Nights of Azure Review – Human Days, Demonic Nights (PS4)
The role-playing genre is not generally known for its pick-up-and-play sensibilities. With the general expectation that RPGs will last hours upon hours, and include a ton of optional content to add to that count, it’s pretty much the one category of game expected to be a time sink right off the bat. However, not everyone has time for hours at a time of collecting and questing, and there’s something to be said for a title that lets you explore and level up in short play sessions — if you have a need for it, a bit of such light entertainment can really hit the spot. For fans of JRPGs, I suspect Nights of Azure will be the game to scratch that itch. Though the shorter length of its campaign might come under intense scrutiny from those used to 40+ hour adventures, I implore those with even a passing interest to see Gust’s latest for what it is; a charming, addictive and fast-paced little action-RPG that can be enjoyed either in a few marathon play sessions or in small pieces whenever you can squeeze it in.
Leading Ladies in Love
Part of what makes Nights of Azure so immediately accessible is its narrative, which is simple in a good way — there may not be a ton of twists and characters to keep track of, but that can be refreshing when done right (and trust me when I say Gust has gotten it right). The story’s two most important characters are leading ladies Arnice and Lilysse, who find themselves staying at the same hotel on otherwise-abandoned Ruswal Island. Known as “The Land Without Night,” the island’s inhabitants were turned into fiends after a victory against the wicked Nightlord resulted in his Blue Blood contaminating their very souls. For some reason, though Arnice made contact with the Blood, she retained half her humanity — essentially turning her into a Demon-Slaying Badass who can leave when dusk falls to purge the island of its cursed residents. But with the Nightlord set to return upon the full moon’s arrival, Arnice has to find an alternate way to stop him before Lilysse is forced to sacrifice herself.
Sure, sure, it’s not the first time you’ve heard the “beloved character must sacrifice their life to save the world” story — Final Fantasy X’s Yuna found herself on the path to martyrdom in much the same way, among countless others. But Nights of Azure is successful in its adoption of this trope because it sets up a charming, adorable romance between the two leads: Arnice and Lilysse’s relationship is easily the most enjoyable aspect of the narrative, making the fight to ensure the latter’s safety a goal worthy of all the action and drama that surrounds it. Better yet, Gust has respectfully avoided all the obnoxious tropes one might dread from the portrayal of a same-gender relationship; there’s no cheap, pornographic titillation, no internalized shame on the part of either girl, and no mention of “abnormality” at all (you’re not going to hear “But we’re both girls!” in this game, and thank goodness for that). In the end, all you need to know is that they’re two girls in love with each other — and that is about as sweet and refreshing as it gets.
Packed Full of Variety
As far as gameplay goes, this is Gust’s first attempt at an action-RPG, but don’t worry, it’s a good one. Combining reliable hack-and-slash with a system of collectible “Servan” demons that fight alongside you, the combat hits that sweet balance of starting out simple, then evolving into a lightning-fast and multi-layered affair. As you move forward through the map, visiting new locations, you’ll gain access to a variety of equipment to gear up with, as well as buckets of Blue Blood to upgrade both Arnice and her collection of Servan. That latter bit is one of the game’s more interesting twists: rather than experience, your reward for defeating enemies and completing certain quests is the aforementioned Blood, which acts as a secondary type of currency that can be used to level Arnice up, purchase items at certain demon-run shops and “actualize” (read: create) new Servan to add to your team. Another layer is added once you’ve gotten your hands on some Skill points for Arnice to use: a huge number of passive abilities to unlock that can turn the tide both in and out of battle, as well as “Day Activities” that automatically net you some points after you complete a night on the town. Oh yeah, and let’s not forget about Arnice’s various superpowered transformations, the four of which can be activated by mixing up the type of Servan you’ve stocked in your deck.
If that sounds like a lot to swallow, it is. What’s sort of amazing, though, is that you’ll be able to learn and take advantage of all the various systems in no time at all. The campaign’s 20-25 hour running time may seem slight to the discerning JRPG fan, but those hours are packed full of new wrinkles to the gameplay as well as a sizeable variety of locations, quests and fiends to defeat. Perhaps the best part is that you’ll be able to take all this on no matter your skill level. If you want to grind and make your life easier, you have that option, but you can also use optional items (like the Glass Blade, which powers you up immensely but makes you susceptible to one-hit KOs) and pace yourself to keep the challenge level high. It’s all quite a rush, and addictive to boot — I spent the majority of the game unable to put the controller down, hoping to complete just one more level or finish just one more side quest before I’d take a rest. Once you’re done with the main story, there’s still a good amount of content to go after, too. Trophy hunters in particular will have a field day chasing down the Platinum.
Great Art With Technical Flaws
Not surprisingly for a Gust game, the presentation is a bit of a mixed bag. As always, the art style is great; I absolutely love the way the characters have been designed, and I’ve always admired the particular way the models are colored (like the recent Atelier Escha & Logy Plus: Alchemists of the Dusk Sky, they’re a lot more sophisticated and detailed than in your average JRPG with budget constraints). Unfortunately, the cumulative effect of the visuals is still dated at best; particularly during cutscenes, it’s hard not to notice the lack of animation — and when there is animation, just how stilted and cheap-looking it is. During the majority of gameplay sections, the fast pace and number of moving objects makes up for this, but then you’ve got the added obstacle of occasionally choppy framerate. It’s nothing disastrous, and definitely not that frequent, but it’s still a shame to watch the speed take a hit just when things really pick up onscreen. At least the score is consistently awesome, though. During battle, the soundtrack’s blend of soaring, epic choirs and rip-roaring guitars can really pump you up, while the smooth jazz that plays during the hotel sections constantly found itself stuck in my head.
A Night on the Town
Nights of Azure is a bit shorter than your average JRPG, but it jam-packs a ton of variety into its 20-25 hours of story — and if you stick around to collect everything afterward, you’ll have even more time to sink your teeth into the game’s various systems. On the combat side of things, the hack-and-slash at Nights’ core keeps things from getting too button-mashy by mixing it up with collectible Servan that can do the majority of the fighting for you, as well as an appealing transformation system and changeable set of weapons. Plus, you’ve got a compelling reason to fight thanks to the sweet and adorable romance between heroines Arnice and Lilysse; for once, a same-gender relationship in a video game handled with considerable respect. You can enjoy all this no matter your skill level or availability; with gameplay equally suitable for marathon sessions or bite-size pieces, and with a challenge level that can be easily tailored to your play style, this is one of the most enjoyable and accessible pieces of light RPG entertainment available on PS4.
Nights of Azure review code provided by publisher. Reviewed on PlayStation 4. For more information on scoring, please read our Review Policy here.