A surprising combination of gameplay mechanics and themes makes for an intriguing new PlayStation 4 game from developer Gust in their game Nights of Azure. A straightforward dungeon crawler paired with complex combat and a standard good vs. evil story that becomes a more complicated and twisting tale. Beneath the bouncing bosoms, this game has a lot of heart.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aMUPw2EznYc
Nights of Azure is a unique story from developer Gust, known for their expansive Atelier series. The game takes on some darker themes and tries different things with the gameplay. You never know what you’re gonna get when a developer makes an all new game but Nights of Azure was a pleasant surprise.
Play as Arnice, a half-demon knight of the Curia. Her hobbies include slaying fiends, talking to cats and seriously crushing on her childhood friend, a priestess deemed for sainthood that she’s ordered to protect named Lilysse. These two school-chums are sent to the small and isolated Ruswall Island tasked with stopping the Nightlord.
The premise goes that the Nightlord has been subdued but threatens to bring eternal night to the world. The Curia are an organization trying to mitigate the Nightlord's influence and working to overtake him. The Nightlord’s blue blood rained down on the world turning plants, animals and inanimate objects into dangerous fiends, if people are tainted with the blood they will turn into demons or die. As a result the nights are overrun with monsters and people can’t go out, unless you are a brave knight like Arnice.
The story does a good job of justifying the format of the game with the whole night/day dichotomy. Gameplay is split into stages corresponding with the time of in-game day. At night, you run around slaying fiends, completing quests and gaining experience. During the day or “Interlude” stage you can hang out in the hotel that’s become your home base, talk to NPCs, shop, pick up new quests, manage your inventory, that sort of thing.
It can be a little frustrating at first to not have access to all the game’s features all the time. However, once it becomes familiar, it’s nice to just focus on fighting while out in the field at night and to take the time to navigate menus during the day. In a way, the game takes the way players tend to play dungeon crawlers and RPGs and turns it into a core game mechanic; going out to clear dungeons, collect loot and XP and then retreating to a safe space to manage your inventory and level up.
Nights of Azure is a deceptively simple game. It starts you out with a quick tutorial that seems like basic hack n’ slash combat and some light RPG elements. Yet, players will quickly discover that there’s a whole lot more going on in this game. Perhaps the two defining features of the gameplay are timed dungeons and Servan decks.
Arnice has a set amount of time (the default is fifteen minutes) to go out at night whether you are completing story objectives or just grinding. You run through the limited world at full tilt, sprinting past enemies or stopping to fight them with one of your fantasy weapons, challenging yourself to get as much done within the time limit. Not only does this pose a challenge when trying to achieve a lot of things in one night session but it creates a motivating pressure to do better than last time and be more efficient in combat.
There isn’t a consequence for running out of time other than being kicked out of the dungeon and sent back to the hotel. You head out into the night as many times as you want regardless of story progression or accepted quests and return back to the hotel whenever or wherever you please. This allows for players to play in whatever style they like, challenging themselves to get things done as quickly as possible or taking their time exploring the minimal world.
If you return too early though, there will be consequences. During interlude stages, players can set up activities for Arnice to do during the day. These activities (cooking, reading, helping people move house) seem trivial when faced with the end of the world as we know it, but they gain special attribute points that can be used to acquire new skills and abilities for Arnice. If you return from going out at night too soon, you won’t accomplish those activities and won’t get the skill points.
The other cornerstone of Nights of Azure gameplay are Servans. Servans are friendly fiends with different abilities that can be summoned to fight for Arnice. These creatures can be collected from loot or bought in stores and equipped into decks of four. Putting together a group of Servans and leveling them up gives a feeling of customization and collecting them all can be a fun challenge.
Utilizing your Servans is key to combat in this game, especially defeating tough bosses. Your favorite fiends grow on you as you customize their equipment and see how they mature. When a fiend is added to your collection you can choose a name for them from a preset selection and their appearance will change as they grow in level.
Eventually, players will have access to several Servan decks and can strategically cycle through them during combat. When a Servan is called into battle it has an immediate summoning effect, like healing a certain amount of health or creating a negative status effect for any nearby enemies. Not only is it important to level up and use your companions in combat, but it helps to summon them at critical moments to get the best effect.
Arnice needs to fight as well and has her own system of leveling up. By sacrificing blood she gets a base stat level up and unlocks the next tier of abilities. Skill points in various categories can be used to acquire new abilities.
After doing all your leveling during the interlude stage it’s time to put your skills to the test at night. Combat consists of heavy attacks, weak attacks, special attacks and dodges at its core. Attacks can be chained together and executing a few simple combos will result in different types of moves. Add on summoning Servans at the right time and giving them commands like “follow” or “heal” gives players a lot to keep track of during battle. Unfortunately the lock-on system isn’t great; it doesn’t prioritize boss enemies over minions and it can be difficult to switch between targets.
Nights of Azure is a game heavily influenced by anime. From the art style to Arnice’s full tilt run, every element of the game would be right at home in an anime series. The music does a good job of setting the mood whether it’s light jazz in the hotel lobby or blaring guitar during a boss fight. The graphics are passable but nothing noteworthy, and a lot of the characters movements, hair and clothing elements aren’t animated, instead staying rigidly still.
The story at first seems like a selection of anime tropes woven together and in many ways that’s true but they’r woven together into something new and interesting. The plot is full of mystery and twists carried out by likable characters. Lilysse and Arnice’s relationship is sweet and at times touching.
There are also a lot of nice little touches in the game. Arnice’s backstory can be read in unlockable chapters, fleshing out the world and she and Lilysse’s relationship. Another nice attention to detail is that the inventory is sortable by every stat making equipping and selling items a breeze.
The combination of gameplay mechanics makes for an interesting play-through that feels both familiar and fresh. The story has its trite moments, but can be amusing and touching at the same time. Overall, the gameplay is challenging, but it is also fun and rewarding when those challenges are overcome. Anime junkies will love the game’s style and story. Speed Running enthusiasts may find the timed dungeons enjoyable. Those that like good old-fashioned dungeon crawlers should give this game a try. Nights of Azure isn’t overly ambitious, it has a small world, simple objectives and seven chapters of story content yet it can inspire many hours of gameplay and engage the imagination.
Nights of Azure was reviewed on PlayStation 4 with a copy provided by the publisher.
Overall, Nights of Azure is challenging, but it is fun and rewarding when those challenges are overcome. The game isn’t overly ambitious, with a small world, simple objectives and seven chapters of story content. Even so, it can inspire many hours of gameplay and engage the imagination.