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Disclosure: the author was provided with a review code for the game courtesy of Koei Tecmo America
Publisher: Koei Tecmo
Developer: Gust Co. Ltd.
Platforms: PlayStation 4 (PS3 and Vita versions exclusive to Japan)
Outside of the dedicated dating sim genre, romances in video games still feel surprisingly rare. I can’t think of many games that have focused on a love story aside from Final Fantasy VIII and X – the former of which sports a logo of its starring couple together in a deep embrace. While Gust’s PlayStation 4 title Nights of Azure isn’t exactly a marvel of storytelling, it does stand out for featuring an endearing and unconventional romance as the primary motivator for its main characters.
Nights of Azure takes place in Ruswal; a fictional European island where every night is haunted by vicious demons. An organisation of slayers known as the Curia believe the island will soon bear witness to the resurrection of the Nightlord; the master of all fiends who aims to blanket the world in an eternal night, and cast all humans into an endless sleep. The Curia send their top agent – a half-human, half-demon woman named Arnice – to the island in order to bring an end to the demonic nights. Upon arriving at Ruswal, she finds her old friend Lilysse has also been ordered to the island in order to assist Arnice. The two are overjoyed at reuniting, but the unfortunate news arrives that Lilysse has been chosen as the new ‘Saint’ – a girl who will have to be sacrificed by Arnice in order to save humanity from the Nightlord. Lilysse has accepted this fate, but Arnice is deeply conflicted; she must fulfill her duty and defeat the Nightlord, but can she bring herself to kill the love of her life in order to do so?
The game isn’t at all shy about the romantic relationship between its two leading ladies, but it also isn’t blatant or overbearing about it either. Though the game might fit into the “yuri” genre of girls-love fiction popular in Japanese manga, it’s pretty restrained when it comes to anything titillating. The love story here is portrayed as a more traditional and heartwarming romance, rather than something sexually driven or threatened by a disapproving society. It’s a cute relationship that serves as the driving motivation for two female characters. Whether it floats your boat or not, it’s inoffensive and is handled pretty well. As I said; romance feels awfully rare in gaming, and this is one effort that gives us a pretty enjoyable love story as its focus. That being said, there’s much more to Nights of Azure than its notable lesbian relationship.
Arnice’s base of operations is the Ende Hotel at the heart of Ruswal’s labyrinthine town. Every night, she embarks on a demon hunt, traveling to numerous locations around the island in search of powerful fiends that stalk the night. Arnice has the power to summon familiars in battle known as Servans; demons who act as her loyal servants. These AI controlled companions will fight alongside Arnice, while certain varieties of Servan will heal the team; taunt nearby enemies, or inflict status ailments on enemies. Most of the enemies you encounter at night can be used as your Servans, with a little over 20 creatures to discover. These range from magical cats and dogs, to living objects like dolls, statues, and even bombs. These AI-Controlled companions will fight alongside Arnice and assist her. Depending on the Servan’s species, this can consist of healing the team, taunting nearby enemies, or inflicting status ailments on their foes.
Servans will gain experience at the end of each night, quickly leveling up and acquiring some new traits you can choose at regular intervals. You can develop tree golems into defense-heavy tanks, or enduring distractions with very high health points. Arnice’s combat skills can also be improved, but it requires a lot more effort than typical RPG experience grinding. When enemies die, they leave behind blue blood that Arnice collects automatically. When she’s gathered a specified amount over the course of several nights, she’ll be able to travel to a dream world where she can perform a blood ritual; trading her blue blood in order to level up and receive boons including improved base stats, new skills, and new weapons. Her default sword is soon joined by twin daggers, magic blasters, a war hammer, and an enormous demon blade. Each weapon can be switched in the middle of battle, and even during some combos, so the action gameplay present here is fueled by a satisfying arsenal of weaponry, as well as Servans acting as support. Better yet, Arnice can transform into powerful, but time limited super modes such as the fiery Demon Form, the speedy Moon Rabbit, and the metallic might of the Armor Form. Blue blood is also used as currency at demon merchants, so the blood is an important resource that requires some decision making from players in terms of how they want to make the best use of it.
I was rather surprised at how similar Nights of Azure‘s battle controls are to Koei Tecmo’s ever-present “Musou” hack-and-slash games. This is despite Gust never making one of those titles. Being a fan of those games, I was in familiar and comfortable territory, though this unfortunately led to me noticing that Nights of Azure can at times be as repetitive as the aforementioned action sub-genre. The game enforces a time limit on you every time you head out to explore. It starts at 15 minutes long, but can be extended to 20 minutes with a skill unlocked later in the game. There’s no big penalty for the time expiring; it simply ends your exploration automatically and brings you back to the hotel. It’s rather arbitrary, but at the same time it allows you to reap the rewards of other systems designed to help you out. At the hotel, you can decide a set of activities Arnice will do off-screen during the day time. Each activity completed will reward Arnice with some additional minor stats that can then be used to buy skills such as stronger guarding, or extended time for transformations.
