Nights of Azure (also known as Yoru no Nai Kuni – “the land without night”) is an action RPG from Japanese developer Gust – a company most notable for their work on the Atelier series. I once tried Atelier Totori and, while I liked the style, I wasn’t a big fan of the game itself. Luckily, Nights of Azure is a considerably different game – with a dark story and strong focus on action, it’s immediately accessible for most players.
Your story begins on the uncharted Isle of Ruswal, in a kingdom where the nights are plagued by fiends, and a time of eternal darkness is drawing near. Eight centuries ago, a heroic knight engaged an evil demon known as the Nightlord in a battle to determine the fate of the world. The Nightlord was defeated, but upon receiving the final blow, rained “Blue Blood” down on the world. Anyone touched by this blood was transformed into an evil fiend, and from that time on would appear every night to wreak havoc. Beset by sleepless nights caused by these attacks, the Kingdom of Ruswal became known as “The Land Without Night” – get it? Like the title of the game!
You play as Arnice – a half demon/half human agent of an organisation known as the Curia – tasked with purifying the island of Ruswal. You quickly learn that the stakes are higher than anticipated as, with a waxing red moon in the sky, the resurrection of the Nightlord is nigh. Luckily there’s a way to prevent this catastrophe – sacrifice a Saint at the secret Blue Altar. Sounds easy enough, but what happens when you find out that Saint is actually your closest friend? Can you sacrifice one you hold so dear to save the world from eternal night a little longer?
The story of Nights of Azure is quite appealing, although poorly delivered. Cut scenes are segmented and filled with sexual innuendo that feels forced and unnecessary. The way these scenes are presented feels more like something you’d see in a proof of concept rather than a finished title – with poorly timed pauses, characters popping in and out of existence, and badly worded dialogue (although that could be attributed to poor translation of the dialogue from Japanese). The story is detailed and thorough, however, with a great deal being presented via subtext. For example,, early in the game a demon boss appears and captures an ally. This is all part of the tutorial level so not something particularly noteworthy, except that when it first appears, it says “Another offering? I wasn’t expecting one this soon” – indicating that perhaps the residents of Ruswal were trying to appeal to the fiends of the night by offering sacrifices. Many such occurrences appear as you progress through the story, however, it wasn’t until my second playthrough that I really started noticing them.
Nights of Azure is an action RPG, meaning much of your time is spent in combat. It feels like a typical third-person action adventure game, and the style should feel familiar if you’ve played titles like Dynasty Warriors. You have light and heavy attacks, which can be combined to create a variety of stylistic combos, as well as a strong special attack, which is available once certain conditions have been met. Unfortunately, Nights of Azure lacks the weapon and fighting style variance that titles like the Dynasty Warriors series offer, leaving combat feeling somewhat bland. With that said, you do unlock new weapons as you progress through the game. These each behave significantly different to the others, and when used appropriately, can give you strategic advantage in a fight.
While this idea sounds great on paper, it’s not something I felt was well utilised in the game. The default difficulty level is quite easy, so you can usually just spam the same attacks to kill enemies and only really need to mix up your technique for boss fights. This is predominantly due to one of the game’s major mechanics – Servans. Servans are, essentially, fiends you may summon to fight on your behalf. You are able to summon up to four at a time – each of which has its own HP, SP (mana equivalent), and unique moves. Once summoned, Servans act autonomously, according to their predetermined nature. Most perform offensive manoeuvres, however, there are some who provide support roles (buffs or healing, for example). You can also command a Servan to use their Burst skill – an especially strong move that uses the Servan’s SP. Luckily, HP and SP regenerative drops are incredibly frequent, meaning you’ll rarely run low and can almost rely solely on the Servans to win many of the fights for you.
If you’re still having trouble winning battles, Nights of Azure offers Arnice the ability to transform into a demon once she’s absorbed enough Blue Blood (i.e., damaged enough enemies). Once activated, Arnice becomes invincible and has a swathe of extremely powerful attacks at her disposal. This felt a little “cheaty” at times, as I could just spam light attacks to fill the meter then change form during a boss fight to quickly remove half a boss monster’s health. There are five different demon forms that Arnice can assume – each of which feels unique and must be used differently to achieve the best effect. The form cannot be directly selected, but is determined by the Servans summoned at the time Arnice transforms. Each Servan has a particular affinity that directly determines what form you will take – adding a strategic element to how you decide what to summon. The Fire Demon, for example, is an incredibly versatile form, with a range of fire-based attacks. This is great against most enemies, but useless against dragons, who are immune to fire.
When not running around killing fiends, Arnice likes to hang out in the Hotel Ende – essentially a hub area where you can perform your typical RPG tasks. This is where you can level up Arnice, shop for items, visit a combat arena to train (yes in a hotel), or just admire the oversized scenery – and I do mean oversized! Seriously! Look at that elevator! How on Earth is anyone expected to reach those top buttons?! You are also able to change your loadout for combat, accept sub quests, and even equip items. This suited the game’s style, but I found the experience to be a little lacklustre.
