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N3: Ninety-Nine Nights
Platform: X-Box 360
If ever a game encapsulated the mildly depressing state of next-generation gaming, Ninety-Nine Nights is it. It’s undeniably spectacular – every bit as spectacular as its origins as the showcase game that should have launched and sold the Xbox 360 in Japan would suggest. Yet it’s a game so fundamentally flawed on so many other levels that you have to wonder what everyone involved was thinking. If it weren’t so long delayed, we’d have to believe it was rushed.
Let’s be clear about one thing: the visuals are phenomenal. We’ve all seen mass-battle games before – Dynasty Warriors, Spartan: Total Warrior, even Phantagram’s own Kingdom Under Fire – but we’ve never seen anything on this scale. At any one time there are hundreds of beautifully rendered and animated warriors onscreen, all running around swinging swords, polearms or axes at any enemies in the vicinity. The fantasy scenery is wonderful, with sun-pierced green forests and icy mountain fortresses straight from the pages of Tolkien. The combat looks amazing. Even the most basic attacks can see your hero scattering dozens of goblins like so many rag dolls, while the more spectacular combos see scores of foes despatched in glorious arcs of fiery death. And then, as if to show that was nothing, the game throws in incredible special power attacks that can wipe out hundreds – and I mean hundreds – of opponents at a time.
Just as impressively, N3 impresses when it comes to smaller details. Look at the way cloth moves as the characters strike blows, or at the intricately moulded, gorgeous shining armour. Effects are another key strength, with stunning lighting and some cool cinematic focus blurs that really add a sense of depth. From mysterious fog on the Pholya Flatlands to the snowstorms in the Vargaand and Castle Varvazaar levels, you can’t help but be blown away. Even on an artistic level, it’s a triumph. The character design is easily up there with the best of Square or Capcom, and the game has a beautiful, painterly look that shows you don’t have to take the super-realistic or the Perfect Dark/DOA4 plastic anime approach to make the most of 360 graphics.
So when the dramatic score kicks in and the sounds of battle hit you with clang, screams and booms from every side of the room, it’s easy to get carried away. In its best moments, N3 really does have a thunderous epic feel. Whether you’re holding a bridge against a ceaseless goblin onslaught or walking into a vast goblin ambush, an overwhelming tide of green villainy rushing towards you, it’s hard to feel unmoved.
But sadly, that’s as good as N3 gets. Hard as it tries to bowl you over with its grand looks and grander numbers, N3 is a shockingly simplistic game. At its heart, it’s just a case of hacking and slashing through scores of monsters, following particular objectives (highlighted on a handy mini-map) and battering whatever gets in the way. There’s a certain level of character development – you can gather new weapons and bonus items, build combat experience, level up and learn new moves – but no real sense of any other development. From the start to the finish of each character’s campaign, you’re doing pretty much the same thing. And despite the game’s big selling point – the tale of a war told through the eyes of multiple heroes – you never feel that one hero is a major departure from the last. Teenage warrior queen, Inphyy, may be consumed by blood-lust while wimpy brother Aspharr is fighting for peace and muscle-bound Myifee is out to impress a hot warrior chick, but the actual gameplay is virtually identical.