans to cover the world in Eternal Night upon its resurrection, and thus, is pulled in to the greater narrative threat.
The focus shifts pretty swiftly to the relationship between Arnice and Lilysse. It’s a tale of fate, friendship and the love between two young ladies. The end. Unless you want spoilers, ‘cos there’s spoilers to be had! ….well, no. Kind of? It’s just not an amazing story by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s not horrible, it’s just light and fails to deliver on its setup.
The Curia, for example, never feel like a threat. The characters do their best to make you think that there’s this huge organisation and it ends up being about 2 people essentially. I’m sure it’s more in the lore, but that presence is never felt here. The whole “conspiracy” angle just didn’t matter. It served to create tension between our two protagonists, but that’s about it.
I will say, as I have before, that they’ve done a lot more in just the back and forth between Arnice and Lilysse to deepen character interaction, which is important, because Gust’s games often rely on you liking these characters. I absolutely do like Arnice, Lilysse less so, but the side characters are few and inconsequential. Outside of Simon, the Hotel Manager, they could have been absent and I never would have noticed. They might direct the narrative from time to time, but they didn’t need to be there.
That said, the lore itself is pretty deep. Information regarding the Nightlord, your own Demon Sword and various worldly events can be obtained during dream sequences, so these moments of exposition were appreciated, but the battles that result are mostly meaningless fodder. Given how enjoyable the gameplay is, I don’t mind, but I didn’t ever truly feel like I was up against anything despite the way the game attempts to portray itself.
The game tries very hard to drive home a narrative that, ultimately, didn’t work for me. I did, however, find myself enjoying some of the smaller moments between characters and it has some through-line jokes that work well. Never try Lilysse’s cooking. Don’t trust Lloyd and never become Alucard’s research assistant. Simon’s cool though. Respect Simon.
Without a doubt the saving grace of this game is its gameplay. It’s a fairly fast-paced Action-RPG with the ability to switch weapons on the fly and summon up to four monsters at once to fight alongside you. By taking down fiends, you’ll gain blue blood, which acts as experience points, and whenever you return to the hub area of Ende Hotel, they’ll automatically be divided up amongst your party monsters (even if you didn’t use them). Arnice herself will also store an equivalent amount of Blue Blood to level herself up at the Altar of Jorth; a dream world you can access at any time via the Ende Hotel Elevator.
When going out in to the world, in typical Gust form, you are faced with a map that you can pick where to go from. The difference in this game is that, eventually, all of these areas are connected. You could start at the beginning stage and walk your way to the end game (providing you can make it there in the maximum upgraded time limit of 20 minutes) without needing to toggle back to the map. It’s refreshing to have such an interconnected world in a Gust game.
That’s a lot to take in, I know, but it’s fairly simple in practice. Arguably the most interesting aspect of the game is the Fiend Recruitment. By gathering dropped fetishes from dead fiends, treasure chests or vendors found through the world, you can “Actualize” these items in to becoming fiends that serve you for a varying amount of blue blood. These fiends can then be put in to your “deck” of four monsters (of which you can carry out 4 decks once fully upgraded) and they can be used with combination of shoulder button and corresponding face button i.e. if I wanted to summon my mighty Tamas, I’d press R1 and X. Once summoned, each monster will actively engage enemies in a way that befits one of the four tactical orders you can shift between with a quick button press. They also have a special ability called “Burst” that can be activated in the same way that they can be summoned. If your monsters are defeated, they will be set to a cooldown that can be lowered with various equippable items and learnable skills as they level up. Once the cooldown is set, if you have enough SP remaining, you can bring them back out. Also, if you have an additional deck, you can switch to the next deck any time by pressing R2. This will dismiss your current loadout and allow you to summon the four you’re currently holding.
That’s a point: I haven’t mentioned the resource meters. They’re simple: Health bar, SP (mana bar) that regenerates over time and with successful hits, and a transformation bar that builds as you fight.
Arnice isn’t relegated to the side-lines. She fights actively with her demon sword and later with differing weapons of varying effectiveness, similar to Devil May Cry as I mentioned earlier. In the late game, one weapon becomes the definitively superior one to use, but it’s so far in that it doesn’t cause a balancing issue. Each weapon follows the same button prompts as any other: light attack, strong attack and super attack. In my experience, the super attacks aren’t worth using, and the game isn’t really that difficult to the point that these weapons offer any real tactical advantage (perhaps the hammer. It can stun enemies quickly), so I found myself using the basic sword right up until that late-game addition. Your combat prowess mainly falls to the fiends at your disposal, so it’s best to bare that in mind as you go.