Another option for expanding your arsenal is the trading outpost, which sends out an expedition to a selected country over the course of a few days, and returns with a rare item. Items are interesting in that there aren’t any of the typical RPG expendables like potions or antidotes. Instead, all the items you collect are either used for Servans (to create new ones as well as to increase their base stats), or as equipment that provides you and your Servans with stat boosts and special effects. While some can prove pretty useful such as those that protect against poison or fire attacks, most of them make weak improvements, and aren’t much use when Arnice only has 4 equipment slots total, while Servans only have one each. For the most part, I didn’t find much reward in playing around with these equipment options – only obtaining effective and rare items towards the end of the game. You can honestly spend most of the game just selling what you pick up and not worrying about buying or managing new equipment.
The hotel’s manager Simon will also provide you with quests you can take on each night and day. The daytime ones don’t increase your stats, but will reward you with cash as well as new daytime activities to provide you with more effective stat boosts. The nighttime quests all involve either reaching a certain spot in a specified area, or slaying a set number of a certain demon variant. These come with great blood and monetary rewards, so you’ll definitely want to take on a quest or two each time you set out. Unfortunately with such a small variety, completing quests becomes very repetitive after a while, especially when you have to keep visiting some of the duller areas like the train station or the sewers.
Ende Hotel also houses a combat arena in its basement, and it’s there you’ll be able to gain money, blood, and other special rewards in a series of challenges that test out your mastery of the battle system in a wide variety of ways. It’s entirely optional, so don’t worry too much if you can’t get all 3 stars in each challenge. Towards the end of the game, the hotel elevator will also allow access to a bonus dungeon filled with the most difficult enemies, so there’s a good variety of ways to challenge yourself with this game if you’re up for it. Which is good, because most of the game is a bit of a cakewalk. There are over a dozen areas in Ruswal to explore, but the enemies encountered don’t put up much of a fight leading up to a sudden difficulty spike in the true final chapter.
Yes, Night of Azure has multiple endings, though the way they’re handled leaves a bit to be desired in gameplay terms. There are 5 different endings depending on your relationship value with Lilysse, which is decided by dialogue choices made throughout the game. Thing is, only 3 endings will be available on your first playthrough. The one I got was awfully abrupt, and felt out-of-character for everyone involved. Thankfully, a cleared save file will start you back off just before the beginning of the final dungeon. This will open up the final scenario in which you’ll go through several new quests and fight two bonus bosses prior to fighting the final boss again. These two bosses are ridiculously tough compared to everything else in the story, with extremely strong and oversized attacks covering the battlefield. Expect to die a good dozen times while you try to figure out the best way of preparing for the terrible two. The game’s bosses are fine by themselves, but it’s the wildly varying difficulty that leads to some being disappointingly easy, while others are frustratingly hard. Defeating them unlocks the true ending upon defeating the final boss once again, and the reward for clearing the game this time is the ability to set Arnice’s relationship value with Lilysse at will, essentially allowing you to choose what ending you’ll get each time you take on the last dungeon. So don’t worry at all about dialogue choices affecting what ending you’ll get – you can just get all 5 of them by fighting the final boss repeatedly. Some are bittersweet, but in general they feel rushed and unsatisfying like most alternative endings sadly.
Two things that contributed greatly to my enjoyment of the game were the absorbing soundtrack, and the gothic atmosphere of Ruswal Island. Stone city streets are haunted by living shadows; an opera house is home to living instruments; the funfair is bathed in a red sky; and a museum is twisted into a fortress of fiends. The graphics in these environments aren’t spectacular, but the game’s art direction really shines through when it comes to exploring the demonic nights of the island, with shades of red and blue setting an ethereal mood throughout. The soundtrack consists of a wide selection of styles that add spice to the game’s events, even if the tracks themselves aren’t all that unique. The opera house area has a song sung by a choir that feels like it was lifted from a God of War game; while the blood ritual theme “Predge” is a soothing vocal track that sounds a lot like some of the music found in Nier. The game’s music is good, but that’s to be expected of most any JRPG, and there’s not much here to make it truly stand out among its peers in the genre. Though not a standalone hit, the music does add to the experience of exploring the nighttime in Ruswal.
Nights of Azure lasted a little over 30 hours for me, and while there may not be much replay value past completing everything a single playthrough offers, this is still a fun and fantastical journey through a Gothic world of demons and romance. Gameplay issues arise when it comes to repetition and a lack of depth in certain systems, but the game’s characters and setting are very enjoyable if you can stomach the tropes of anime and JRPG writing. It’s not a masterpiece, but Nights of Azure is a refreshing new title that has all the makings of a cult classic. It might not realise some of its potential as well as you’d like, but I found this to be a valuable experience nonetheless. I wish games like this would come more often and improve upon this kind of design and artistry; but for now, I’ll appreciate the entertainment this tale of love and nighttime has given me.