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.