Nights of Azure: Narrative, Themes and Characterisation

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Nights of Azure is one of Gust’s most mechanically interesting games — particularly in how much it differs from the company’s usual output — but it also has a fascinating, ambitious narrative.

Combining a deeply personal tale with a more conventional JRPG-style “save the world” narrative, the overall atmosphere of the game is very distinctive and quite unlike your average JRPG, if such a thing exists. It blends drama, romance, action, horror and mystery together to create something altogether unique that is very much worth experiencing.

And it pulls the whole thing off with such wonderful style, such a beautifully clear sense of its own identity, that you can’t help but be compelled by the tale it tells.

A comprehensive in-game glossary helps you keep track of all the mythology you’re introduced to.

While people often draw comfort from religion, there is inevitably always something more going on.

Core to Nights of Azure’s mythology is its take on religion and the end of the world, though much of the overall lore is shrouded with mystery as we join the game. We know that protagonist Arnice is a Knight, an agent of an organisation known as the Curia, and that Knights are sworn to protect Priestesses. In turn, one Priestess is destined to become a Saint, and that Saint’s job is to willingly sacrifice herself at the Blue Altar in order to seal away the Nightlord for a number of years and prevent the world being shrouded in eternal night.

It’s apparent from the outset that not all is quite as it seems. Arnice receives orders through mysterious Black Letters that she knows supposedly come from the Curia, but doesn’t know specifically who from. And when she arrives at the Ende Hotel, a Curia facility and the main hub area for the game, there are plenty more questions, particularly with regard to the other people who show up to apparently assist her in her overall mission.

The hotel that forms the backdrop to the game’s narrative is itself shrouded in a certain amount of mystery.

Those raised under the banner of the Curia are encouraged to accept their divine duties, even in many cases without a full awareness of what that involves

The main thrust of this side of Nights of Azure’s narrative is that while people often draw comfort from religion — particularly the “salvation” aspect and the faith that somehow their beliefs will save them from pain, suffering or even the end of the world — there is inevitably always something more going on than the popular perception of a particular religion provides. Even devout believers in a particular religion often don’t know the full story of an organisation’s true purpose — in reality, we often see this exemplified by “cults” that prey on vulnerable members of society, promising them help and salvation in exchange for their devotion and servitude.

Nights of Azure’s Curia isn’t quite a “cult” in this manner, but throughout the game’s main narrative and the “Reminiscence” back stories that you unlock as you progress, it becomes clear that those raised under the banner of the Curia are encouraged to accept their divine duties, even in many cases without a full awareness of what that involves. Indeed, in one particular Reminiscence sequence, Arnice asks main heroine Lilysse if she truly understands what being a Priestess means; Lilysse, young and innocent at the time, simply replies that she believes her job to be to support the Knights as they fight off fiends and demons, showing little awareness of the danger this will also put her in.

Arnice’s “blue blood” may well make her an outcast in the eyes of many zealots, but it certainly gives her powers that most can only dream of.

The situation the world is in was not the result of your typical villain who wants to destroy the world for reasons unclear.

Arnice herself is in a unique position: she doesn’t follow the orders of the Curia purely because she believes in their doctrine, but rather because the organisation has power over her. An incident in her past that becomes clear through further Reminiscence sequences saw her bathed in “Blue Blood” — supposedly the blood of the Nightlord, excessive exposure to which turns people into fiends. Arnice somehow escaped this particular fate, instead incorporating a demonic aspect into herself while retaining her humanity. This gives her the unique ability to make use of the powers that the Blue Blood offers her, and also to cleanse areas infested with demons and fiends without fear of further corruption. As you might expect, the eventual realisation of this by the Curia, who initially believes the blood-soaked Arnice to be a mindless fiend, leads them to believe she will be a great asset to the organisation’s overall efforts to hold back the night.

What is truly interesting about the overall “hold back the night” storyline in the game is the eventual revelation that the situation the world is in was not the result of your typical villain who wants to destroy the world for reasons unclear. Rather, the current cycle of the Nightlord’s repeated rising and the Saints’ sacrifices was born from a frustrated and ill-considered (albeit arguably good-intentioned) desire to bring humanity together for a common purpose. The fear of the world being clad in eternal night was something common to everyone, and this allowed the Curia to continue recruiting Knight and Priestess candidates with a mind to producing a new Saint, ultimately sacrificing her and beginning the cycle anew. Perpetual control of the world, in other words, and all in the name of providing the promise of safety and salvation to the people.

What the Curia didn’t count on was the close personal connection between Arnice and Lilysse, the present Saint candidate. And it’s this particular aspect of the narrative that is arguably the most interesting part of the game’s storytelling as a whole.

Nights of Azure_20160415125610
Arnice and Lilysse’s relationship is central to the experience as a whole.

Nights of Azure doesn’t fetishise or sexualise the yuri aspect of the narrative; rather, it simply presents the relationship as tender, genuine and heartwarming.

Nights of Azure is pretty up-front about the fact that at its heart is a love story between two women. And unlike many other Japanese games that simply imply yuri relationships between characters, usually with flirtatious remarks or one or both characters getting embarrassed and flustered when a third party remarks how close they appear to be with one another, Nights of Azure instead takes full ownership of this aspect without shame. It doesn’t fetishise or sexualise the yuri aspect of the narrative, nor does it draw any particular attention to the fact that the central relationship of the game is a homosexual one. Rather, it simply presents the relationship between Arnice and Lilysse as tender, genuine and really rather heartwarming to see.

