The MoeGamer Awards are a series of made-up prizes that give me an excuse to celebrate games, concepts and communities I’ve particularly appreciated over the course of 2017. Find out more and suggest some categories here!
Music is a massively important part of the modern gaming experience. As technology has improved, particularly in the storage department, we’ve seen a notable shift away from game systems synthesising music in real time using built-in sound chips — a process that often produced a distinctive and instantly recognisable sound unique to each platform — and towards more traditionally recorded music.
While this does diminish each modern platform’s individuality in terms of the distinctive timbres of their games’ soundtracks, it does leave composers free to let their imaginations run wild and express themselves — and for us as listeners to focus on the compositions themselves rather than admire how the musicians got around technical limitations. Today’s award celebrates a delightfully eclectic and enjoyable soundtrack that blends a variety of styles together into one coherent whole; the kind of soundtrack that simply wouldn’t have been possible back in the eras of chiptunes or synthesised MIDI music.
And the winner is…
Nights of Azure
Those who follow the world of game music — particularly that of Japanese origin — will doubtless know a few “big name” composers and have some favourites among them. But besides these individuals, there are also a few musical teams that have developed names for themselves as ensembles rather than named composers.
One such group is the sound team from prolific developer Gust, a collective that has been putting out amazing music for the company’s games since the PlayStation 2 era. Its most notable works from this period include the spectacularly epic music from the Ar Tonelico series, and over time the talented composers and sound engineers at Gust have produced a variety of other soundtracks for series such as Atelier and Mana Khemia, with each series developing its own distinctive sound.
Nights of Azure, as an all-new IP for the company, clearly needed to sound different to Gust’s past work to distinguish itself, but also needed to uphold the extremely high compositional quality the team had built its reputation on. So it was left up to veterans Kazuki Yanagawa and Daisuke Achiwa along with relative newcomer Hayato Asano, all of whom had previously worked on various installments of Gust’s flagship Atelier series in the past, to come up with something suitable.
The result was one of the most interesting and eclectic game soundtracks I’ve ever had the pleasure of listening to — yet one that maintains its consistency and distinctiveness throughout despite taking in a wide variety of compositional styles.
The game sets the tone with its title screen theme: an emotional, slightly mournful piano piece that evokes mental images of the seemingly perpetual night the game world is clad in. Interestingly, the main conflict of the game sees its protagonist Arnice trying to prevent the world from being clad in eternal darkness, but we never actually see any daylight during gameplay; all of the action sequences unfold at night, while Arnice’s daytime activities are presented via short snippets of text narration.
The first action sequence you encounter in the game is accompanied by this piece, featuring the distinctive sounds of Gothic-style rock, as popularised by Michiru Yamane in her compositions for Konami’s Castlevania series in the PS1 and PS2 eras. Thrashing, wailing guitars combine with distinctly Baroque-sounding instruments such as the clavichord and harpsichord to produce a sound highly characteristic of this distinctively Japanese style of “action horror”.
The Baroque and Gothic influences continue with this piece, often heard during dialogue and story sequences — though the more modern electric instruments and drum kits are nowhere to be heard here. Instead, we have the interesting juxtaposition of a distinctly “bouncy” traditional dance beat accompanied by a rather mournful melody; perhaps a reflection of the relationship between the rather serious Arnice and the whimsical Lilysse.
This rather jazz-inspired piece, heard on the “results” screen after Arnice returns from a night of demon hunting, represents another distinctive influence on the soundtrack as a whole, incorporating both jazz flute and very clean-sounding electric guitar melodies. Certainly a far cry from Gothic horror, and an audible signal that Arnice’s struggles for the evening are over, allowing her to rest and relax in the arms of the woman she loves.
The “carnival” stage in the game is very much based around some rather traditional-sounding carnival melodies, with rather extravagant orchestration. It gives this sequence a rather different feeling to the pounding determination of her city street explorations, but there’s nonetheless a hint of menace to all this — since although carnivals are supposed to be places of joy, there’s also something a bit creepy about them, particularly at night time.
The carnival stage’s boss fight features an absolutely perfect theme, maintaining the feel of the carnival’s inherent absurdity (and the absurdity of the fight itself, which is against a demonic carousel horse) while increasing the energy to reflect the dangerous situation in which Arnice now finds herself.
A trip through an underground cemetery is accompanied by this rather slow-paced, soft piece that evokes a real feeling of melancholic peace; the sensation that if you step too heavily as you pass through, you’ll disturb those who have been sleeping for many years — a not implausible concern, given everything else that happens in the game.
There are many, many other tracks in the game I could share to highlight impressive moments in this amazing soundtrack, but we’ll leave our exploration with this theme from the final boss battle, a track which emphasises the religious undertones of the main narrative with its heavy use of choral vocals and pipe organ sounds, accompanied by a very large and full-sounding orchestra to emphasise how much is at stake as Arnice’s quest comes to a close.
All in all, Nights of Azure was a highly enjoyable game — and a huge part of what made it so enjoyable for me was its brilliant music. Very much a game I wanted to raise the volume on every time I played, whether I was rocking out with Arnice on the city streets or jazzing it up in the Hotel Ende.
Watch out for a full Cover Game feature on the sequel at some point in the next few months!
More about Nights of Azure
Thanks to MaxDes on YouTube for the soundtrack rips.
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