XXXX or YYYY: Ninety-Nine Nights 2

 For the sake of clarity lets sort a few things before I proceed with this review.  I did not play the first Ninety-Nine Nights game extensively; a few hours to be exact.  I do not as a habit play “character action games”, “hack and slash” or even “action RPG” games, although I have enough experience in all 3 genres to recognize they are more-or-less the same concept interpreted in different ways.

Ninety-Nine Nights 2 is not a game for everyone. It is probably a game for very few people; unless you're into the proliferation of internet memes. This lack of interest is evident by the dearth of fellow players (none, actually) online when I attempted to engage in the shallow multiplayer component of the game.

As it stands, the game does not feature a considerable suite of popular game mechanics, a gripping story with Nolan North voicing the lead protagonist, or even a reputable pedigree given the first game in the series' rather lackluster performance both commercially and critically.

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 At its heart Ninety Nine Nights 2 is a game for the kind of gamer who enjoys things like watching the first Star Trek film, reading philosophical deconstructions about social boundaries, and learning the most efficient way to get  a dwarf priest from level 1 to 80 in the least amount of time. In a word, the game is a grind. It is a title that expects the player to repeat missions several times in order to best maximize their spells and other combat abilities.  This if of course, unless you play for the story which renders the game a 10 to 12 hour jaunt you could complete in a few sittings.

I do not recommend playing this game for the story.

A meandering high fantasy yarn Frankenstein-ed together out of countless tropes and cliches the main tale is serviceable at best, forgettable and eye-rolling at worst. You're likely to be able to name the specific properties and series each plot element came from. Think of it as Lord of the Rings (except they're orbs not rings and there are two instead of nine) as re-told through the lens of the country that invented anime.

The real depth and allure in playing a game like Ninety-Nine Nights 2 comes from its loot collection and the visual stimulation of the game's exaggerated, rag-dolling physics engine.  Rather than play dress-up with a heap of clothing choices - every character has one costume and 3 alternative colors to collect in the mission stages - and chose weapons to suit a preferred combat style, you instead augment your rather stock characters by choosing from an impressively long list of both passive (i.e. - health regeneration) and active (fire damage) abilities.

This depth of customization partnered with 5 unique characters – each with their own smaller story arc – it may sound on paper like 5 distinct styles of play to be mastered. The tall muscular thief king Maggni is slow and hits hard whereas the equally unimaginative and exceedingly curvacious elf princess Sephia is slightly more powerful with magic, weak with melee, and light on her feet.  This depth is illusory and after investing a few hours time and several thousand of the game's currency of soul orbs into upgrades for each character, their differences become negligible; nearly to the point of bordering on questioning why you don't spend the entire game as Galen, the first character you control and here fulfilling his archetypal role as mysterious solider perfectly.

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However, as any loot game worth its salt would have you believe, its not so much as who you are or what items you collect as is the fact you are collecting items.  In this regard, Ninety-Nine Nights 2 combines its easy to learn hack-and-slash game mechanics with “open all the chests and defeat every single enemy to find all the spells” in an alluring manner.  This is where repeated play-throughs of missions will pay off and it is during these excursions where the game serves up the bulk of what it has to offer.

The first Ninety-Nine Nights was noted for its display of several dozens if not triple digit numbers of enemies on screen at once; a marvel for the (then) next-generation of gaming.  The sequel does not skimp on the enemy count, almost to the point of introducing frame-rate issues. However, where the original Ninety-Nine Nights relied on unlocking and mastering increasingly long combo strings, the sequel leaves the melee combat to simple repeated (XXXX, or YYYY, you will be sucked, etc.) button presses and puts its focus into the spells and how they and the player engage with the swirling maelstrom of enemies around him (or her).

Its hard to not feel your brain trickle out some positive endorphins when your maxed Level 5 Quake spell sends a hundred sword-brandishing goons bouncing ever higher into the air of the battlefield around you; or watch them crumple at your feet as  Lightning Bolt courses through each foe in a successive, ever building chain of screen-clearing destruction.  I am reminded of building entire Lego towns as a child only to have a disproportionately tall action-figure of Wolverine tear it to pieces or for a more mundane example raking leaves into a pile and kicking it into oblivion.  In short, it is good.  It is fun.