While the task of navigating a 3D environment to open menus felt cumbersome and unnecessary, I can see why they chose to do it that way. Nights of Azure, in typical RPG style, has primary and secondary quests (called scenarios). The primary scenario drives the story while the second is optional, and usually just reveals more about the NPCs who reside in the hotel. Some of the secondary scenarios had you seeking out areas and boss fights, while others had you searching the hotel for particular items. This felt poorly implemented and superfluous – more like “filler content” than anything else. It did mean, however, that the hotel could be used not only as a hub, but as a means of progressing the sub character stories.
I think my main problem with the hotel was that the experience felt disjointed and “tacked on”. The ability to shop for items feels somewhat useless due to the sheer number of items that are dropped during the action scenes. This was made worse with a 250-item limit requiring you to regularly manage your inventory or risk missing some potentially great (or rare) items. This might not seem like much, but with 50 or so item drops per level, it doesn’t take long before the task feels arduous. Worst still, most items didn’t feel as though they had much impact during combat – making the entire effort feel fruitless. During the later chapters of the game, you do open an option to send an international trader around the world to collect rarer items for you – however, this is poorly implemented and time consuming to the point where the benefits are negligible.
Outside shopping, you can speak to the hotel’s curator, Simon, to accept quests or plan your daytime activities (remember the fighting all happens at night time). Quests are different to the scenarios mentioned above, and merely provide a monetary reward for killing X number of fiends, finding an item, or visiting a particular area. The system to select these quests is nice, as you have a choice of what you will or won’t select; however, the quests themselves are quite boring and easily exploitable. For example, I was short on blue blood (one of the game’s many currencies), so I decided to take on a quest that would reward me with more. One was for a tough fiend to find, so the kill requirement was low and the reward was high; however, I knew an area where it spawned right near the start. So I used the map to fast travel to the area, killed it, selected “return to hotel” from the menu and repeated the task a few more times. Voila! Supposedly high difficulty quest – complete!
Simon also allows you to plan your daytime activities, although this merely boils down to selecting what you want to do from a list and being given a short paragraph detailing what you did and a stat boost… of sorts. Initially, I found this stat boost to be quite confusing, as the names used are somewhat misleading. As you level up or equip items on Arnice, her basic combat stats improve – HP, SP, Defence, and Attack. However, when selecting daytime activities, you are rewarded with stat boosts to Sprit, Finesse, Stamina, and Charm – which didn’t seem to affect anything! Turns out they’re another form of currency, which are used on a different sub menu to unlock skills and perks. Once you get your head around it all it makes sense, but at first I found it really confusing.
Nights of Azure is presented in a very interesting way. While the graphics are sharp and look good, it felt like something more at home on a PlayStation 2. Menus are clunky and disjointed, characters and enemies pop in and out of existence, and the same few animations are used repeatedly during cut scenes. This may be by design, as it certainly feels like many other titles in this genre – but I was expecting better from a modern game with access to the processing power of current consoles. On the plus side, the combat looks fantastic and feels nice. Special effects are used well to create a chaotic ambiance when required and you’re really given a sense of scale with the boss fights (although it’s no God of War).
This is further emphasised with a fantastic soundtrack. The music changes in tempo according to the situation, and never feels repetitive or “old”. There’s a light jazz feel for the hotel parts, which ramps up to heavy guitars during combat. There were even a few times where I’d left the PlayStation running and we found ourselves enjoying the score as background music to lunch or whatever we were doing.
I can’t finish this review without talking about boobs and sexual innuendo. Nights of Azure is filled to the brim with suggestive visuals and wording. The two main protagonists are well endowed, which is fine, however, their breasts seem to bob to a gravity all their own and the protagonists are often seen in impractically skimpy outfits. While the camera angles are more subtle than games like Bayonetta, the dialogue and text are anything but subtle. Most of the innuendo feels forced – like “schoolboy humour,” which was disappointing. One thing I was pleased to see handled well was the relationship between the two main protagonists. While not specifically referenced, it is clear that they were partners in the past, and based on your decisions in the game, can be so again in the future. In a game that felt targeted to teenage boys, I was impressed that they approached that particular topic in a subtle way… well, somewhat.
It feels like I’ve spent most of this review criticising Nights of Azure. While it has many flaws, it is a surprisingly addictive and enjoyable game. So much so that I found myself going back for a second playthrough to see if my choices made an impact, and to pay more attention to the subtext. Luckily, Nights of Azure offers players a new game plus, as well as an epilogue (for an alternate ending), so if you enjoy it as much as I did, there’s plenty to go back to. The core story is fantastic (although poorly presented) and the combat is extremely enjoyable, if a little grindy. It’s good fun and well worth checking out.