It’s not difficult to notice the first thing that comes to mind when playing Nights of Azure, and that’s a high level of *ahem* fanservice, which can be offputting (or a massive boon for some) to players looking for something that takes itself seriously. But don’t let the ample bosoms fool you, Nights of Azure presents some very interesting story elements as well a simple, but effective combat system that might scratch that Action JRPG itch you might have had of late.
Nights of Azures’ developer, Gust Studios, is most well known for the Atelier game series, and they know very well how to cater to their anime fanbase. This presents a double-edged sword to any developer, as while such a following has a massive penchant for various anime tropes, like the power of love/friendship conquering all and stereotypical character archetypes like ‘magical girls’ etc, it’s very difficult to convince a wider market of your games’ potential when first impressions make such an impact in today’s market. One thing that Gust has done beautifully here though, is translate the anime art style into a game. There are others than have shown such skill in doing this, like the Naruto Ultimate Ninja Storm series, but here it’s presented without prior reference to existing manga, and is shown with a pseudo-victorian style that plays out extremely well. Simply put, the game’s style is gorgeous. The character models have a huge attention to detail (even if that detail is showing an awful lot of skin!) and a lot of the monster designs, while simple, are very well presented. The same cannot be said however for some of the landscapes and backdrops, which look like they belong on a PS3 rather than a PS4 long past it’s release. Nights of Azure also has a strange habit of missing words or letters in the subtitles for its’ characters, which is a peculiar omission that definitely becomes noticeable over the course of time playing it. This wouldn’t be such an issue if you weren’t forced to play the game in Japanese with English subtitles, which again, might appeal to the anime fanbase, but won’t to a great many others.
The combat system for Nights of Azure is surprisingly varied for an Action RPG, taking notes from Gust’s own Atelier series, with a dash of Namco’s Tales games and Kingdom Hearts. The brunt of combat is perfromed by Nights of Azure’s protagonist Arnice while being backed up by monsters called Servans. Controlling Arnice is pretty standard fare, with Square being light attack, Triangle being strong attack, Circle for dodge rolling and X for special attacks that consume magic resources. The Servans control themselves having various classes (Support, Melee, Magic etc) that perform their actions automatically short for a single command you can give to each one you have available during any given fight. While this system sounds very simplistic, like any RPG, it’s the nuances that make this system unique, and much of it is carried out in menus rather than the game itself, which, for me, is a bit of a pain, but micro-management activists will adore the amount you can play with in Nights of Azure. From weapon transformations, to Arnice’s form changes, to the Servans, there’s an absolute plethora of options and fine tuning here if you choose to go looking for it.
The story is an interesting turning point for games as a whole really, as it’s the first game (since Fear Effect 2) that unabashedly stars a lesbian couple as it’s protagonists. The world is perpetually night-time due to a god-like figure that is trying to devour the world, and Arnice, a half human/half demon working for an organisation that protects the world from said god by perpetually sacrificing ‘Saints’ in rituals to prevent the end of the world. Now, this is all very plain fantasy, but the ‘Saint’ in question during the game is Arnice’s girlfriend, Lilysse. I was initially irritated at the idea of the main character’s being a lesbian couple, due to being worried about it being a cheap exploitation of LGBT culture for the sake of attention, but having played more of the game, the subject matter is treated extremely respectfully, due to the relationship very much being shown as romantic, not sexual, and it not being presented explicitly differently to the way other games present heterosexual relationships. The tone is operatic in nature, with the idea of star-crossed lovers and tragic destiny, with a high anime fantasy twist, and honestly, I found it very refreshing. It’s unfortunate that the physical representation of the characters (little clothing, big breasts etc) almost undercuts the touching nature of the relationship at hand. This is particularly evident when levelling up Arnice, which is done through entering Lilysse’s dreams. You can pause to question Lilysse on how she really feels about what is happening around her, and some very touching exchanged are given, but because that Arnice is practically naked during these sequences, it becomes difficult to take them seriously.
There’s something to be said for Nights of Azures’ musical score, which is quite starkly different to other games that have demonic themes like Devil May Cry or Shin Megami Tensei. Where they would belt out rock/metalesque themes to each stage, Nights approaches things very differently with a much more melancholy, sombre tone to the majority of the set pieces. It’s both here and in the visuals (simple set-pieces, detailed characters) that opera houses are very much where Nights derives its’ inspirations. While it didn’t quite strike so well with the visuals (seriously, those backgrounds are dull!), it works beautifully with the soundtrack, even if early on some of the scores are a bit on the repetitive side.
All in all, Nights of Azure will very easily strike a chord with anime fans, particularly those who enjoy a bit of tenderness amongst their demon slaying. The Servan system shows a lot of potential, though I found it a little complex. While it’s very easy to be put off by the large amount of fan-service presented right at the start of the game, it’s well worth pushing past it to find very well explored themes of love, tragedy and destiny. Games like Nights of Azure remind me very much of titles like Nier, which, while flawed, hide beauty when looked at beneath the surface. Nights isn’t a game I would rush out to buy, but if you’re willing to give it a whirl, you might find something special.