Nights of Azure Review
Among their seemingly endless chain of new installments for the Atelier series, the developers over at Gust decided to take a brief break in the world of alchemy to explore a darker territory. Enter Nights of Azure, an action-packed RPG that pits two best friends against the realities of grim circumstances - one has taken on the role to sacrifice herself for the greater good while the other serves as the sacrifice's bodyguard.
Nights of Azure sets itself up to be a gloomy ride right at the start. Before the game begins, it establishes that a vile fiend called the Nightlord threatened to plunge the entire world into the Eternal Night and thus, all living beings would be put into a permanent slumber. Standing in its opposition was The First Saint who vanquished it at the cost of unforeseen consequences. The Nightlord's blood, Blue Blood, sprayed across the land turning anything it touched into a fiend as well.
The area that was affected the most was a little island called Ruswal Island, the region where the entire game takes place.
Arriving on Ruswal Island is the game's stubbornly determined heroine, Arnice, whom was sent by an enigmatic organization known as the Curia. She meets her beloved childhood friend, Lilysse, right away and the wheels of fate begin to turn. It just so happens that their long-awaited reunion would result in a tragic truth.
Apparently The First Saint's efforts were only a temporary solution to sealing off the Eternal Night; the Nightlord resurrects every so often after a certain amount of time and the accepted solution has been to offer the life of an established Saint to thwart the looming threat.
This time, Lilysse has been chosen to be the next Saint and Arnice has been selected to find the location where she is to forfeit the Saint's life.
With a somewhat meticulous set-up to explain the premise behind this star-crossed duo, I would have thought that Nights of Azure would take itself a bit more seriously. The game heavily emphasizes the relationship between Arnice and Lilysse. It has no shortage of cutscenes of Arnice saying she is willing to do anything protect Lilysse while Lilysse tries to show off her determination to do what is necessary to save the entire world.
Unfortunately, this ultimately leads to no significant development for both of these lovely heroines which is a problem due to the fact that the whole game revolves around them. Several other side characters are introduced later on, but only a very small number of them add meaningful aspects to the overall story.
Most character interactions take place in the game's single hub, the Ende Hotel. It serves as a resting place before heading out into battle. From undertaking quests, viewing events, accessing the one and only save point in the game and more, players will become quite familiar with the layout of the Ende Hotel. Some quest-lines for certain characters manifest inside this classy place, especially Lilysse. When there are more relatively pressing matters at hand, Lilysse often likes to lose her personal belongings consisting of mundane trips back and forth in the limited size of the hotel to get her stuff back.
Even though Nights of Azure wants to present a dreary premise, it has trouble maintaining a consistent tone. I am not saying that it should always hold onto a depressing mood, but the shift in atmosphere between hearing out a heartbreaking story straight to Lilysse dropping yet another cup of tea in her maid outfit within a minute leaves me mixed on what the writers wanted me to feel.
Presented in Japanese audio only with English subtitles, the performance of the actors do a decent job in bringing life to the characters, though some side characters are grating to hear at times. The script felt a bit flat overall, but much of that can be attributed to that a large portion of Arnice and Lilysse's conversations treading the same path over and over again. Coupling that with a few misspellings in the localization along with some key scenes missing English subtitles, I felt like this project, at times, was a bit of a rushed afterthought.
Luckily, the gameplay in Nights of Azure presents a handful of intriguing systems that establish a solid enough foundation to make for an enjoyable experience.
Players take up the role of Arnice as they travel around location points throughout Ruswal Island in search of a way to seal off the Nightlord's resurrection without sacrificing Lilysse. Due to Arnice's unique nature of being a half-human and half-demon, she has the power to summon and utilize familiars called Servans.
These little critters are the building blocks to what makes Nights of Azure quite fun. Each Servan serves a different role in battle from attacking on its own, healing its allies, or supporting Arnice in various ways. Only four of them can be out at any given time during combat so learning how Servans work with one another in relation to Arnice opens up a lot of customization for the player.
Summoning a new Servan consists of collecting fetish items to "actualize" them into existence. Each has its own personality quirks and I found their mini-event scenes in the Ende Hotel a bit entertaining, if not endearing at times. Servans have several abilities they can learn as they level up and go through a couple of appearance changes the stronger they get.
In battle, Servans can be given a few commands to control how aggressive players want them to be, but their AI is decent most of the time aside from a few path-finding issues that will cause them to get stuck on obstacles. Attempting to control their finer movements is a tad irritating if you want a certain one to attack something and an object is in its way. Locking onto an enemy can help, but not all the time.
Servans each have a unique skill that can be manually activated at the expense of their SP bar - some slowdown foes, others cast a big area-of-effect spell, and another substantially heals the whole party at once. Once again, these are all exclusive to each type of Servan so discovering the right chemistry between certain Servans complementing my playstyle was a pretty rewarding experience!
