Some developers become so associated with a particular property that their name is almost synonymous with the series; such is certainly the case for Gust, whose annual alchemy-based Atelier titles have been delighting PlayStation gamers with intricate crafting and sunny slice-of-life storytelling since the PS One days. In addition to these alchemical offerings, however, Gust has also been branching out in recent years, with 2015’s action-RPG Nights of Azure taking a decidedly darker tone. Now Koei Tecmo has brought its standalone sequel — Nights of Azure 2: Bride of the New Moon — to the Switch, and it’s a very welcome addition to the library. Despite some performance problems and repetition, Bride of the New Moon’s fun hack-and-slash gameplay, memorable characters and excellent sense of style all conspire to deliver a gothically good time for action fans.

Right from the start, Nights of Azure 2 is true to its name, taking place in a world entirely shrouded in darkness. Horrific monsters known as ‘Fiends’ terrorize humanity under the cover of night, and our heroine, Aluche, is part of a group called the Curia that aims to stop them. When we first meet Aluche, she’s on a mission to escort a priestess named Liliana — who also happens to be a dear childhood friend — to Curia headquarters. Once there, she finds out her friend is destined to die; it’s Aluche’s job to deliver her as the ‘Bride of Time’ sacrifice to stave off the Fiends. Torn between duty and desire, she eventually decides to take Liliana as instructed, but doesn’t get very far, and ends up unceremoniously killed by a Fiend not long into her mission.

As you might guess, however, that isn’t the end of Aluche’s story. She wakes in a lab, brought back from the dead by a researcher who’s fused her body with that of a demon. Half-mortal and half-not, she’s filled with new power, new resolve, and an unfortunate taste for human blood, and sets off on a quest to find Liliana and sort out right from wrong. Bride of the New Moon’s narrative is twisting and compelling, and while certain beats are more predictable than they seem to want to be, we still greatly enjoyed going along for the ride. It helps that the cast is excellent — Aluche in particular is a strong, immediately likable heroine, but all of her (all-female) friends are memorable in their own ways — and watching their relationships evolve over the course of the game is a real highlight.

To do so, you’ll need to dive into the main gameplay loop, which means guiding Aluche and her friends through discrete levels of frenetic hack-and-slash combat, heading out from your hotel base of operations to challenge missions one at a time. The basic setup feels similar to Musou or Warriors games; you’ll have access to both a quicker, weaker attack (‘Y’) and a stronger, slower technique (‘X’), and chaining together the two in various configurations will result in special combos, along with a dodge, block and several types of special attacks.

In terms of its specific style, we’d describe Nights of Azure 2’s combat as both “combo-heavy” and “very busy”. Combos are powerful, potentially very lengthy — it’s not uncommon to see triple-digit hit counters — and welcomely varied; longer strings don’t just result in longer attacks, but instead certain combinations are situationally useful. We had one four-button go-to for when we we surrounded on all sides, for instance, and another two-button standby when we needed to hit an airborne enemy. More so than with many action games, we found ourselves able to dial in the right tool for the job after a few levels, and that’s a fantastic feeling.

That’s the “combo-heavy” part of the combat, then — so what about the “very busy”? As it turns out, Aluche isn’t alone in her fight, and you’ll have three other bodies following you around the battlefield — one Lily and two Servans — all of which you can control to a certain degree. The ‘Lily’ is your chosen partner, a fellow human (or at least, human-like) friend you’ll bring into battle and see around the hotel afterwards as well. Each one has different active and passive skills, and while you can issue commands to your Lilly via the D-Pad, even if left alone, they’ll wail on enemies and fight quite competently. 

Lilies are also linked to Aluche via a teamwork gauge. You can fill this meter in a few ways: by attacking the same enemy at the same time (for a Double Attack), or by laying into a foe that recently attacked your Lily (Revenge Attack). Once the meter is charged, you can press ‘A’ to activate a ‘Double Chase’, a cinematic, Lily-specific special move that powers up the more you mash the button. A separate ‘Tension Gauge’ also allows you to activate a ‘Lily Burst’, and these are more powerful still; combined, these two moves make up a huge part of your arsenal, and we loved how much each Lily’s personality shines through in the attack cutscenes.

In addition to your Lily, you’ll also command two Servans, monster helpers who follow you into battle. Each Servan is mapped to ‘ZL’ or ‘ZR’, and you can call them into action when needed. Servans can either cast a certain spell — usually a powerful areal attack — or fuse with Aluche’s sword to transform it into a new weapon type with new combos and combat styles. This second type in particular is a great addition, and we loved playing around with Servan combinations to see what we liked best. They feel like support skills with personalities, and can be upgraded between missions as you progress, so we found ourselves quite invested in them.

There’s quite a bit you can do between missions, in fact, but once you jump in to one, you won’t be able to dawdle. Nights of Azure 2’s structure is a departure from many action games of its ilk, in that it’s twice timed: Aluche’s half-demon body will only let her stay outside of the hotel for so long at once, which means each mission comes with a time limit (starting at around 10 minutes), and there’s also only so many nights before the New Moon heralds the end of the world (and your game), meaning you’ll have a limited number of days to head out and tackle missions in each chapter. 