All of this bedlam is wrapped inside of a dark west-by-way-of-east fantasy aesthetic.  The protagonists are all suitably angular and imposing or scantily clad and voluptuous as is appropriate for their gender. For further reading, watch Record of the Lodoss War or play Chaos Legion for the PlayStation 2. The engine is quite obviously optimized to handle the large amounts of enemies and spell effects on-screen at the expense of just about everything else.  I would not use this game to show off my newest HD  television; however during my 30+ hours with it I did not witness a single problem or inconsistency with the visuals.

Ninety-Nine Nights 2 is what a friend and I have come to loosely term a “podcast” game.  Rather than listen to middling, emotionless battle music, or awkwardly paused interplay between characters, its much more rewarding to listen to a podcast or a favorite album with the sound reduced or off entirely.  The story in a game like this is largely inconsequential; what little detail you may miss is not important (leveling up and collecting items is, however). For a game like Ninety-Nine Nights 2, only the barest of context is required to understand your role in the experience.

It bears mentioning at this point that the inter-mission cutscenes are impressively animated and character models more detailed than a mid-tier action title probably deserves. Admittedly, I did skip the large majority of them to dodge the over-indulgent plot that I had guessed 80% of within the first hour of playing.  The character lip-synching was wildly varied in quality as well.  This is not a particular concern of mine but its quite obvious that feelplus or Q? Entertainment attempted to animate for an English dub but at some point stopped caring and shipped the game as-is.  As a result only the first third or so of the cutscenes have accurately synched dialogue.

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This phenomenon of playing a game whilst listening to another source of audio is somewhat rare amongst gamers (outside of custom soundtracks for racers) but I highly recommend it as a method for really boiling a game down to its barest mechanics. Ninety-Nine Nights 2 is a game of mechanics.  It does not attempt to break any new ground for the medium or even nudge the envelope.  At it's core is a focused set of combat rules and suitably nonsensical level design that serve as a visually interesting playground in which you get to wreck shop for 45 minutes to an hour depending on the particular quest.

For achievement-seekers or players who love a good grind, it's very easy to become entranced in the experience. What started as a middling character-action title quickly becomes a hunt for the most effective farm spots for orbs, and then attempting speed runs of those locales to better maximize your spell power (see: dwarf priest from 1 to 80) all while lazily absorbing your audio selection of choice.

Ninety-Nine Nights 2 has had a very large hill to climb.  It was first met with with raised eyebrows and questioned as to why it should even exist given the first game's performance.  Staying out of the media spotlight for much of its development time, the charming-in-a-trainwreck-way E3 2010 Konami press conference really cast the game in an awkward light and is largely the reason I even bothered to pick it up.  Tak Fujii's rambling and at times near-incoherent presentation really had me interested in just what kind of game feelplus had managed to put together.

I would be hesitant to recommend this game to all but the most stalwart of grind/loot game fans, and even then with a heady disclaimer not to expect much other than a hokey fantasy game with a surprisingly responsive, intriguing, and deep if not repetitive combat mechanic.  However, to paraphrase a more popular and well-known developer and their approach to game design: 30-seconds of fun repeated over several hours is still several hours of fun.

Deadly Premonition: Atrocious and amazing

(this was written earlier in 2010, but I'm posting it here so it lives on somewhere other than my hard drive)

When attempting to vouch for the relative quality of an object or thing, a person will sometimes say "taken objectively, this thing is...." and go on to list a variety of reasons why you should believe them. This approach denotes that removing the context in which the object is experienced is somehow detrimental to the experience one would have with it. This is not a new idea nor should this kind of analysis be discouraged. Removing something from a particular environment can benefit your experience with that thing. For instance it is probably ideal to listen to the newest album from your favorite band at home with headphones and not while standing on the tarmac of an airport.

As is the case with Deadly Premonition, many seem to use the "taken objectively" cliche when attempting to explain why someone should play the game. Implying that its faults are so numerous and glaring that the only possible way to ignore them is to "take the game objectively". I find this opinion rather stilted and slightly arrogant. It reeks of an elitism that implies Deadly Premonition is an "objectively terrible" game; so alarmingly that it goes past the point of being simply bad into the territory of charmingly bad. The conclusion at the end of this thought-train is that games with larger budgets created by more “progressive” minds are immediately "not objectively bad" because they do not on the whole resemble any one part of Deadly Premonition.

