We’ve seen a push lately toward making games that approach “difficult topics;” if I had to weigh in I’d offer two reasons for this. The first is that many in the hobby would like to see some degree of mainstream approval for games and their angle is to have the medium accepted as a serious art form. We’ll save that discussion for another day (suffice to say a lot of us dealt with being told that our hobby was a waste of time as kids and this is how some are addressing that criticism today) but it directly ties into the second reason: making a game that Bravely Tackles a Difficult Topic provides one’s work with a built-in shield against criticism.
To offer a couple of contemporary examples, say anything negative about Firewatch or, god forbid, That Dragon Cancer and you’re going to need to go on a firewatch of your own as the flames roll in. I’d never say that this sort of game implicitly takes advantage of an audience that’s not known for critical analysis and that has a vested interest in games being taken seriously. I’d probably cough and shuffle a bit if somebody else said it, though.
That’s why Nights of Azure is an interesting game. The latest from developer Gust, it tells the story of Arnice and Lilysse, a demon hunter and priestess respectively, who fight against vile demons and try to save the world from a villainous demon lord. They’re also in a very obvious lesbian relationship that blooms as the game progresses. It’s a fairly standard action-RPG from most perspectives but it also approaches that relationship from one of the more mature perspectives I’ve seen in a non-walking-simulator. Things just kind of lead to one another and nobody really minds much either way.
It’s nice to see a game that can touch on this without making it the central focus of the experience. In fact, it suggests that video games actually are becoming better able to handle talking about this kind of thing with more tact than a sixth-grade debate team. A single action-RPG that includes a lesbian lead couple without making a huge deal about it while still also offering a playable and enjoyable game says more about the gradual maturation of the medium than a thousand “artistic experiences” that win their praise just because they talked about a given subject at all.
Still, another site I frequent bemoaned that the game isn’t a “meaningful exploration of human relationships.” My eyes rolled so hard that my optic nerves nearly knotted themselves, but I have to admit that they’re right. Love ’em or hate ’em, Nights of Azure leans very heavily on anime tropes, skimpy outfits and jiggle physics, which is a little odd considering how well the underlying themes are handled. I wouldn’t say this detracts from the experience, but there’s a certain degree of aesthetic dissonance here.
As for the gameplay on offer, it’s a bit reminiscent of games like Ni no Kuni played out in real time. You control heroine Arnice, a half-demon whose job is to slay monsters created by corrupted Blue Blood. Arnice is pretty good at hacking and slashing, but your real power stems from your Servans, customizable ally monsters that offer damaging attacks, healing and support abilities. Arnice’s damage is decent enough but she can be a bit fragile, so the key to victory is using your Servans effectively to bring down your foes. Later, Arnice can change forms to increase her mobility and damage, but this is just frosting compared to the kind of destruction your Servans can dish out.
Leveling up involves collecting Blood from defeated foes and spending it on upgrades. Your Servans improve through use, but Arnice needs to use that Blood as both experience points and currency. Much like the Souls games, balancing out where your “money” goes is a key part of Nights of Azure; you can also focus on making more Blood to further upgrade your character if you’d like to go that direction.
Either way, Nights of Azure isn’t an especially long or difficult game, so frankly your starting Servans are probably up to the task of carrying you through the story if you feel like doing that. Still, there’s a decent selection of monsters available to gear up and bring into combat, so it can be fun to mess around a little. New gear and Servans come pretty regularly if you’re willing to seek them out and clean out sidequests; there’s enough variety to last you for a while. Boss battles, meanwhile, can take a bit longer than one would like, but you rarely feel like you’re in real danger.
The presentation here is fairly standard for Gust; you’ve got girls in frilly outfits, generic monsters for them to fight and so on. As mentioned, this comes off as a little strange given how genuinely progressive the game can be. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, though, and Nights of Azure is certainly pretty enough, with the game in general having an aesthetic that reminded me of best parts of the PlayStation 2 era. There’s voice acting as well, though it’s all in Japanese so I couldn’t comment on quality.
As mentioned, Nights of Azure is a fairly short game at around ten hours for players who meander a bit. With that in mind it might not be a bad idea to wait for a price drop before diving in. Still, this is an adventure worth having, as the combat’s enjoyable, the graphics are nice and it offers a fresh take on the usual JRPG love story.