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.