Ninety-Nine Nights

We saw it today, we play it tomorrow.

Phantagram CEO SangYoun Lee and I probably don't have a lot in common, but today I knew just how he felt. Having arrived in Tokyo yesterday thoroughly jetlagged and without the slightest understanding of either written or spoken Japanese, I've been quietly and respectfully fudging the simplest of conversations ever since.

Poor Mr. Lee, who flew in from Korea for Microsoft's pre-Tokyo Game Show conference in Shibuya, was announced with much gusto by Xbox Japan's Yoshihiro Maruyama - only to stand there and say absolutely nothing as a product manager explained to the crowd that he was playing Ninety-Nine Nights. Respectfully.

Ninety-Nine Nights, N3 to its friends, is of course the game that Phantagram has been making in collaboration with Tetsuya Mizuguchi's Q Entertainment. Today we saw Mr. Lee play it, taking control of a tightly armoured hourglass-curved heroine with a big sword, and wade through hundreds upon hundreds of troops.

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Looks nice eh? It didn't look this sharp at Microsoft's conference, but we're reserving judgement until it's in our faces.

This, of course, is fairly typical of early next-generation games; with little time and limited resources, devs are discovering that one of the easiest applications of the Xbox 360's brute strength is simply increasing the number of units on-screen. N3 does this - we knew this much before. What's worrying is that despite Mizuguchi's involvement - usually enough to guarantee a strong game, to say the least - it's surprisingly dull to watch somebody else play it.

Yes, there are lots of units, and yes, the CG cut-scenes look nice. But the in-game action is more reminiscent of Dynasty Warriors than the opening of Gladiator. Wading into the midst of armed troops, our heroine slashed, slashed, slashed and juggled enemies in the air, and with every swirl of her sword seemed to make bigger arcs and cause more damage. At which point enemies would tumble to the ground and remain there without disappearing - and the 'Kill Count' in the bottom right would shoot up and up.

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From the CG trailer. This is what we want.

It's like a fairly standard third-person hackandslash with more units and persistent corpses. The ground underfoot boasted none of the parallax mapping seen in games like Kameo, animations are regularly repeated (the juggle in particular is very old-school) and the air wasn't really thick with the mist of blood-spray; it was just misty, thanks to a depth-of-field effect that blurred proceedings after a certain distance. It makes more sense than a screen full of units in perfect focus, perhaps, but nested in this environment it had something of a negative impact.

As the demonstration continued, our lady gathered red souls to her, which filled up a gauge allowing her to unleash 'over-attacks'. These struck out with extreme force, scything through masses of enemies in a straight line, spouting waves of energy to send enemies crashing aside, and eventually unleashing a higher-level over-attack that fired needle-thin blue lines through the air in every direction, dispatching hundreds of enemies at once. But even this, though technically impressive, wasn't an absolute marvel to see. In the trailer we've seen - and indeed in CG footage shown after the in-game demonstration - these over-attacks pay homage to Sauron's demise at the start of the Lord of the Rings. In-game they're mighty, but much less extraordinary.

As are many of the effects. After witnessing first-hand the sheer volume of incidental detail Rare's packed into Xbox 360 title Kameo, it was rather jarring to watch the player clip straight through logs, and chop identikit wooden objects in half exactly the same way each time - and always on the third blow, after the previous two had failed to do any damage at all.

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This broke and the world endured 99 days of darkness. Jewellery: worth learning.

Of course it's too early to call it one way or another, and Mizuguchi's games always have a habit of feeling heaven-sent once they're gluing the controller to our hands. We can even see how certain things might feed into that - the repetition of juggle animations, for example, might be crucial to judgement of the timing. And there's clearly much more to it than these fumbling first steps; characters glimpsed in the cut-scenes appear to have different elemental powers; there's a wide-eyed young girl in a witch's hat and tall boots summon raindrops into the air and twists up some manner of typhoon, for example. So, while we'd urge caution for now, we're going to stick with Mr. Lee and let actions speak loudest. Join us again soon for hands-on impressions of the game from the floor of the Tokyo Game Show.

Ninety-Nine Nights is due out on Xbox 360 in January 2006. It's playable at the Tokyo Game Show this week.

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