Nights of Azure: Hack, Slash… and Command

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Gust, as we’ve established, is a company that doesn’t like to do things completely conventionally. As such, it’s entirely fitting that a Gust action RPG isn’t quite what you’d normally expect from the genre.

Nights of Azure is a fascinating game from a mechanical perspective in numerous different ways. Drawing influences from a variety of sources including From Software’s popular Souls series, Falcom’s Ys franchise, monster-raising games such as Pokémon and even elements of tabletop role-playing, the whole experience is one you can easily lose yourself in.

The result is a game that is initially surprising and baffling in roughly equal measure, but taking the time to get to know what makes the game tick really pays off in the end: it’s one of the most interesting takes on the action RPG for a long time.

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Let’s look at the basics first. In Nights of Azure’s action sequences, which form the majority of the gameplay, you directly control a single character: cover heroine Arnice. Arnice is a reasonably mobile character, initially equipped with a single melee weapon and a number of ways to attack with it: a weak but quick attack that will form the backbone of most of your assaults; a stronger, slower attack that has varying effects according to how many weak attacks preceded it; and an extremely powerful special attack that has very different effects according to which weapon she’s presently using. She can also block attacks and perform a dash-dodge move. So far, so conventional.

Where things start to get more interesting is when you start taking her four-member party of “Servans” — essentially puppet-like demons, fairies and other creatures — into account. Each Servan has its own particular function in the party, with lumbering golem-like Servans acting as “tanks” to distract attention from Arnice and her other companions, fairy-like sprites specialising in offensive or healing magic according to their colour, cat-like Servans finding useful items for Arnice both in and out of combat, and other types likewise performing various useful functions.

The Servans mostly act independently but loyally to Arnice; when not engaged in combat, they will follow her around faithfully, and when enemies appear they will often lead the charge into battle. Basic orders can be issued to them by using the D-pad on the controller, ranging from “Rampage!” (attack whatever they please, usually the closest enemy) through “Teamwork!” (cooperate on the enemy Arnice is targeting) to “Follow!” (ignore enemies and remain in formation).

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The Servans each have two particular tricks up their sleeve, however: firstly, they each perform a special ability when they are first summoned into battle — when entering an action scene, Arnice only has the “leader” of her party of Servans automatically summoned, necessitating the expenditure of her “SP” resource to summon the rest — and secondly, they each have their own independent stock of SP once summoned which can be used to trigger their “Burst” abilities manually. Burst abilities are generally a powerful complement to the Servan’s main function in the party: for example, the aforementioned tank-like golems will erect a field that raises their defense considerably, while the healing specialist fairies will perform a “Mega Heal” on Arnice and any Servans she currently has summoned, boosting their HP back up considerably after a short cast time.

In order to succeed in Nights of Azure’s combat, it’s necessary to master both Arnice’s abilities and those of her Servans. Different enemies require different strategies: some can simply be hacked and slashed with gay abandon, while others are best dealt with by allowing the relatively fragile Arnice to hang back and let her Servans do the dirty work. By providing a variety of different enemy types for Arnice and her companions to do battle with over the course of the game — both during regular exploration and boss encounters — combat is kept consistently interesting and rarely degenerates into simple button-mashing.

Arnice’s options expand as she levels up, too, and the progression system is far from conventional. Rather than simply grinding for experience as in most similar games, levelling up can only be performed in between action sequences through a ritual known as “Desden”, in which Arnice uses the demon blood that she and her Servans have collected in the action sequences to power herself up. Each level up awards her with skill points in four different categories, which can subsequently be used to unlock new abilities for use both in and out of combat, and more significantly, various levels also provide her with new weapons.

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Interestingly, Arnice is level-capped by various story milestones, and she only has a total of 11 possible levels to attain in the entire game (with the last one requiring you to play the postgame to achieve), though the game’s similarities to Falcom’s Ys I are most apparent in this regard, as just one level makes a significant difference to her abilities. By the conclusion of the story, she has access to two swords (one short and quick, one long and sweeping), a powerful but slow hammer, a ranged crossbow-like weapon and a pair of short range but devilishly quick daggers. As you might expect, each of these are more effective against some enemy types than others, though their main benefit is the fact that their respective special abilities all have different effects, ranging from simple area-effect attacks to buffs and heals.

Combat in Nights of Azure isn’t just about attacking, however. In fact, the game often punishes overzealous acts of aggression quite harshly, particularly in the late game and especially in the optional endgame dungeon the Hall of Infinite Darkness. Instead, you need to keep a close eye on your surroundings — not always easy during the exaggerated pyrotechnics of combat — and watch out for the various telegraphs that indicate powerful enemy attacks are about to take place. These usually take the form of area of effect markers on the floor — rather similarly to how Square Enix’s excellent MMO Final Fantasy XIV does things — which provide you a split second to get out of the way before taking heavy damage. It’s here that Arnice’s quick dodge-roll ability is most useful, as her base movement speed is surprisingly sluggish compared to the action around her. She does automatically sprint, but this requires her to have been running at normal speed for a couple of seconds before this occurs, potentially leaving her vulnerable and making the instant, speedy dodge-roll a much better option in most circumstances.

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Arnice has one final trick up her sleeve that she can bring to bear in combat, which is her transformation ability. By performing attacks and defeating enemies, she charges up a meter next to her portrait in the corner of the screen. When this is full, a tap of the L2 button causes her to transform into one of several different demonic forms, each with their own particular capabilities, benefits and drawbacks.

