Night or not Night? That is the question with Nights of Azure, the western version of Yoru no nai Kuni, which meant “Nightless Country”. Nights of Azure takes back the night in its title, but its goal remains unchanged : amidst the weakening of the Atelier brand, Gust and KoeiTecmo want a new trump card in the JRPG market.
The story of Nights of Azure, how much full of lore it may seem, is actually a lot more simple than it wants to look like. The world is in danger due to the likely resurrection of the Night Spirit, which would bring the Eternal Night and thus, the end of all life forms. Arnice is an agent of the Church sent to Luthwal in order to protect Lulitith, a saint expected to renew the seal that keeps the Night Spirit away from the living world. But in fact, the two young girls are more than friends and don’t accept that each other would risk her life for her lover. That immediately puts in perspective the big theme of Nights of Azure : yuri, as known as the passionate love between girls. That said, this is probably not the most interesting aspect of the game, the love element being tackled too lightly and the inevitable argument scenes are too awkward for the whole thing to be really moving.
We however do appreciate the particular atmosphere of Night of Azure which combines mystery and straight humor. The duo composed of Lloyd and professor Arukado introduces a sort of comedia del arte parallel to the main story. Those two can never agree and argue all the time, getting on Arnice’s nerves with their fishy stories and requests. Lulitith, naive and unable to cook, is quite fun as well. Beside that, Nights of Azure is surrounded with suspense and various mysteries like Arnice’s elusive «Brother» and the shady pope giving conflicting instructions. The Gothic design and the ominous music are key in the bizarre but yet appealing world of Nights of Azure which sends you in very unexpected places like a carnival, a museum or an opera. The final battle ends the game a very clever twist that reverse the point of view developed so far and give a brilliant morale to the story.
With Nights of Azure, Gust is pioneering new frontiers since that’s its first Action-RPG, instead of the turn-based ones the developer is used to. Arnice possesses 5 different weapons that will be gradually available : a long sword, a long katana as impressive as Sephiroth’s Masamune, dual blades, a mini-gun and a war hammer. The firearm excluded, each of those has a unique combo, the finish of which is decided by the number of inputs. There’s also a special attack far more powerful than average and of greater reach for each weapon : when equipped with the dual blades, Arnice will unleash a high-density sphere of energy, while the war hammer will just sweep everything around her. Although it’s interesting to switch between those weapons to take advantage of their specifications depending on the combat situation, your actions horribly lack punch and the standard battles soon get a tad boring. Besides and despite the various camera angles including a very far one, the readability of the battlefield is far from perfect. Consequently, Nights of Azure delivers a gameplay that is generally not precise enough, not intense enough and not immersive enough for an action game. It doesn’t feel «powerful», it’s slack and easy for most part so hard to be fully satisfied after playing games like Senran Kagura Estival Versus or Final Fantasy Type-0 HD. Let’s also stress that the stage are done in limited time, though it’s hardly a challenge : the time margin is quite comfortable and you soon don’t pay attention to the clock anymore.
Fortunately, the gameplay of Nights of Azure is little more than that and brings some innovation. Arnice will be supported by 4 demons called Servants all the time. Those ones will attack the same group of ennemies as Arnice, unless she gives other orders like regrouping or launching their own special attack. There are around 30 different familiars to collect in the game, and they are divided between specialists such as healer, attacker, magic user, defenser, jammer, etc. Up to you to build balanced teams for your sorties in the inhospitable night, knowing that Servants do level up too and that some grinding will be necessary for the newcomers as they do take hits. Servants are obtained via rare drops by monsters or by acquiring them at itinerant merchants spread here and there in the dungeons. But those ones don’t take gold, only Blue Blood. This resource is obtained in more or less great quantities after any fight. The Blue Blood is central in Nights of Azure since it’s also needed for the Servants to materialize and it will also serve as experience points for Arnice to level up! You probably got the picture, the Blue Blood rat race has only begun and it will be long.
Last but no least, Arnice can transform herself into a strange creature for a short time when the gauge is filled. Here again, you’ll have to choose depending on your battle strategy. The Armor form boasts considerable attack and defense but slows Arnice down a lot. On the contrary, the Rabbit form is extra fast and can chain combos relentlessly on a wide area. The Phantom form is very particular because it has nearly no offensive capability, but on the other hand it can heal the Servants and speed up their MP recovery. Again, your monster deck will be key since its composition will decide on which demon form applies for Arnice. Each Servant has affinity points with a form in particular, and you need a minimum of 10 points to validate a metamorphosis for Arnice. When you’ve unlocked everything, you can bring with you 4 groups of 4 servants, so you can have as many different transformations available if you’re well-organized.
The bosses in Nights of Azure will regularly wake the player up as the common battles will have thrown him in deep slumber. Gust has indeed prepared wacky and sometimes exhilarating confrontations of outstanding direction with a few surprises that’ll make you startle. Those boss themes are absolutely great and complete an already fantastic soundtrack, in which we expected no less from Gust who always deliver quality I music. Let’s have a special mention for the final boss, throughfully tough and intense fight demanding an iron-clad preparation from the player, but also extreme responsiveness and endurance. The best final boss in a long time. This is however the only strong point of Nights of Azure when it comes to pure gameplay, the side missions always asking you to kill some type of monster or going from A to B. The post-game content is a lot more exciting, with some more hard bosses. With most of the side stories completed, I cleared Nights of Azure in roughly 20 hours, which is lower than JRPGs average.
If Nights of Azure represents a interesting incursion of Gust in the sphere of Action-RPGs, its general lack of intensity will make it fade in comparison to the best in the genre. The art design and the music are still worth your while, as well as its dramatic ending.