Onto the main character herself. Arnice is relatively less interesting gameplay-wise though she still has her own quirks. She starts out with a sword and is capable of executing weak attacks, heavy attacks, and special attacks along with guarding and dodge rolling. Weak attacks can be chained into different heavy attacks depending on which part of the combo a player chooses to do a heavy attack on. Special attacks drain a considerable chunk of SP in exchange for a burst of damage.
The way Arnice and her Servans level up are completely different. Servans gain experience upon returning to the Ende Hotel from battle. Meanwhile, Arnice must collect Blood via quests and combat to level up in a dream world known as the Altar of Jorth. Each level up for Arnice is substantial because it opens up new skills that can be bought with another subset of stats - Spirit, Finesse, Stamina, and Charm.
These attributes do not affect Arnice's performance in combat - think of them as expendable skill points to learn new abilities or expand game mechanics. Most system features are gated behind these skills ranging from accepting more than one quest at a time, adding another full party slot to put Servans in, or even unlocking another equipment slot for Arnice to use. As a result, the early hours of Nights of Azure do feel quite restrictive and takes a bit of time to take those shackles off.
Thankfully, leveling Arnice up is not the only way to gain more of those four stats. This can be done via Daytime Activities as well. These passive activities can be set onto Arnice which specialize in one of them, though higher-ranked activities will be raising multiple attributes at once. Up to three can be set simultaneously but of course, I had to "purchase" the ability to do that in the first place.
Daytime Activities are automatically done upon re-entry into the Ende Hotel after a set amount of time and are displayed via a quick illustration with some text describing what Arnice did. It really disappointed me that this feature was not more fleshed out. I was curious to see what Ruswal Island was like during the day and perhaps even mingle with some of its residents. Alas, players only see environments during nighttime.
Arnice also gains access to new weaponry as she levels up that each have their own movesets and different properties. For example, wielding dual daggers will do less damage per hit but attacks come out faster leading to higher chains which means higher amounts of Blood to collect.
Additionally, Arnice has the ability to temporarily transform in combat completely altering her appearance. Each Servan has a color-coded attribute that dictate which transformation form Arnice will take up. If a party of Servans have ten or more of the same color, she will assume that form when she switches to that Servan group. Each transformation form is radically diverse from each other. Demon Form unleashes a fury of fiery attacks and increases the attack power of all Servans; Rabbit Form raises Arnice's movement speed allowing her to chain attacks faster; and Armor Form moves slowly yet offers great defense and attack power for instance.
Though the systems surrounding Arnice and the Servans contrast, it comes together pleasantly in practice leading to visceral encounters against various enemy types and gorgeous bosses. My experience with the game was easy for the most part, though there were a few difficulty spikes with higher-leveled enemies. The final boss fight was appropriately difficult and I wish more fights in the game were as intense as that one. Greater challenges in the game can be found in trying to get high-ratings in the Arena since there is no selectable difficulty level in Nights of Azure.
On the visual side of the spectrum, Nights of Azure boasts some beautiful art design and 3D models that are on-par with the rest of Gust's works found in recent Atelier games and Ar nosurge. There are a few clipping issues especially with Lilysse's hair and some stiff animations when it comes to general movement in scenes. Environments are a bit lifeless but it makes sense in context with the premise. They do offer a fair amount of variety mixing it up between indoor and outdoor scenery though once again, everything is set during the night.
Nights of Azure is regrettably inconsistent on the technical side. While it does manage to hit 60 frames-per-second at times, maintaining it is another story. The game can drop well below 30 frames-per-second when the action gets heavy and sometimes even stutter. A lot of cutscenes exhibit noticeable frame slowdowns even though not much is happening in them. This leads to some important cutscenes running awkwardly with the framerate going up and down rapidly.
Lasting roughly around 15-30 hours, Nights of Azure is a brief experiment on Gust's vision on an action RPG. Multiple endings are available and those revolve around Arnice's relationship level to Lilysse that link to certain events in the Altar of Jorth. A New Game+ mode is available after completing the game, though it actually labels it as an epilogue that transports players back to right before the final fight of the game with everything still intact. This mode unlocks some new bosses and allows players to get other endings without playing through the whole game again.
For all of its faults, Nights of Azure still manages to be a competent game. Its soundtrack does an amazing job crafting the overall atmosphere of its apocalyptic tale which helped ease some of my disappointment in how it carries itself. Gust has indeed laid out a fascinating foundation to build on - I can see the possibility of something great in Nights of Azure. While the plot and its characters did not necessarily engage me, the Servan system has a lot of untapped potential just waiting to be realized.