It’s not too often that you get a JRPG set in the ‘real’ world, with place names that you recognize and a time period that is easily identifiable. Nights of Azure takes place in the 19th Century, and though Ruswal Island, where it takes place, is fictional, you have many references to missions taking place in London, Paris, and the United States.
The introduction to Nights of Azure tells of the 11th Century defeat of the Nightlord, and the subsequent curse that has made monsters appear at nightfall. In an attempt to defeat the Nightlord and prevent the coming of eternal night, Arnice and Lilysse are sent to Ruswal Island. Arnice is a holy knight, sent to protect Lilysse, a saint whose mission is to seal away the Nightlord for good. To aid her, Arnice is able to enlist the help of Servans, small creatures who assist her in battle.
You start the game with a basic team of three Servans, divided into attack, defense and healing classes. Throughout the course of the game you find Fetishes, items that can be Actualized into Servans, and these later creatures have a variety of specializations, such as telekinesis or finding items on the battlefield. Servans are summoned using a combination of R1 and the face buttons, and though they cost in-game SP to summon, I found that this wasn’t much of a penalty, as I often had more than enough SP to summon my entire party of Servans and still be able to perform Arnice’s special attacks.
Though you control Arnice directly in battle, Servans are left to their own devices, and act based upon their type. You’ll often find that you’re not much more than a passive observer in battle, as Arnice’s strength and abilities are often far less than the Servans that you have summoned. As such, it doesn’t feel like there’s much strategy to Nights of Azure’s combat, and that, so long as your Servans are at an adequate level, you can just leave them to wail on the enemy themselves, while you assist with the occasional jab of your sword or daggers.
By defeating enemies and completing objectives, Arnice earns Blue Blood, which allows her to level up and unlocks the ability to learn new skills. These skills range from being able to take more Servans into battle with you to being able to carry more equipment, and even to increasing the amount of time that you’re able to spend in each level. Skills are learnt using skill points, which are earned by completing various tasks during the daytime. This doesn’t really amount to much more than selecting a particular task on a menu screen and then being informed post-level that it’s been completed, but it does give you some control over how Arnice improves, and allows you to play the game a little more to your strengths.
Much of this micro-management is performed at the Ende Hotel, which serves as the main game hub in Nights of Azure. Here you can accept various quests, such as killing a certain number of enemies, or reaching a particular area, and you can also send out trade merchants to different areas of the world to bring back rare and unique items. There’s also an Arena, which provides various combat challenges, as well as a number of side quests to perform for different characters. Nights of Azure contains a lot of moving parts, and though it never really becomes overwhelming, there’s a fair bit of stuff to keep you occupied.
A large portion of Nights of Azure is based on the relationship between Arnice and Lilysse, and it’s here that I had perhaps by biggest issue with the game. Nights of Azure sets up pretty early on that they have a romantic history, and that these feelings for each other continue to exist, but this relationship is handled clumsily. Whether intentionally or not, it comes across as an awkward attempt at titillation, rather than a genuine effort to include homosexual characters in a positive manner. To be honest, my opinion probably wasn’t helped by the gratuitous near-nudity and over-sexualization of both characters, as well as other females that also appear in the game. While this issue doesn’t directly affect gameplay, it made me feel awkward on a number of occasions, and I feel that it was prominent enough that it required addressing.
Nights of Azure starts as a fairly by-the-numbers JRPG, with a basic map system and segmented playable areas, two elements which often scream lazy game design. However, once you start to get into the game, you realize that it contains fast-paced gameplay, a lot of stuff to do, and a decent amount of variety in both tasks and environments. It does have some translation issues, in both language and grammar, and the aforementioned poor handling of the relationship between the two main characters hangs over the game the entire time you’re playing.
It’s a shame, because away from the narrative, Nights of Azure offers up a fun gameplay experience, but this one particular issue is just too prominent to pass it off as inconsequential. I find sometimes that Japanese games get a free pass, with their quirkiness and eccentricity being passed off as mere cultural differences, but the issues here are too intertwined with the game itself to ignore, and as such, it affects my ability to recommend this game without reservation.