Ninety-Nine Nights

Year: 2006
Platform: Xbox 360
Publisher: Microsoft Game Studios
Genre: Action
Review Date: 6/6/09
Rating: ***

At first blush, "Ninety-Nine Nights" appears to be a "Dynasty Warriors" knock-off, only less interesting. Taking place in a fantasy setting, the truce between Light and Dark has shattered and war breaks out between humans and goblins. On the side of The Light are the Temple Knights, led by a feisty and vengeful seventeen year old girl named Inphyy. She bears a grudge against the goblins because they killed her father, and won't rest until every last one is slaughtered. She leads her mostly ineffective troops through six missions of large scale warfare against thousands of goblins, orcs, trolls, dragons, and other undesirable creatures.

As with "Dynasty Warriors," the premise is to pit a superpowered hero against a huge number of adversaries in an attempt to get as many combatants on the screen at the same time. The melee carnage is chaotic and intense, and mostly boils down to aggressive button mashing rather than calculated strategy. Your character is usually completely obscured by both your own troops and enemy soldiers, so it's impossible to tell where you are, what direction you're facing, and who you're attacking. It's just a good thing that friendly fire doesn't play into the equation, or your own troops would be dead within seconds. It's also difficult to distinguish friend from foe, forcing you to blindly attack any group of people that you see with the hope that your blade will make contact with an enemy. As these types of games go, you are rewarded for chaining together long combos of uninterrupted mayhem and your skills level up with more kills. You can also fill an orb gauge with the souls of your vanquished foes to unleash even more brutal attacks.

Presentation wise, the game is visually pleasing, the locations are pretty, the lighting is nice, the frame rate is smooth, and the "SoulCalibur" inspired music score is appropriately dramatic. The battle animations are colorful and successfully convey a sense of destructive power. The Korean character designs are a bit odd and not particularly appealing, looking like an unsuccessful blending of Western styling and Japanese design. The characters are also completely expressionless and look like creepy dolls rather than people. Like "Dynasty Warriors," the gameplay is extremely repetitive and can be both boring and exhausting. However, after several hours of hacking and slashing, I got into a rhythm and found myself enjoying the endless flow of battle. While the story is uninteresting, convoluted, and easily forgettable, I was impressed by the moral decisions you have to make regarding the slaughter of innocent women and children. It forces you to think about your actions and the harsh realities of war just a tiny bit. The disgust I felt while carrying out these actions was very real, and reinforced how tyrannical and cold-hearted my character was. Once you finish Inphyy's story, you can replay the game with several other characters to get their viewpoint on the same events. You can even play as a goblin to get a perspective of the war from the "dark" side. Unfortunately, unless you're really into the story, the replay value is limited since you've pretty much seen everything the game has to offer.

Of course the game isn't perfect and suffers in several areas. The first thing you notice is the awkward menu system and save mechanism. When the manual has to show you a flow chart to explain how game saves work, you know there's got to be something wrong with the design. Additionally, you can only save between missions, and some of the missions are long and extremely difficult. While the gameplay is moderately entertaining for casual playing, it's not fun enough to warrant struggling through the same levels over and over again. Most of the fighting takes place in large open spaces, but towards the end it moves to the forest which makes things tight and claustrophobic. That in itself isn't bad, but orienting the camera so that your view isn't obscured by trees is a constant hassle. There are some other annoying camera issues as well, and you can't strike a defensive pose without the camera jerking around behind you and losing your perspective on the situation.

The localization is a sore point, and while the voice acting is decent, Inphyy's voice is extremely grating. Since everything is subtitled already, I would have much preferred to hear the game in Japanese (assuming that Japanese was the original language). Just like a bad fantasy novel, the game attempts to inject authenticity into the environment by using unpronounceable names with ridiculous spellings. (Anne McCaffrey immediately comes to mind) Names like Inphyy, Ppakk, Pwuck, Dwingvatt, Dwykfarrio, Ywa-Ue-Uar, Klarrann, Tyurru, Vigk Vagk, Myifee, and Varrgandd are like absurd heavy metal band names that were conjured up by someone who bought a surplus of consonants at a linguistics fire sale. At least there aren't any gratuitous umlauts or other wacky modifiers in the mix.

Overall, my enjoyment of "Ninety-Nine Nights" varied depending on the difficulty of a particular mission or sub-mission. With a game as repetitive and monotonous as this, it's imperative to strike a proper balance between challenging and rewarding. Otherwise, you have a game that's either too hard or too easy, and the content and gameplay aren't compelling enough to support either side of the spectrum. I found the game to be a pleasant distraction, but little more.