The exact form Arnice will transform into is determined by the “deck” of Servans she has chosen to take into battle. Each Servan has an affinity to one of the particular transformations, with the leader of the deck carrying double weight on its affinity. By clearly favouring a particular affinity, Arnice can guarantee she will transform into a particular form; by contrast, having a deck featuring a more balanced array of affinities or simply no clear majority, she will transform into her default “Blaze Demon” form. Since Arnice’s deck cannot be changed once she is into the action sequences of the game, choosing a proper lineup of Servans is essential, balancing their party utility with their affinities in order to maximise their usefulness while providing Arnice with the ability to transform into her most effective forms.

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Managing the Servans themselves forms an important part of the overall metagame. While Arnice is capped at level 11 and has to use demon blood in order to power herself up, Servans level up rather more conventionally, gaining experience simply by participating in combat alongside Arnice, and have a cap of 15. Rather delightfully, Servans all change their appearance quite significantly as they level up, with toy-like Servans sporting ever more ornate decorations, fairies changing their overall colour scheme and more humanoid Servans developing more confident expressions and mannerisms.

Servans also have the ability to equip items, much like Arnice, with various passive abilities affecting both themselves and the party as a whole if given a sensible loadout. Some items even change the abilities Servans are able to use when they are summoned or trigger their Burst attacks, while others afford them useful benefits such as allowing them to be immediately resummoned once they are defeated. Meanwhile, Arnice is able to equip up to four items of her own in total, with most having a combination of benefits and drawbacks that need to either be considered carefully or compensated for with other items.

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Acquiring new Servans is accomplished through a process called Actualisation, which requires the expenditure of items called Fetishes that Arnice locates in her travels as well as a particular amount of demon blood. There are a wide variety of different Servan types to collect over the course of the game, but not so many for it to be an unmanageable task to “catch ’em all”. Rather, there are just enough to allow different types of player to complement their own personal playstyle, and multiple instances of the same Servan can be customised with the aforementioned items, allowing for a degree of variety even among the same “breed”.

Overall, the emphasis on using Servans in combat gives Nights of Azure’s action sequences an altogether unique feel that is noticeably distinct from other, similar games of its type. While you remain in direct control of a single character, much like in titles such as Ys, the addition of the Servan deck, including their automatic abilities, their Summon skills and their Burst attacks, gives combat a great deal of depth and variety as well as allowing different types of players to customise the way the game plays to suit their play styles. It’s altogether unconventional in its execution, but at this point you should expect nothing less from Gust.

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Outside of the main action sequences there is plenty to do, also. Aside from the aforementioned levelling up and Servan actualisation, both of which can only be performed between action sequences, Arnice herself can be further customised in a variety of ways. While she gains skill points in Spirit, Finesse, Stamina and Charm with every level up, these are infrequent, and a more reliable, regular source of these points is through the game’s “Daytime Activities” system.

Arnice, it seems, doesn’t get a whole lot of sleep; her nights are filled with the game’s action sequences, while her days are filled with all manner of activities ranging from baking cakes to performing private detective work. These tasks, which are non-interactive and typically represented through a short text narration sequence — each of which have their own entertaining little mini-plot to explore if you repeat the activity — provide Arnice with a small income of both money and skill points. Upon returning from a hard night’s demon slaying, Arnice immediately goes out to work up to three activities and attain their benefits, though this system can’t be exploited; Daytime Activities will only occur if she has spent a prerequisite amount of time out in the streets battling the forces of darkness.

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The hotel which forms the backdrop to the game’s story sequences also has numerous events to explore, all of which are necessary to complete if you want to see everything the game has to offer. Some of these events take the form of sidequests that can be completed during the action sequences, while others simply explore the relationship between Arnice, her partner Lilysse and the small cast of other NPCs in the game. Others still can provide specific gameplay benefits; of particular note is the ability to send merchant vessels on missions around the world, which not only brings you back “free” items but also helps to expand the inventories carried by the characters who will sell you items from the hotel lobby.

For those who want to enjoy the battle system of the game in its purest form, there are also a series of Arena challenges to tackle, many of which require Arnice to complete specific objectives during combat rather than simply defeating all the enemies. Particularly noteworthy among these is the final challenge, which squares Arnice and her Servans off against an incredibly powerful single enemy that provides both one of the game’s stiffest challenges and its longest single battle sequence. The Arena can be freely ignored if you desire, though it is a good place to train your skills and by God is it satisfying when you eventually manage to topple that final enemy.

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Nights of Azure isn’t a particularly long game, clocking in at roughly 20 hours or so if you want to complete everything it has to offer — perhaps a little more if you go for the Platinum PSN trophy, as a couple of the trophies are a little on the grindy side — but its relatively small geographic scale, its intimately personal story and its surprisingly dense, complex and interesting mechanics mean that it never feels like it outstays its welcome.

There’s a lot to do in those 20 hours, though, and plenty of variety, too. Rather, the experience is tightly focused and well-paced to ensure that you always feel like you’re achieving something. The additional mechanics such as Arnice’s skill trees and the Daytime Activities lend some interest to what can often be a rather formulaic genre, and the Servan collecting and raising metagame proves to be surprisingly compelling in its own right.

Frequently peculiar, often surprising and always satisfying, Nights of Azure is one of Gust’s most mechanically interesting games to date. Now it remains to be seen if the impending sequel can live up to the expectations set by this installment.

More about Nights of Azure

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