Personally, I refuse to believe that SWERY (the producer behind Deadly Premonition) intentionally set about making almost every facet of this game "terrible" by modern-day gaming standards. Even if that is the case, I believe the end result is something truly special. Deadly Premonition is not a bad game, a so-bad-its-good game, or even an "objectively bad" game. It does not require that you play it with the mindset that no other videogames have or will ever exist.

Simply put, Deadly Premonition is the greatest PlayStation game ever made. It is a virtual shrine to the game design ethos of the mid to late 90s made prevalent on Sony's first platform. The controls are awkward and oftentimes as much if not more of an obstacle than the intentional ones inside the game world; the graphics resemble an upscaled 2nd-generation Dreamcast title and the overall presentation is not unlike a game from the Simple 2000 series. It is a new game that has already "not aged well"; a paradigm of dated game design.

The game's charm and ultimately its enjoyment lies inside this idea. In the year 2010 there have been at least a dozen games released to wide-acclaim for the advancement of their respective genre (Super Mario Galaxy 2), refinement of gameplay (Bayonetta), or even of the medium itself (Mass Effect 2). While I do not strive to unseat these titles from their places of adoration, for they deserve every word, at the same time it has become tiresome to continually move from "ground-breaking" title to "genre-defining release" to games that "set a new standard for all games to follow". Much like every blockbuster movie release is "this years biggest thrill-ride", it is easy to become exhausted with continually being told that our favorite method of entertainment is a constantly shifting bed of sand where great ideas are overwritten the following week and entire genres are "played out" within a few years. The next big thing in gaming is oftentimes the last thing we should be playing.

The direction taken by SWERY and his team has seemingly been so in order to provide a particular and focused experience for the player. The sprawling variety of side-quests for the townsfolk provides a deeper, richer back story than many of this generation's largest RPGs. The humble, plaintive and at times nuanced voice-acting coupled with a surprisingly (for the budget) well-written script connect with a player more directly than a growling bald space-marine with a rifle could ever hope to.

Deadly Premonition's particular use of "that font from terrible Japanese horror games" and repeated instances of Engrish translation are so obvious and placed throughout the game that one has to wonder if Access Games has studied the art of mediocrity. Charming yes, however this idea seems again to be a choice engineered to evoke a particular response in the player. It can be said the pursuit of providing a novel experience does not rely solely on the implementation of most advanced techniques available.

The outdated graphics engine does not demonstrate the limitations of the developer's competency, but rather acts as a translation for the "vision" of the game; much like a first generation PlayStation game would utilize a highly-compressed image of clouds for the sky. As a player, you were not seated at your television thinking, "Wow how terrible do those clouds look?". You were thinking, "Look at that sky! Its got clouds and it looks awesome ."

Simply because the industry has told you "cloud textures are out , sky boxes with dynamic weather and high-dynamic range lighting are in ," does not mean that purposely illustrating your vision with an "inferior" technique renders it an inferior result. "Taken objectively" the mangled perspective and discoloration of Picasso's later works are awful but are widely regarded as the highest of Cubist-era art. Is Deadly Premonition the harbinger of a new wave in purposely outdated game design? Probably not, but it does not mean that picture it paints was not done in an artistic and deliberate manner.

Deadly Premonition is everything that a big-budget, triple A title, should not be. It does not attempt to set new standards, refine or exemplify mechanics (although its implementation of time is rather novel), or even tell a very unique story. It is however, the end result when ideas long made obsolete attempt to reconcile themselves one last time into something greater than the sum of their parts. In this current climate of successive one-upmanship with every major release, perhaps the most novel experience of all lies within one that is the most mundane, the least risky, the most "objectively bad". 
Isn't that right, Zach?


game journalism - does it even exist?


The global impact of digital technology has changed the way people live and function. Communication, business, and even language would be alien, unknowable to even the most forward thinkers of the 20th century. Words, ideas, and concepts founded in the societies of the past still guide and influence us today, however their relevance so often remains unchecked. Does journalism still exist as an institution to serve the spread of information, or has the advent of the internet and its instantaneous flow of data changed the fundamental way in which readers obtain news? Is the argument on the existence “Game Journalism” one of function or one of semantics?

