As we’ve discussed over the course of the last few articles, Gust’s Nights of Azure has a very strong sense of its own identity, both as an individual work and as part of its developer’s catalogue.
Every aspect of the game as a whole contributes to this coherent identity: its distinctly operatic, tragic Gothic narrative; its blend of action RPG gameplay with monster-raising and character customisation; its small cast of distinctive, memorable characters.
Perhaps the most distinguishing characteristic, however, is its overall aesthetic. While, at times, drawing inspiration from other, similar works, there’s no denying that Nights of Azure takes ownership of its own identity to create a highly distinctive work that stands out even amid the rest of Gust’s back catalogue.
Nights of Azure’s 2D art is the work of Sakai Yoshikuni, better known simply as Yoshiku. What’s immediately striking about it is that although it evokes the style of popular modern anime and manga — particularly with regard to the characters’ facial features, their piercing, huge eyes and their perfect figures — the overall construction of the image and the techniques used give it a much more distinctive appearance than your average modern anime art.
Specifically, Yoshiku’s art has a strong feeling of being “hand-painted” about it, with perhaps a hint of pencil sketching in the more detailed areas. This style of presentation has a massive impact on the overall aesthetic: it mutes the colours slightly from the vibrancy of modern anime-style art (particularly that evoking a strong feeling of moe) and it softens the edges of everything, giving the pictures a somewhat dreamlike quality to them — entirely appropriate, given Nights of Azure’s subject matter regarding the Night.
As you can see from Yoshiku’s other, non-Nights of Azure artwork, this particular style of presentation is very much a trademark, and this image of Alice (of Alice in Wonderland fame) also demonstrates another important aspect of their work: immense levels of detail, not only in the character themselves — look at Alice, Arnice and Lilysse’s hair in particular, with individual locks clearly visible, as well as the attention that has been put into their costumes — but also in the backgrounds.
Yoshiku’s artwork for Nights of Azure maintains this extremely high level of detail, though with particular attention lavished on the characters as opposed to the backdrops in most cases, since they are the focal point of the experience. These images, featuring characters and bosses you fight against in the game, demonstrate a diverse array of influences, ranging from ornate, Gothic-style armour to elaborate costumes thoroughly in keeping with the game’s operatic tone, and even influences from world mythologies.
The game makes good use of colour to give it a distinctive feel, too. Much of the game is bathed in shades of blue to reflect the Night and the blood of the Nightlord, while Arnice in particular stands out against this with her predominantly red outfit. The use of red and black in Arnice’s outfit is also a reflection of her presentation as a quasi-vampiric character thanks to her ability to absorb the Nightlord’s Blue Blood; black and red are colours strongly associated with popular depictions of vampires in the media.
Although sometimes hard to see in the heat of the chaotic action on-screen, Nights of Azure’s in-game, real-time 3D visuals remain remarkably true to Yoshiku’s artwork. The polygonal characters in particular maintain the high level of detail from Yoshiku’s original designs, right down to the visible locks of hair and intricately designed outfits.
And in a game where, aside from hacking up hordes of demons on a nightly basis, we’re supposed to engage and empathise with the central characters’ relationship, that’s extremely important. Both Arnice and Lilysse in particular are distinctive and far from generic in the way they are presented — both in terms of their personalities and their visual design. Yoshiku’s designs play a big part in helping to bring these characters to life.
Shifting over to the auditory side of the aesthetic, Nights of Azure helps cement its strong sense of identity through its rather eclectic use of music: the work of three-person team Kazuki Yanagawa, Daisuke Achiwa and Hayato Asano. All three of these have worked on a number of previous Gust projects — and as longstanding Gust fans will know, the developer has one of the most astonishingly good sound teams in the business.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about Nights of Azure’s soundtrack is the fact that it doesn’t limit itself to one single style — and yet it manages to have a consistent feel to the whole thing that really works. That kicks off right from the get-go with the above piece, which is heard on the title screen; the solitary piano gives a strong sense of both the romance inherent in the game’s narrative and the cold of the Night.
Jump into the game itself, however, and you’re confronted with some music rather reminiscent of Michiru Yamane-era Castlevania, incorporating driving rock rhythms with some distinctly Gothic sounds such as choirs, harpsichords and organs. One can assume — particularly given the title of this track — that this overall “sound” is intended to be Arnice’s trademark.
This style is maintained for the majority of Nights of Azure’s action stages, and it gives this part of the game a noticeably distinct feel from the rest of the experience. It highlights the fact that when Arnice is out and about chopping demons up and capturing their Blue Blood, she’s all business; although she’s often fighting for Lilysse, she doesn’t let her feelings cloud her judgement.
By contrast, the music whenever Arnice returns “home” to the Ende Hotel, and the other members of the main cast including Lilysse, the music takes on a distinctly more jazz-inspired feel. In particular, the somewhat Gothic instrumentation is replaced by an overall rather more gentle sound, with particular emphasis on the flute as a prominent instrument. One can safely assume that the softer overall timbre is intended to reflect both Lilysse’s gentle nature, and the way Arnice softens when she’s around the one she loves.
Another interesting contrast in the game’s soundtrack comes in the boss themes that come at the conclusion of the more linear “dungeon” areas. Each boss has a unique piece of music that reflects its overall character and aesthetic; this particular track, which comes after Arnice has cleared out a haunted carnival, describes a monstrous creature that is essential a demonic, animated carousel horse. Its wildly energetic nature, coupled with typically “carnival-style” instrumentation such as glockenspiel and unusual percussion, is strongly evocative of the action on the screen at the time.
And as you might expect from a game with a distinctly operatic tone throughout, the final boss theme is particular spectacular, evoking a strong feeling of the battle being an absolutely climactic one. The Gothic orchestration is back, reflecting Arnice being in “business mode”, but an overall much thicker texture and the absence of the rock guitars and drum kits give a more serious tone to the whole thing.
The piece also incorporates a variety of inspirations from earlier in the game, ranging from the use of instrumentation — during an early lull in the piece, “Lilysse’s” flute can clearly be heard — to hints of melodic motifs we’ve heard throughout the whole game.
Taken by itself, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to imagine this piece of music accompanying a piece of physical performance such as ballet (or indeed opera), and in many ways this is entirely appropriate, given the way Nights of Azure’s combat typically works: there’s a very strong emphasis on movement and dodging, giving many of the encounters in the game — particularly those with powerful enemies and bosses — a rather “dance-like” feel to them.
As you can see (and hear), then, Nights of Azure is one of Gust’s most distinctive titles, and every aspect of the complete experience — mechanics, narrative, aesthetics — help give it that strong sense of identity.
It’s a game that was obviously designed with a clear vision of what the team as a whole wanted to accomplish. And, speaking from both the player’s and critic’s perspective, it’s pretty obvious that they’ve succeeded admirably, producing a game that is both a beautiful work of art and a lot of fun to play, too. How many modern games can truly boast that feat?
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