Every game has a goal. After an hour of play, you can tell what the developer wanted you to take away from the experience. Bethesda encourages exploration in Fallout 4’s post-apocalyptic wasteland. Game Freak offers constant collecting tasks in Pokemon. Nights of Azure, Gust and Koei Tecmo’s beat’em up, is here to tell a story of two star-crossed lovers that are a beacon of light in world trapped in eternal night.
This isn’t a bad thing. Having priorities is important. Nights of Azure falters, unfortunately, because it feels like telling that story in the prettiest way possible is all that matters.
Nights of Azure is set in an alternate timeline, one in which a Nightlord attempted to subjugate humanity and condemn the world to endless night. He was defeated by a saint, but it wasn’t a clear-cut win. His blue blood rained down on the world, turning anyone it touched into fiends. They roam the night, ready to assault the innocent. The Nightlord’s seal is always in danger of weakening. An organization called Curia must constantly provide knights to fight the monsters and saints to strengthen the seal at Rusewall Island, the place where the Nightlord was first defeated.
The game begins with Arnice, a half-demon, coming to Ruswall on a Curia assignment. She’s met by Lilysse, her best friend from school. The two share a tender reunion, but it doesn’t last. One of the Nightlord’s minions captures Lilysse, considering her for a sacrifice. While Arnice does rescue her, it’s as bittersweet as the original victory against the Nightlord. Lilysse has been named the new saint; her sacrifice could save the world.
I can’t help but wonder if Gust decided to go with blue blood to make a statement about royalty and distinguish between species or because it was aesthetically pleasing.
It’s a beautiful, tragic game, one surrounded with the most gorgeous imagery. In a world filled with reds, blues, purples, and blacks, the holy Lilysse stands out in pastels and whites. Arnice’s white, billowing hair and angelic face make it easy to forget her demonic blood and ability to transform into monstrous variations of herself. Environments, though occasionally repetitive, are classic examples of gothic beauty with ornate architecture, flowery accents and, of course, ample hordes of intricate butterflies. I can’t help but wonder if Gust decided to go with blue blood to make a statement about royalty and distinguish species or because it was aesthetically pleasing. Not that it matters. Nights of Azure is a beautiful game, lavish in every sense.
Which makes it all the more odd when Gust doesn’t commit to the theme. Nights of Azure oozes drama. The tragedy is tangible. Yet, it makes design decisions that cheapen the experience. Arnice and Lilysse’s unrealistic proportions are a constant distraction. Fanservice is fine, but not when it distracts from an otherwise moving plot. The leveling process that requires Arnice to strip down to her underwear similarly pulls you out of what is otherwise a sweet love story between two old friends. Given the severity of the situation, a little more gravity would have been appreciated. Gust is a master of slice of life moments that showcase deepening relationships between friends and lovers over time, and I would have liked to have seen more of these.
Especially since Nights of Azure seems designed to help you get to the Interlude phases between Chapters, where you can see these events, as often as possible. This is a quick game with only seven Chapters. People get a storyline assignment, which sends them to a location on Ruswall Island. They’ll get fifteen minutes to go through part of an area. Usually, you’ll go through half before being given the option to return to the hotel base and turn new fetishes into extra Servans, equip new items and adjust team options. Once the fifteen minutes are up, you’re bounced back to base, encouraged to retry after going through your gains from the last run. Boss battles have no time limits, but never tend to last more than ten minutes. It isn’t a complicated affair.
Honestly, it seemed as though Nights of Azure was intentionally dumbing things down. During the tutorial, it tells you to let a Dinosword Servan, one of the units Arnice can call in as a computer-controlled ally, handle all of the enemies in an area. Arnice’s own attacks are quite basic, offering only a weak, strong and special attack, which all automatically offer set combos when players mash buttons. Eventually, you can add skills or build weapon chain custom combos, but the hammer ends up being the overpowered option. You should never not be using the hammer. You’re advised to think strategically when creating teams of Servans, four of which can accompany Arnice at a time, but you’re locked into one team after entering a map. You can only adjust teams, equip items and determine which abilities Servans should gain after leveling up at the hotel. Even Arnice’s demon form is predetermined by the sorts of Servans you’ve equipped, so you don’t have to make the decision yourself. Get in, don’t overthink things, then get out.
Gust had a story it wanted to tell in the prettiest way possible.
Which is a shame, because the idea of Servans is great in theory. There are a number of different creatures Arnice can recruit, each with their own role. She starts out with an attack-type Dinosword, a dragon wielding a gigantic sword, the defensive Wood Golem and a healing fairy known as Alraune. Additional creatures all fall into these same sorts of classes, but I could easily see someone sticking with four to eight characters for the entire game. Once you find a servant that works for you, it’s difficult to switch. Alraune stuck with me almost the entire time. I didn’t feel a need to upgrade to a better healer, because I rarely needed to heal. There’s potential in this system, but the game is so restrictive and quick that there’s little need to get creative.
There’s also little need to stick around once the story’s been told. Grinding is unnecessary. Arnice was only at level 10 when I beat the game, and I reached the level 11 cap shortly after the post-game quests. Clearing the sidequests and extra scenario to unlock the true ending took less than two hours. The hub offers an arena that allows people to pit Arnice and her Servans against enemies in matches where strategy matters, but the battle system isn’t compelling enough to make repeated attacks against waves of enemies appealing.
Nights of Azure is a means to an end. Gust had a story it wanted to tell in the prettiest way possible. It embellished every environment, put together a pleasing palette and gave people a chance to see a woman fight for her love. The alluring appearance is the only thing that will keep people going through this simple beat’em up; the gameplay isn’t substantial enough to encourage anyone to come back when the story’s done.