Xbox 360 Preview: Ninety-Nine Nights
Developer Phantagram and Q Entertainment • Platform Microsoft Xbox 360
Version Reviewed Xbox Live Demo • UK Release September 1st 2006
It's a good week to be an Xbox360 owner with a broadband connection; not only has Street Fighter II Hyper Fighting been added to the vastly swelling gamut of Live Arcade titles, but several exclusive demos of unreleased games have also been made available. Amongst these demos is Ninety-Nine Nights, the new game developed by Phantagram and Q Entertainment. Although the title had been available in Japan since April, the western version is set for release on August 15th in America, and September the 1st here in jolly old England. I'd read a little of the hype surrounding this game prior to the release of the demo, so I was eager to find out what the fuss was about.
Put simply, Ninety-Nine Nights (or N3) is the spiritual successor to such roaming slash-em-ups as Koei's Dynasty and Samurai Warriors series, as well as Phantagram's Kingdom Under Fire: The Crusaders. The premise of these titles is simple; gallivant around a free roaming battlefield, whilst using a weapon of your choice to decimate thousands of enemy soldiers. It's also par for the course to supply you with a vast, amazingly ineffectual army to act as cannon fodder as you press forwards.
N3 pretty much sticks to this formula, but what it lacks in originality, it makes up for in scale; perhaps the most exciting aspect of N3 is union of the genre with the 360's hardware, and how it permits several hundred highly detailed characters to be on screen without any sign of slowdown. Combined with the huge environments, this really gives the game the huge, epic scale that it deserves.
Aesthetically, the game looks good; certainly not on the same level as something like Lost Planet (my obsession du jour), but this is forgiven when you appreciate how detailed the character models are. Despite this, I would go as far as saying that the art direction is somewhat uninspired, and could easily be plucked from any of the newer Final Fantasy games, though given the setting of N3 (which in itself is a fairly generic swords and sorcery type affair), this isn't at all inappropriate.
Epic scale? Check. Polished next gen graphics? Check. But what of the gameplay? Again, it's always occurred to me that these games involve a fair bit of button mashing and have played on the satisfaction gained from defeating many, many enemies rather than intricate button/combo configurations.
N3 holds true to this archetype, and has just two regular attack buttons; one which does a straight attack (which can be hammered repeatedly for a great simple combo) and another that does a kind of twirly, fancy looking combo attack that caused me to get hit from behind a lot more. There are some additional jump and slide attacks that are possible by using various configurations of the attack buttons, but I found that these weren't anywhere near as effective as the regular, vanilla attacks. They do look cool though.
There are also two types of special attack; each time you kill an enemy with a regular attack, you fill up a red bar which, when full, allows you to rapidly thrust your weapon in various directions, instantly killing anything that you hit. Enemies killed with this attack drop plasma which, when collected, fill up a blue bar. This in turn gives you the ability to perform something even more devastating; an explosion of sorts, that instantly kills every enemy on the screen, and then some. During my second play through the demo, I managed to deploy this at a particularly opportune moment and rack up 647 kills in one go.
On paper, the relatively small number of attacks makes the gameplay appear somewhat shallow. However, having played through the demo a few times, this simplicity doesn't come across in a negative light at all; there's a lot to be said for the basic, primal act of repeatedly cutting away at lines of advancing enemies, sending their bodies pinwheeling backwards through the air.
I do have some reservations about diversity of the full game's content, which I think might be more symptomatic of the game's scenarios, rather than the depth of its character's abilities. In the demo stage, the whole thing is spent running to various waypoints with few other objectives to complete. Is this going to be true of every stage, and am I going to be essentially repeating the same sixty seconds or so of gameplay for the whole game?
However, there are signs of additional elements that should help to mix up the gameplay a bit. For example, something that I love in this game is the ability to equip different weapons and items. I'm not sure if my interest in this feature originates from me being a recovering ex-pat of World of Warcraft, but I like how, even on a basic level, it gives you several options of tackling a particular situation.
Item equipping isn't really explained in the demo, but seems like there are three types of item (weapon, armor, or trinket), which can be used to modify your character's stats. Typically, these items are dropped from enemies, or found in crates that are liberally strewn around the landscape. I was initially a bit disappointed that equipping different armor and trinkets didn't change your character's appearance, although each weapon has a different graphic.
Which brings me on to further superficial matters. As you would expect from a game developed in Korea, and then translated into English, the dubbed voice acting is really bad, but in an almost (almost) charming way. The various characters may look completely badass with their intricate armour designs and weapons the size of a Bournemouth, but they come across with all the personality and naiveté of a Pokémon. This isn't just restricted to the pre-rendered and engine cutscenes though; your character will also yell out battle cries and other exclamations during battle, though you should be warned that there doesn't appear to be much variation in these. Perhaps the voice actor's union drastically increased the cost per syllable during the game's development.
However, even when Aspharr (the character featured in the demo) yells out simplistic platitudes such as "Following orders is the most important part of a battle!" in the midst of utter carnage, it's easy to get into the sprit of things, and think "Hell yeah, he's right! CHARGE!".
Which would be fine if your troops actually followed orders. You see, in N3, you also have the ability to issue simple commands to troops near you, to either attack or stay put. Whilst this occasionally works, it soon struck me that this particular draft was less Riders of Rohan and more Bad Lad's Army.
For example, I was about to head into a particularly nasty conflict against a couple of hundred goblins. I charged into the frey, hoping that my troops would take some of the heat. Sadly, as the excess of goblins started to engulf me and my health bar slowly emptied itself of yellow pixels, I realised this was not to be. Rotating my camera view revealed that not only were my troops standing just behind me, distinctly not taking part in the fight, they were in their original formation, proclaiming that there were "no survivors". I wouldn't have minded so much, but they mockingly cheered me whilst raising their spears in the air, as if spectators to some kind of sick bloodsport. Thanks, guys.
Nonchalant armies aside, I have few gripes with what seems to be a very solid, enjoyable game. A lot of the buzz I've been reading seems obsessed with the story, which is something I really can't get excited about ("Goblins, and Orcs and Trolls, oh my!"). Personally, I think this title affords you the ability to switch your brain to autopilot for a couple of hours, and enjoy some wanton destruction without paying too much attention to the plot.
Given that it's now necessary to start a second mortgage to afford two new console games in the same month, I won't be picking up N3 at release (I'm afraid it loses out to a little known game Capcom are putting out on the 15th). However, given the drought of great 360 games recently (I'm not much of a table tennis fan) this will certainly be a likely purchase for October. To use the marketing hyperbole that will inevitably be included on the back of the box, this is a game of epic proportions.