2015’s Nights of Azure — or Yoru no Nai Kuni to its Japanese audience — was something of a departure for veteran developer Gust.
Primarily known for unconventional turn-based role-playing games with heavy crafting components, a style of game best exemplified by the developer’s flagship Atelier series, Gust opted to step out of their comfort zone with Nights of Azure by making it an action RPG with elements of monster raising.
It turned out to be a highly successful experiment for the developer, and what appears to be the beginning of a new series for the company, since a sequel is on the way at the time of writing. Yet despite Nights of Azure’s relative freshness compared to Gust’s other output, the game never forgets its heritage, and is recognisably “Gust” in both style and tone.
Gust was formed back in 1993, making them a longstanding player in the video game space. While they started out making doujin (self-published indie) games for Japanese personal computers such as NEC’s lineup, just a year later they became an official developer for Sony’s new PlayStation console.
Gust’s first title for the PlayStation was Falcata, a historical-style strategy RPG in which the player was tasked with exploring a land inspired by the Persia of 1500BC. Taking control of a group of nomadic wanderers, it was the player’s job to explore the region, battle hostile tribes, form pacts and discover wondrous treasures with the eventual aim being to bring stability to the region and find a place for the party to settle down.
Falcata, right from the outset, showed that Gust was a developer that liked to do things a little differently from the norm. While there had been role-playing games, strategy games and even hybrid titles such as Fire Emblem and Ogre Battle prior to this point, Falcata eschewed many of the established conventions of these titles in favour of an almost board game-esque setup. Its abstract presentation encouraged players to use their imagination as much as their strategic skills, and a strong degree of character customisation allowed each playthrough to be varied and unique to each individual.
It was 1997’s Atelier Marie that truly established Gust as a force to be reckoned with, though it likely wasn’t known at the time quite how long the Atelier series as a whole would end up lasting. Marie established the formula that the majority of the series would continue to follow right up until the present day, however, featuring a combination of crafting, time management, resource management and RPG-style battling and exploration.
Marie didn’t just set the formula for the Atelier series, in fact, though the Atelier series has always had the strongest emphasis on its less “traditional RPG” mechanics. 2007’s Ar Tonelico for PlayStation 2, for example, also featured a strong blend between RPG exploration and battling and a deep, complex crafting system. In Ar Tonelico’s case, the crafting mechanics actually supported the game’s story and characterisation by depicting the crafting process as an interaction between several of the characters in the game, up to and including them making increasingly ridiculous suggestions as to what the eventual items should be called. This system was maintained throughout the two subsequent installments on PlayStation 2 and 3 respectively.
This raises another key aspect of Gust’s distinctive style that is prevalent in all their output: their tendency to infuse everything with character, personality and, in most cases, a recognisable “cover character” to front the whole experience. This is in contrast to how Western developers of the period would approach strategic, management-heavy games — they’d typically be rather more clinical affairs, treating the player themselves as a faceless, voiceless protagonist rather than a character in their own right, and more than likely focusing on a single genre rather than attempting to incorporate, say, RPG elements in the way that Atelier has done since the beginning. Even in the most stylised Western games of the period — Atelier Marie contemporary Theme Park by Bullfrog is a good example — there might be a lot of personality to the overall presentation, but no character or narrative to the experience aside from the emergent one created by the player’s own actions.
Gust’s keenness to give each of their titles a clear cover star is most apparent in the Atelier series, most of which are simply named after their (usually female) protagonist, with the exception of the three-part Atelier Iris subseries on PlayStation 2, which is instead named after an important character in the overall narrative. But this is also true in the Ar Tonelico series, in which the female leads are typically explored in considerably greater depth than the playable male protagonist, and so, too, is it true for Nights of Azure with its cover star Arnice and her partner Lilysse.
Despite its common approaches, though, Nights of Azure is a marked contrast to much of Gust’s past output, in particular the Atelier series. While Atelier is typically (though not exclusively) a pastel-coloured world of soft lines and a fairy-tale atmosphere, Nights of Azure is dark and Gothic throughout. Its overall narrative and tone is somewhere between the light-hearted, personal tales of the Atelier games and the world-spanning epics that are the Ar Tonelico titles, too; there’s a very personal tale at the core of Nights of Azure, though the main narrative thrust is more about dealing with an encroaching darkness that threatens the world rather than resolving an individual’s problem.
Nights of Azure even eschews a standard experience-and-levels progression mechanic — which, for all the peculiarities of past Gust titles, tend to be historically fairly conventional — in favour of something with a slight whiff of both From Software’s Souls series and Falcom’s Ys I about it. In short, Nights of Azure is both immediately recognisable as a Gust title and unique in its own right, and for those reasons alone it’s a game well worth exploring.
We’ll talk in more detail about how Nights of Azure handles its overall narrative, themes and characterisation as well as its mechanics in subsequent articles, but it should suffice to say for now that it is no exception to the rule that Gust games are typically unconventional in both structure and mechanics, and infused with a large amount of personality and character. Gust’s experiments over the years haven’t always been entirely successful — their recent output such as Ar Nosurge in particular has been met with rather more mixed opinions than their typically well-regarded back catalogue, for example — but Nights of Azure is most certainly an attempt to break from the norm that has succeeded admirably in most regards.
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