Going by standard and time-held definitions, I would theorize that “Game Journalism” does not exist. A journalist and by extension journalism is to quote Merriam’s “writing characterized by a direct presentation of facts or description of events without an attempt at interpretation”. To some extent this applies to the current climate of game journalism: Writer X for Website Y attends Event Z and relays the information about his/her experience. These are facts, they are indisputable.

However, what about the other writer’s and outlets that simply parrot Writer X’s information, framed entirely outside the context of Website Y? With the on-demand nature of the internet, “journalism” exists for the micro-second new information resides on a single node; awaiting regurgitation across the many channels of the web. This kind of rapid proliferation diffuses the information, and with every step from a factual recounting of a real event, more opinion and bias is injected into the story. Each retelling will hinge on what the poster feels is most important about the information. This is assuming that Writer X had enough sense to write his/her piece with as little personal interpretation as possible; an opinion of an opinion of an opinion on what may or not be factual information. This is not journalism.

Writing about events and cataloging specific bullet-points about a game are typically not the majority of output for a “Game Journalist”. The game industry has long been one centered on advancement of the technologies that support it, and the integration of that technology into other sectors of our world (ex: mobile communications, social networking, digital distribution). As such, the gaming press has become arguably the most “web-centric” of all media outlets, growing nearly in tandem with the internet, and in large part a driving force behind its ubiquity.

What then do “game journalists” have to write about if not factual information? In the digital ‘print’ market, where the exclusive exists for a nanosecond what can gaming media outlets do to survive?

Most “Game Journalists” are a cogs in a machine. They do not report insomuch as they (re)tell. There is no journalistic imperative, no investigation, and above all no fact-checking. Information is input into the machine of the internet, and in an hour, the site is registering a fresh batch of clicks from redirected links. The majority of output for gaming enthusiast publications then is editorials; opinions.

They share opinions, give editorialized views on particular happenings and doings in the industry, analyze and reflect on the medium and its history and in general spread their personality around the internet. Journalism as a method of “direct presentation of facts” cannot exist where there no longer exists a need for such a conduit. The internet itself is the one “Game Journalist” that ever need exist; its Users each creating their own Evening News of gaming as they Google videos, read reviews, and look at screenshots. The presentation has been removed entirely from the hands of reporter and placed into the control of the reader.

What then? Should journalism, like gaming, adapt itself to a less rigid system of rules and standards and reach out to include opinions and general case studies of a particular subject? Is this article itself any kind of journalism? This particularly is an argument of semantics, and one that will likely never be settled. However, the issues with “Game Journalism” do not stem from the mere words being placed together, but moreover with what “Game Journalists” as a whole do with their position.

Finger-pointing aside, there seems to exist a mystique around the career-path of a “Game Journalist”. As though attaining this moniker required some ancient and treacherous incantation of black magic. This expectation has largely been fed by the rabid gaming community, and many journalists in the industry have struggled to shed themselves of this glorification. However, most do not help themselves by refusing to understand that they as individuals are merely one voice among millions. Rather than rely on content to “sell”, there needs to be an enlightenment that “personality” is what will drive gaming media in the coming decade. Interesting, reflective content that resonates with a particular demographic will drive the gaming press economy. Hopefully those without anything pertinent (or interesting, or intelligent) to say will retreat and let those with genuine insight step forward. Perhaps this is inevitable, the advent of the Web 2.0 phenomenon taken to its logical, noisy end.

This isn't to say that these “Enthusiasts” do not fill a role that is needed; but until we face the fact that the only thing dividing a “gamer” from a “Game Journalist” is a paycheck, we'll never move beyond the icon worship pathology the gaming community so obviously suffers from. I am not attempting to build the notion that ‘anyone’ can be a ‘Game Journalist’; that all it requires is enough fingers to operate a keyboard and the ability to differentiate an Xbox from a Saturn. I suppose I do not have a particular solution myself, but I do not find the ever rising cacophony of information being repeated across the net, each iteration louder than the previous, to be the right path for the industry.