Things aren’t very rosy in Ruswal, the setting for Gust’s new action-RPG, Nights of Azure.
You see, ever since the nefarious Nightlord was defeated hundreds of years ago, showering his Blue Blood all over the land which corrupted any life-form that came into contact with it, fiends have appeared during the night to steal away and otherwise terrorise innocent townsfolk. With their nights full of fear and danger then, it’s understandable that life is a pretty grim affair, but things are about to get a whole lot worse unless drastic action is taken; the Nightlord is set to return, bringing with him the ominous Eternal Night.
With a premise like that, you‘d probably expect Nights of Azure to be a fairly generic action-RPG with a clichéd story about dark versus light, which to some degree it is, but actually, it’s more focused on love and sacrifice. You assume the role of Arnice, a demi-human unaffected by the Blue Blood of the fiends and so lives life as a holy knight serving the Curia, a mysterious organisation whose goal is to protect the populace and thwart the fiend menace. On her latest job, Arnice finds herself tasked with assisting and protecting Lilysse, a childhood friend and supposed Saint that is destined to seal away the Nightlord once again, forfeiting her life in the process. It’s only when the gravity of the matter hits home however, that Arnice realises the deep love she has for Lilysse, causing her to question where her allegiances lie. Will Arnice put aside her feelings for Lilysse and let her fulfil her role as a Saint, or will she selfishly prevent her from completing her task, instead seeking another way to carry out their goal? Only by playing the game and unravelling the story will you find out.
Unfortunately, Nights of Azure’s story never becomes anything more than mildly entertaining, but it at least tries to be a little different; a statement that can also be said of its action-RPG gameplay. The flow of the game follows a cyclical nature, with you progressing the story and undertaking quests at a hotel that acts as a central hub before heading out to explore and do battle with fiends on a sprawling map. Once you’ve achieved your objective, grown weary, or simply reached the 15 minute time limit imposed on your adventures, you then return back to the hub to develop your character before starting the process anew. If you want to break the cycle however, there is also a colosseum accessible via the hotel that allows you to partake in a large number of combat challenges to test your skill and earn rewards. It’s a pretty standard setup for an action-RPG, but there’s a couple of unique twists; the main being that whilst Arnice is an entirely capable fighter herself, combat also relies heavily on the development and management of familiars called Servans.
Cute yet undeniably diabolical, Servans are effectively monsters that Arnice takes under her wing to aid in her endeavours, and are summonable at any time when out in the field. Whilst you can’t control any of them directly, you can at least command them to use their unique skills when you see fit, as well as set their general AI behaviour to suit any given situation. There’s a total of 21 Servans available throughout the course of the game, made available by finding or buying Fetishes and then using the Blue Blood accumulated via combat to “Actualize” them, but you can only ever have four of them helping you at any one time. By developing Arnice and unlocking additional Servan Decks however, you gain the ability to switch out the current Servans for a new quartet with the press of a button, giving you more combat options and increased versatility.
Whilst developing your Servans’ stats and abilities requires little more than just taking them out into battle to gain experience, Arnice is another kettle of fish altogether. Starting out with just a sword and a rather simple moveset, to expand Arnice’s combat options you need to collect the Blue Blood of enemies and then use it to purchase a level up at the Altar of Jorth – a dream-like location that houses a huge demonic sword. With level 10 being the maximum you can attain, progress is understandably slow, but each level up provides a meaningful upgrade to Arnice rather than just a few stat points. Along your way to level 10 you’ll unlock three further weapons for example; dual wielded daggers, a war hammer and guns, each with their own moveset. You’ll unlock the ability to switch between them seamlessly in combat too, enabling you to form some pretty outrageous combos. In addition to increasing your stats and unlocking new weapons and abilities, each level up also provides you with a number of skill points that can be used to purchase upgrades such as equipment slots, Servan Decks and special attack enhancements, although these skill points can also be earned passively by assigning daily tasks before you go off adventuring.
No matter how tough Arnice becomes though, there’s always going to be those times where you just want that little bit of extra strength, and lets face it, no action-RPG featuring a half-human, half-demon protagonist would be complete without some form of transformation mechanic. It should come as no surprise then, that Nights of Azure allows Arnice to assume the form of creatures such as a fiery demon or fierce rabbit by filling a gauge located in the bottom left corner of the screen. There’s an element of strategy to transforming too; the form that Arnice adopts is dependent on the Servans in use, and with each having their own strengths and weaknesses, wise players will plan to use the right form at the right time in order to maximise their effect. In truth though, you don’t really need much strategy when playing the game at all.
The real problem with Nights of Azure is that it’s just so lackadaisical in terms of both difficulty and gameplay. Throughout its fairly lengthy story you’ll rarely encounter a situation that can be described as challenging, and the combat, whilst certainly becoming more interesting as you develop Arnice, never really feels as engaging as you’d like it to be. It’s not entirely damning though, as in a way, it makes for a nice change of pace compared to the raft of RPGs with inconceivably volatile difficulty levels, requiring you to boringly grind for hours on end to overcome the latest overwhelming challenge. It’s just a shame that the combat never really requires you to do anything more than mash buttons and spam your Servans’ special attacks when available in order to win.
Another area where Nights of Azure disappoints is in the visuals department. Whilst the generic anime styled characters look fairly nice, their animation is pretty poor, and the environments… well, they’re pretty awful to be honest. Generic looking, lacking in detail and mostly quite empty, the areas you explore on your travels would be considered dire for a PS3 game, let alone a full-priced release for the PS4, and as if that wasn’t bad enough you also have to deal with occasional bouts of inexplicable slowdown too. Also, being voiced entirely in Japanese, it’s disappointing to see such a shoddy job done of the English subtitles, which are full of woeful spelling and grammatical errors. Luckily, Nights of Azure’s music, which is very reminiscent of fellow action-RPG series Ys, at least takes the edge off of the game’s shortcomings, being somewhat of a highlight as you run around pounding fiends into a bloody pulp.
Taking everything into consideration, Nights of Azure isn’t particularly a bad game, far from it in fact; it’s just not so much of a good one either. The visuals are a mixed bag, the combat is inoffensive but not entirely satisfying, and the story, whilst doing a decent job of keeping your attention, never has you on the edge of your seat. It’s a game that seems to be entirely content with just being mediocre, which is what it would be if weren’t for its few unique concepts and kick-ass soundtrack. For fans of the genre, there’s no doubt that Nights of Azure will still be a somewhat enjoyable romp, but it’ll also be one that’s quickly forgotten.