My one major issue with Arnice’s combat is her inability to cancel out of certain combinations with her dodge roll. In a sea of action games, we’ve become accustomed to being able to get out of danger at the touch of a dodge, but Arnice refuses to respond to this prompt during the second attack in a chain or above in my time with the game. It’s an issue when you’re swarmed by enemies and need a quick escape, there’s none to be had. It’s a poor execution of the dodge mechanic.
Transformations? They’re pretty good. Arnice can transform in to one of 5 forms when her meter is full. The form she’ll take depends on the monster types in the deck. Each monster has a coloured light set beneath them in the deck loadout between one to five. If the cumulative value of the four monsters is above ten, then depending on the dominant colour, Arnice will take that form with that deck. The forms are Demon (Red), Rabbit (Yellow), Phantom (Blue), Armour (Purple) and Nightmare (White). Each form has its own abilities (think Kingdom Hearts 2 with Sora’s Keyblade Forms) and enhances a specific aspect of Arnice’s fiends for the duration of its limited time use. They’re fantastic designs and they help against the more difficult bosses later on.
Another progression system is the Skill tree, completely separate from the Blue Blood leveling system. Skills are mostly quality-of-life improvements, like additional equipment slots, longer transformation times and the ability to accept more quests, which we’ll get in to the ridiculousness of later. Skills can only be improved with the four skill-based points achieved through leveling up at the Altar and by spending enough time outside with “Daytime Activities” set to active. For example, you have a standard 15-minute time limit to be outside before you’re automatically returned to the Hotel. Most things can be accomplished in this time and there are checkpoints throughout levels that act as shortcuts. If you’re out at night for around four or more minutes, you’ll return to be met with your blue blood screen, items earned and then you’ll see a summary of your chosen daily activity results. The more of these daily activities you do (which just happen automatically), the more you’ll get access to, providing greater bonuses and thus more skill points to spend on skills. As this takes practically no effort, it’s worth setting these up. You don’t need to alter them outside of accepting Daytime Activities Quests from Simon which, upon completion, will default your first Daytime quest slot to the original activity.
Quests, you say? Yes. Quests. Though the game has a main game quest and some side-quests from the various characters in the Hotel, you can accept quests from Simon at the Hotel Desk or Bar. These are divided in to Night Quests, which you actively engage in and complete, and Daytime Quests that just take up a Daily Activity Slot for the one night before completion and require no actual input to complete outside of being in the field for long enough to register completion (again, about four minutes). My PROBLEM with these quests? Why in the BLUE HELL am I limited to one at the beginning? Oh, you can expand this up to a whoop-dee-doo grand total of three by the end, but seriously. Most of them are just “Slay these monsters: *enter monster name and quantity*”. I should be able to take a thousand of these. It makes zero sense to limit you. Even though it’s so easy to come and go from the Hotel, and even though the load time are great, this is a stupid restriction that actively turned me away from doing quests.
There’s a huge amount of equipment to choose from. Arnice has one slot and can be upgraded to four and the fiends have a slot each to themselves. They not only enhance certain statistics, but they also provide additional bonuses like additional blue blood or item drops. Some of them get a bit risk-reward, with a heavy lean on the risk, but there’s a lot of choice ultimately. The only missing piece I lament is perhaps new weapon upgrades for Arnice. Not to change the weapons you’ve obtained, but just a way to improve them beyond the standard stat-rise in the level up phase.
So yes, I have a few gripes, but you know what? The game’s still so very good in the gameplay department. It gets a difficulty spike after the end of the game when you return for the “true ending”, seeing as all of those monsters are above the standard level cap of both yourself and your fiends, but that’s entirely optional. The Main Game is pretty well balanced throughout and I enjoyed the monster summoning system. I hope it makes a return, or perhaps even impacts future Atelier games! That’d be awesome.
A final note: I really enjoyed the Extras at the main menu once the game had been completed. You can comb through the music of the game and see a particular note on each track from the team about what brought this music to life. Couple that with the extensive character models and concept art and it’s just a great nod to Gust fans.
Nights of Azure is an interesting aside for Gust. Filled with content to enjoy if the gameplay grips you, it could keep you busy for a while to come. Fiend recruitment deserves to return. In my opinion, the IP does in general, but the game has some awkward animation issues that need to be rectified if they want the audience to feel involved in the relationship dynamics between these characters. Either that, or take a step back from it, but I’d prefer they embrace this change and keep pushing forward with it. The experience has been a good one and I’m still chipping away at the post-game content and New Game Plus. Definitely give this a shot.
Game: Nights of Azure
Review Format: Playstation 4