Version tested: Xbox 360
Ninety Nine Nights? More like two hundred and ten nights, because that's precisely how long it's taken for Microsoft to get around to releasing a new Xbox 360 game in Europe.
Yep, when Dead or Alive 4 hit the shelves way back on January 27th, it kicked off the most prolonged first party release famine there's ever been following the launch of a new console - an incredible seven months without a single boxed product from one of the biggest game publishers in the world.
Fortunately for Microsoft, high-profile third-party successes (notably Oblivion and GRAW) helped enormously to plug the gap, not to mention various Live Arcade titles. But as the platform holder, its inability to deliver content for most of its console's early lifespan is odd to say the least - especially with rivals breathing down its neck.
My aching wrists
Today's release of N3: Ninety Nine Nights ought to herald the start of the machine's fantastic second wave of titles, but the critical response upon its release elsewhere in the world has been muted to say the least. Despite being a celebrated collaboration between Phantagram's SangYoun Lee and Q Entertainment's legendary Tetsuya Mizuguchi, the game's largely been condemned for being little more than a minor evolution of the Dynasty Warriors formula. In other words a visually flash action-RPG where you take on thousands of enemies with an intense amount of button mashing. It's RSI in a box.
Perversely, this makes us even more curious about the game. Is it just the achievement points that beckon, or are we just suckers for punishment?
Unless you're already a big fan of Dynasty Warriors (in which case you'll love this and disregard the score), the chances are the merest genre association with KOEI's long-running series could be considered something of a curse. You might have hoped for a large scale Onimusha, Ninja Gaiden or Devil May Cry, but no. It's definitely Dynasty Warriors territory we're treading here, but somehow far more interesting than you might imagine.
With that in mind, you'll know the drill inside out and back to front. N3 might shake up the settings, scenarios and types of enemies, but the action is very familiar indeed - and as such, you have to work hard to shake off the preconceptions before you come to really enjoy it. Played from seven contrasting and often overlapping perspectives over the course of the 30-odd missions, the premise nevertheless remains consistent at all times. Armed with a deadly melee weapon of some sort, you take on entire armies of orcs, goblins, and even frogs in a blizzard of flailing limbs and steel, while the neon swoosh provides the necessary visual feedback to the blur of frantic button-mashing going on in front of the screen.
Regardless of whether you're controlling Inphyy, the 17 year-old female Temple Knight, or taking on the humans as vengeful Goblin warrior Dwingvatt, it's a game that adheres to Bungie's mantra of being thirty seconds of fun over and over. In N3's case, it's simply one massive rumble after another, where you and your small band of allied forces take on incredible numbers until you've decked as many of them as you want to, before heading off to some other pre-determined part of the map to hunt for more. Having survived the onslaught of willing subjects and left behind a trail of dead, you'll encounter disproportionately powerful 'boss' characters. Forcing you into actually using strategies and mastery of the controls, the bosses can be a bit of a jolt at first, causing frustrating Game Over situations at the end of half an hour of concerted slaying. Going from hero to zero in a matter of seconds often comes with little warning.
The more you stick with N3, though, the more it seems to mysteriously grow on you despite never really changing a great deal from one mission to the next or even from one character to the next. And yet before N3's tutorial's even played out, the premature conclusion to draw is that it sticks rigidly to basic and well-worn gameplay mechanics that are strangely primitive at times.
Almost every attack centres around chaining various combinations of X and Y together in rapid succession, with continual stabs of either reaping disproportionate reward. Unlike the more hardcore offerings in the hackandslash genre, N3 appears content to take directional context out of the combo equation entirely, leaving the novice player to lay to waste entire armies by mashing X or Y repeatedly. Occasionally adding Y to a string of Xs - or vice versa - delivers an awesomely effective attack, meaning there's little requirement to learn the more complex manoeuvres that get added to your range of attacks as you level up. Once you settle on a few powerful moves, the only other thing to worry about is charging up your orb attack gauge. As with the Onimushas and Devil May Crys of the world, N3 spits out red orbs from everything that you kill, acting both as experience points and as a means of charging up your all-powerful orb attack.
Spark of genius
Once you've harvested a set amount of orbs, you can then unleash a devastating assault on the masses around you, which in turn spit out special blue orbs. Strategically, it's always best to save such bursts of activity for when there are literally hundreds of enemies around you, so that your whirling dance of death catches as many foes as possible in the few seconds available to you. On the rare occasions that you manage to charge up your blue orb meter, you then have the chance to massacre entire armies in a truly spectacular blitz that manages to deliver the kind of scale that you expect from a next-gen imagining of an old idea. It's like when 2D shooters started giving players immense screen-clearing uber-attacks, except these are in 3D and often awesome in their scale and majesty. It's worth playing just to experience the rush of wiping out 1000 soldiers at once, and arguably the game's trump card. Once you've done the orb spark attack on one character, you want to see them all. It's a cunning ploy.