That’s not to say that things run entirely smoothly for the pair. When reunited at the beginning of the game, there’s a period of time where the two spend some time getting to know one another with a degree of hesitancy on both their parts. And neither character are “perfect” for one another; Lilysse, in particular, subverts the apparent “perfect demure housewife” trope she initially appears to embody through her seeming inability to produce anything remotely edible in the kitchen. This is presented in the game as a running gag with a monstrous-looking cupcake on one of the hotel’s tables that no-one seems to want to touch or even mention in some cases.

If she really loved her, she’d eat it all.

As further Reminiscences unlock throughout the game, it’s apparent that Arnice and Lilysse are simply “meant to be”.

The cupcake, while flawed and obviously inedible, is clearly designed as a way for Lilysse to attempt to express her feelings towards Arnice. Throughout most of the game, it’s shown with an attempt at a heart as a decoration on the top, though partway through the game where the pair have a disagreement that threatens to tear their relationship asunder, the cupcake on the table is, at this point, shown to be even more battered and this time topped with a broken heart. This could be interpreted in two ways: firstly, as a passive-aggressive signal from Lilysse that Arnice has hurt her feelings and should probably apologise; or secondly (and more likely, given Lilysse’s overall personality) that Lilysse regrets what has happened and wants to fix things, but isn’t quite sure how to.

As further Reminscences unlock throughout the game, however, it’s apparent that Arnice and Lilysse are simply “meant to be”. The pair’s first meeting is presented from the perspective of both characters in different Reminscence sequences, and while both handle this moment very differently to one another — Arnice is all business, but she is immediately drawn to Lilysse, correctly identifying her as her charge upon seeing her napping under a tree; Lilysse, meanwhile is captivated by Arnice’s beauty as soon as she sees her, particularly her eyes — it’s clear that there’s an immediate connection between the two of them.

The “Reminiscence” sequences shed new light on the relationship between the two heroines.

We, as the audience, root for Arnice and Lilysse to be able to live happily ever after, but we also gain the knowledge that things are not going to end well for them.

The relationship between the two characters adds a new dimension to the main narrative of the story, giving it a somewhat operatic, tragic edge. We, as the audience, root for Arnice and Lilysse to be able to live happily ever after, but we also gain the knowledge pretty early on that unless the pair think of something particularly clever, things are not going to end well for them even if the world is “saved” — for a few years, at least.

I shan’t spoil the eventual conclusion to the narrative here, though suffice to say for now that the “true” ending can only be seen after clearing the game once, then loading up a clear file, beating the post-game content (including raising Arnice to her level cap of 11) and then defeating the final boss again. It’s worth the effort to do so.

Nights of Azure tells a particularly effective story by knowing when to stop — when to make things explicit, and when to simply imply things. The in-game narrative sequences are kept relatively short and snappy rather than dwelling excessively on the melodrama inherent in the overall situation, but you still get a good understanding of the internal conflicts that come with Arnice and Lilysse’s relationship and their respective duties. Meanwhile, the optional “Reminiscence” sequences, presented as abstract visual novel-style text passages with subtle visual and musical accompaniments, fill in a lot of the detail of what happened prior to the events of the game to bring Arnice and Lilysse together for the first time, and why they are important to one another. After beating the game, this section is also home to some important background reading on the motivations of the Nightlord, and how the whole cycle of disaster began in the first place.

Further narrative nuggets can be gleaned by seeking out the hidden “memories” scattered around the game world.

The game leaves its audience with a satisfying conclusion and without the sense that loose ends have been left hanging.

While encompassing a small geographic area and featuring a very small cast of named characters — with the main focus on Arnice and Lilysse, as you might expect — Nights of Azure nonetheless manages to tell an engrossing, compelling and sweeping tale, operatic and tragic in tone for the most part while incorporating moments of levity among all the darkness to keep things flowing along nicely.

It doesn’t outstay its welcome, either; with the main story clocking in at 20 hours or less depending on how thorough you are in exploring the game’s many secrets and elements of optional content, the game leaves its audience with a satisfying conclusion and without the sense that loose ends have been left hanging. There’s no feeling that the story has been dragged out unnecessarily in the name of milking as much drama out of it as possible; rather, the core of the story is kept relatively understated and is explored sensitively and maturely throughout.

Perhaps best of all, the game never lets its inherently progressive nature — among other things, by featuring a capable female protagonist in a homosexual relationship with another woman — feel like a selling point or a back-of-box blurb bullet. Instead, the whole narrative — particularly the more intimate, personal moments between Arnice and Lilysse — is left feeling very genuine, composed with heart, soul and great respect for both the medium in which it is presented and its clear inspirations.

Gust is no stranger to works that have inherently positive messages at their core, but Nights of Azure tackles the company’s typically positive attitude from an entirely different angle, and it becomes one of their most memorable titles as a result. As we’ve previously noted, Nights of Azure is one of the company’s most unconventional, interesting games — and it’s well worth your time to engage with its fascinating, compelling narrative.

More about Nights of Azure

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