Nights of Azure Review
What have we here? A Gust Action/JRPG? Sounds like a blast. Let's dig in.
So, to dispense with the rumors yes this is a lesbian love story. More importantly it's a damn good one, because it really never functions as a vehicle for any tortured message. It's more like a love story between two characters who happen to be female.
The entire situation was simply well handled by the writers of the scenes. The plot centers around two women who once shared rooms while spending their youth rising in the same organization, The Curia. The women reunite on a desolate island in the kingdom of Ruswal where night is haunted by demons with azure (blue) blood that violates and corrupts humans. Arnice and Lilysee will have their compelling bond tested by faith, a fight against the night, and the possibility that winning against the ruler of the dark may mean losing everything.
Visually we have a dandy update of what we are used to from the Atelier series, optimized for PS4 performance. And boy is it smooth. Don't bother looking for frame rate problems. The game also has this neat way of washing you with azure; there's a foggy blue tint over the unknown that I should caution may bother some folks but I find it gives it a personal touch. The hues of the characters and set pieces are at once bold and pastel. Contrast seems to come alive in this presentation. I can't say a great deal for special effects, and the monster models, while nicely done, aren't incredibly detailed. The characters look great though, and the game centers around a fairly small cast. This is not the place to look for wonderfully impressive "graphics," but a single look at the game shows you that it's easy on the eyes.
Animations are smooth but occasionally work with stiff material, this is a problem Gust has that I assume has a great deal more to do with budget than ability. So Arnice's hair flowing behind her is more like a stiff platform up in the air than some real hair, but the anime presentation and the cel-like imagery makes that very easy to forgive. Textures are very soft all around except where things are more important and they know your eyes will be on the area and the characters, at those points you'll see more detail.
I'm continually impressed by the music part of the sound presentation. The dark, almost Gothic world of this island makes the tracks which would almost be at home in a Castlevania game feel very good. The dream sequences and love story moments are wonderfully enhanced by uniquely beautiful music I'm having difficulty characterizing. We shall simply say it is fitting of its betters.
Fans of English voicing will be disappointed as we just have the Japanese voice cast here, but fans of Japanese casting will be delighted. The characters are well-cast and I'm always pleased to see that the subbed English translation is accurate even when it means you have to be a sub-genre insider to get what's going on.
Sound effects are adequate.
Gameplay is the meat right? So that's where I'm going to have to stop all the praises and poke the spots where this experiment gets things right and where it makes mistakes. All told, these do look like they may drag the score down to the dreaded and oh-so-horrible territory of probably scoring inside of a 7+ by the end of my review. I say this facetiously of course, but there are things that take this game out of that coveted 8 range.
Arnice has a basic set of attacks of her own (light, heavy attacks, special) that are upgradeable but regrettably can never be added to enough to make the otherwise robust gameplay system entirely satisfying. More than her attacks though is her ability to conjure. As a human who has resisted the azure blood and become something between human and monster, Arnice can call forth monsters of her own. They are mapped to each face button and raised by holding L1 before pressing that button. Each has their own set up upgradeable skills and specialties and you can deploy all 4 if you want. So if you need a healer on your while your bruiser goes at it and a couple of other critters distract or slow the enemy then that strategy is easy to implement. It makes the combat slick for those paying attention and (later on) punishing for those who have spent any time breezing instead of strategizing.
So you can give direct commands to your friendly baddies to go nuts (L1+face button after the summon) and they will go nuts. You can also set a basic strategy for your team, those are: rampage, teamwork, drink blood, follow. They are basically self explanatory. Drink blood means they will recharge by sucking that blue juice and follow means they will go after whoever you do.
At first these monsters seemed like a neat gimmick I could use to augment my experience until I realized that there wasn't much else I could do for Arnice. You gather blood and spend it to upgrade either your critters or yourself, but as I've said those upgrades are very limited in what they accomplish. What is nice about the critters is there are lots of them, they have their own personalities (from what they say off the clock to how they behave), and you can use items to make 4 nicely customized weapons. Auto-weapons though they are.
The same is true of Arnice when it comes to items, we can equip them but they aren't used in typical fashion. You can't stop the game to drink a potion, you'll have to prequip an anti-poison relic if you are scared of that. Or equip an HP increaser if you need extra life to play with. To get fixed in the field you'll need your critters. You'll need to use blood to purchase all your goodies if you aren't finding them out in the field. One thing that spices things up is this game does toss loot your way, something JRPGs really need to do more often like the old days.
Out in the field, the level design is frankly uninspired. While some of the backgrounds and themes of the backdrops can be romantic in the dark and inspired sense, the actual squares and rectangles layout leaves much to be desired. True fans can push past this easily by throwing themselves into the combat, but the camera stay much too far away from the action to keep it visceral. We don't get a good look at what's happening until there's a transformation or a special happening. I think this is a vestige of those more spritely games such as Witch and the Hundred Knight where the gamer is left quite far behind and above the action. It frankly isn't necessary and invites disinterest when playing for more than a bit at a time.
Now onto the way the game works. There will be a chapter in which important story parts and battles take place. That done, the chapter will open up and you can enjoy a more lax atmosphere back at the hotel where Lilysee is a budding waitress (doing a rather poor job), your monsters are hanging about as if it were a normal thing, you can accept and undertake missions, you can fight in the underground arena, and you can open up new areas on the island. And now, something very stupid and pointless happens. When you go out, they slap a time limit on you. Why? I don't know. It isn't as if the sun comes up and you lose your chance afterward. You just have this time press, and no sane person likes time limits in a JRPG or RPG for that matter, action or not. It isn't devastating to the gameplay, but it puts a sense of paranoia on the gamer that makes exploration feel like it's done on a leash. What a foolish move.
The controls are very responsive, which is great for the action but the camera control lacks the intelligence of obstacle detection which we need to see in this day and age. If you are looking for replayability, its packed into the gathering of goodies and the likely chance that you will want to feel this story again one day whether you are gay or straight, boy or girl. It is delicate and strong, it is close to masterful.
Final Observation: There is a ton of love put into this game, it has a solid base of gameplay behind everything that functions nicely. The overall story of a night lord that needs defeating and saints and half demon fighters on the other side may not be anything new but within that shell is a love story to behold and lastly the things that keep this game from a higher rating do not diminish the experience enough for those who have been Gust fans in the past. It may be action but it's still very, well Gust-y.
Last warning: This combat is not quite what the trailers show off: there's a solid chance it simply won't do it for you.
Ending compliment: “Immature love says: 'I love you because I need you.' Mature love says 'I need you because I love you.'"
4/20/2016 David D. Nelson