After a few hours of play, you start to base entire level strategies on what's coming next, and in that sense there's a real rhythm to combat and orb harvesting - always saving these devastating attacks for those tricky sections where you'd otherwise end up swamped. Needless to say, the feeling of becoming this all-conquering war machine becomes surprisingly addictive. It's like the inherently simple combat at the core of the game becomes as unimportant as a side-scrolling shooter being all about hammering a fire button. As simple as much of the game is, and as much of a level-grinding exercise as it can be, the key moments near the end of each character's story arcs always seem to make it worth seeing through.
In addition, the knowledge that another new character is around the corner is an excellent means of dragging you through the game, especially when it becomes apparent how different all the characters are. Some are slow but powerful (like the priest, Klarran, or the troll), some are super fast (Dwingvatt), while Tyurru's bizarre water attack gives the game a whole new dimension. By the end of it, you've not only seen numerous distinctly different combat styles, but enjoyed an overlapping storyline which completely turns the tables on the whole good-versus-evil premise. Few games can make you feel a little guilty for your actions, but by the time you've seen the story play out from seven different angles, you'll have a massively different opinion of N3 from the one you started with. The main problem is, it's extremely easy to write off N3 well before any of this will become apparent.
And yet, as much as we enjoyed N3 overall, all the criticisms you'll hear trawled out will be more than justified. The combat, for instance, is unforgivably basic for a game of this stature and importance. Chock full of invitations to completely button-mash, it strips the game of any true depth, rendering it largely unnecessary to bother to learn the more complex combos that eventually appear as you work through the level-up process.
Stood next to any major action game or even RPG with action elements, its combat feels like a casual introduction to the genre rather than the definite article that it could so easily have been. Admittedly, there is the option to keep going back to maps to earn better gradings, and eventually play more difficult versions of them, but the incentive to do so is limited. The other problem, of course, is the standard of enemy AI. If the hack fodder weren't so completely dense it might be more satisfying to kill them, and the same thing tends to apply to the main characters as well. Exploits might not seem immediately apparent with some of the more hardcore enemies, but once you find them it can make the game look a bit stupid.
Talking which, visually N3 veers between being utterly spectacular to cringe-inducing, with some hideously unoptimised sections displaying some of the worst slowdown we've come across on the console. Tyurru's screen-filling orb spark attack, for example, slows the game to single-digit calamity every single time you use it, while numerous other over-ambitious sections with way too many enemies on screen send the frame-rate south way too often for our liking. It's all very well filling the screen with massive amounts of detail, but not at the expense of the gameplay.
Also, we have to question what the hell's the point of HD if developers are going to nullify crisp visuals by effectively blurring everything not in the immediate foreground? All too often, you see these potentially startling, sweeping views of massed battle, only to wonder who smeared Vaseline over the screen. Perhaps the most pointless design decision of all was to often leave the player completely obscured by enemies, leaving you totally oblivious to where you are, and just hammering the buttons until the crowd disperses. In effect, the ability to throw massive amounts of characters around the screen is a willy-waving exercise that doesn't work on a gameplay level. If doing this constantly obscures the player's view or slows the game down, what's the point of that? I'd rather beat up less enemies that I can actually see, and ones that appear to care about surviving.
In tandem with this is the way the combat system is locked into the animation cycle. For example, when you're taking on a particularly tough boss, you'll often launch into a combo, only to miss and get caught on the counter because you cannot respond once the move is in motion. Being unable to cancel a lengthy spinning combo animation in reaction to the onset of someone else's hugely powerful manoeuvre is recipe for frustration. If it means 40 minutes of replaying the same level to get to that point, you won't be amused, and it's a regular complaint until you suss the means to avoid such situations (like waiting for them to miss first!).
But eventually such minor niggles fade into the background alongside all those other little things that bug you about games. What you'll get out of N3 is the relentless pounding excitement that transcends the initial gripes. Yes, it is a basic battleground button masher; yes, you do go through the same types of encounter over and over again; yes, it is a bit clichéd. On the other hand, the cut-scenes are occasionally worth watching, and, as the fragments of the storyline start to piece together, it becomes one of those games that's greater than the sum of its parts. That by no means excuses the developer for the catalogue of flaws in the game, but there's still a mindlessly enjoyable game in there if you're prepared to stick with it for a few hours. The lack of co-op or online modes is an oversight, though, and once you're done with the campaign, that's likely to be the end of it.
On a superficial level, N3 represents our worst fears of next generation gaming: that of giving tried and tested templates a cursory lick of paint, charging top whack for them and expecting people to get excited about that fact. Some of you will rightfully want to take a stand against that sort of thing, but for those simply looking for an uncomplicated action RPG with often stunning production values, it's far better than first impressions might suggest. When we started playing N3, we had this down as 4 or a 5, but by the end we enjoyed it enough to think of it as a solid 7, but whichever way you look at it, N3: Ninety Nine Nights is never the classic it deserved to be.
7 / 10