It’s possible in principle, then, to idle and/or sleep your way to a Game Over, but in practice neither of these time limits ever felt restrictive. We appreciated how the mission timer gave a real sense of urgency to each excursion, and having to make decisions about where to head next based on available time kept us constantly on our toes. And while the time limit starts at 10 minutes, it only goes up from there; extending Aluche’s resistance to the outside world is one of many options on her character growth tree, and you’ll be able to add several minutes to that timer fairly quickly.

The moon phase time limit, meanwhile, is calibrated to let you tackle the numerous sidequests offered in each chapter while still allowing for a few ‘timed-out’ missions, so it’s almost never an issue for the main story. Often we’d finish most of the chapter with several days to spare, and then spend the next-to-last days scoring friendship points with our Lilies by completing sidequests before challenging the chapter boss on the last night.

We enjoyed making our way through Nights of Azure 2 quite a bit, but as with many hack-and-slash titles, repetition does start to set in before too long. That’s not the fault of the combat — the combo variety and number of moving parts between Servans and Lilies meant we always had something new to try out — but more of the mission structure, which relies heavily on a ‘defeat X amount of Y monster in Z place’ template. It doesn’t help that the environments aren’t terribly interesting — either visually or mechanically — and you’ll fight the same enemies over and over again; the demon designs are great, but we definitely longed for fresh faces more often than we saw them. Still, the intricate bosses offer some excellent standouts, and the timed design helps quite a bit with the rest; individual missions don’t ever feel like they drag on, and playing in short mission-or-two bursts rather than long sessions alleviates much of the feeling of repetition.

Nights of Azure 2 has solid action game bones, but it’s elevated into a particularly enjoyable experience by its unique, absorbing atmosphere. It has a gothic fairy tale aesthetic that makes it seem almost Bayonetta-like at first, but the anime sensibilities layered on top of that base give it a feel all its own. It’s chock full of fan-service, for one — each new arrival in the all-female cast barely has time to be introduced before they feature in a swimsuit scene at the pool — but the pervasive prurience is rounded out by well-drawn characters, fun ‘friendship event’ interactions, and clever writing. It’s an all-in-on-lewd attitude, and it makes the tidal waves of yuri innuendo coursing through the experience a welcome stylistic cornerstone rather than an occasional distraction. While it won’t be for everyone, if you’re onboard, it’s an excellent mix — if Bride of the New Moon were on Netflix, its descriptors might fall somewhere in-between ‘Girls Supporting Girls’ and ‘Light Erotic Action with Strong Vampire Lead’.

Unfortunately, while Azure delivers on overall style, it’s more of a mixed bag in terms of its graphical presentation. The character models are beautifully done, with loving detail and impressive textures, but it’s clear that that’s where most of the artistic effort went; the environments (especially the battlefields) generally feel bland and sparse, and feature some jarringly low-res textures. There’s also quite a bit of pop-in, and the overarching issue that most of the locales you’ll find yourself in are so dark. That’s obviously by design, and while it makes the bright character designs and neon trails from your attacks stand out, it also just makes it difficult to see a lot of the time. We ended up using the mini-map as our preferred point of reference in several stages — functional, but decidedly less fun.

Technical hiccups also come into play, particularly in portable mode. The framerate feels smooth enough when the Switch is docked, but takes a noticeable hit in the move to handheld. It’s far from a deal-breaker, and in fact, even with the performance knock, handheld was our favourite way to go; the focused, timed missions really lend themselves to portable play, and we stopped noticing the performance drop after a few minutes away from the TV each time. No matter which mode you’re playing in, the camera can also occasionally frustrate — it’s fine in outdoor arenas, but on the (mercifully fewer) indoor sections, it can be a bit of a mess.

Our biggest frustration with the presentation, however, is one tiny interface quirk that never stops being annoying: ‘Confirm’ is mapped to the ‘B’ button and ‘Cancel’ to the ‘A’ button, the opposite of Nintendo norms. Sure, it sounds like a small issue, but decades worth of muscle memory is a powerful force to overcome, and it’s compounded by the fact that the ‘Interact’ button (which you’d use to open a door, or talk to an NPC) is mapped to ‘A’, not ‘B’ as you’d expect from the rest of the setup. That means to save, you need to walk up to the counter and hit ‘A’, then hit ‘B’ to ‘Confirm’ that you’d like to save — hitting ‘A’ again instead means you’ll walk away from the counter without a save file and none the wiser, as we learned after losing the first two hours of our initial attempt at a playthrough. 

In happier presentation news, Nights of Azure 2 absolutely nails the audio side of the spectrum. The soundtrack is fantastic, effortlessly blending piano jazz and downtempo electronica with breakbeat, Celtic folk, and goth rock. It’s lovely stuff, and — as we’ve come to expect from Gust — adds a layer of polish and charm that seems to transcend the otherwise cost-conscious production. Excellent Japanese voice acting rounds out the package, with strong performances and lots of personality for Aluche, her Lily companions, and the Servans.

Conclusion

A fast-paced hack-and-slash with fun, combo-heavy combat and an anime-after-dark aesthetic, Nights of Azure 2 is a great time. Strong characters, endearing interactions, and an interesting plot kept us excited to play more throughout, even if the repetitive missions and environments make for an experience best enjoyed in smaller chunks. There are some noticeable performance issues in handheld mode, and a few interface woes reflect a lack of overall polish, but if you’re looking for an enjoyable action romp with plenty of blood-sucking style, this is an excellent choice.