"99 Spirits isn't afraid to take risks with new and unique ideas and mechanics, but it's questionable as to whether these will click with much of its audience."
In the last year or so, we've seen a big increase in the number of indie Japanese games localised in the west. These games widely vary in quality, but it's great that the rest of us have a chance to play and enjoy these obscure titles. Localised by Fruitbat Factory, 99 Spirits isn't afraid to take risks with new and unique ideas and mechanics, but it's questionable as to whether these will click with much of its audience.
99 Spirits takes place in medieval Japan in a city attacked by evil spirits. After her mother is killed in the attack, young Hanabusa becomes a warrior and dedicates her life to destroying the Tsukumogami. Years later, a white fox delivers a special sword to her that allows her to recognise the true form of the Tsukumogami spirits and destroy them. Shortly afterwards, the magical gems on the sword are shattered, and Hanabusa must mend the weapon and resume destroying the spirits, along with discovering the fate of her father. Fruitbat Factory has obviously taken great care with their work and the localisation is excellent. The English dialogue flows well and without error. Unfortunately, the original script provides little we haven't seen before, and the story holds only minor interest or intrigue.
Unlike the story, the gameplay mechanics are fresh and new in their design and execution. The game follows a linear story in which you move Hanabusa from place to place and fight Tsukumogami as you go. The overworld maps function on a grid, and you click to move Hanabusa around to pick up items, fight spirits and move to the next map. It's a plain, uninspired system that could have been vastly improved. There are items to pick up to recover your health, sell to merchants, sate your hunger and repair your sword. A broken weapon is useless in battle, so keeping an eye on the durability is an important strategic task. The hunger meter, on the other hand, feels like a forced, unneeded addition to worry about, especially with limited inventory space to store food.
Fortunately, encountering spirits in battle is a more exciting, if ultimately repetitive, task. The goal of each battle is to reveal the true nature of the Tsukumogami by guessing its name and then defeating it. To do so, you must first power the gems in Hanabusa's sword by attacking and defending. Filling up the first gem by attacking provides clues as to the spirit's true nature, rather than actually doing damage. These clues include letters in its names or words associated with it. For example, if the Tsukumogami is a katana, the clues may be "KA," "blade," "NA." Once the second gem is filled up by defending, you may guess its name. Enter it correctly, and the gaseous spirit takes on a solid object form and can be destroyed. Guess incorrectly, and Hanabusa takes some damage, after which you need to build the gems back up and try again. For the most part, this puzzle system is fun and enjoyable. Battles are turn-based, so you can take time to sit back and think through the clues you're given. Only rarely are answers so difficult that they frustrate, such as with "Naginata." Your mileage will vary depending on your knowledge of medieval Japanese objects and names, but there are in-game items to help you out a bit.
As the game progresses, you unlock new gems and can empower older ones. It is possible to gain additional clues from a single attack, for example, once the blade's first gem is powered up. Additionally, new gems are unlocked to provide new powers such as the enshrine gem that allows you to capture Tsukumogami and then use them in and out of battle to solve puzzles or attack with special abilities. It adds a much needed extra layer to the gameplay, though figuring out exactly which Tsukumogami you need to solve a certain puzzle can be infuriating.
They may not be exceptional, but the graphics are solid and aesthetically pleasing. Portraits during dialogue exude charm and aid in developing the characters' personality. The hand-drawn style matches the feel and setting of the game well and evokes a stylistic, historical drawing. The Tsukumogami spirits look distinctively evil, and the warping of everyday objects into these frightening spirits is executed with style. Unfortunately, although the quality of the art is great, the direction of the art is a letdown. The overworld is bland and bare, and the lack of animation for both spirits and characters is disappointing. There are only a handful of graphical effects for attacks in battle and, soon enough, the repetition of the same Tsukumogami appearing will be an annoyance.
Like the art, the sound suits the game perfectly. The mystical, eastern-sounding tunes draw you into the game and succeed in setting the scene. The fast moving, high-pitched score used in battle adds to the tension and pressure of fighting each spirit and working to figure out their name. There is limited voice acting in the game, but all of it is well done. Hanabusa's cries in battle as she attacks and takes hits fit in perfectly. A little more variety in the background music would have been beneficial, and the lower quality sound effects do begin to grate.
If you're looking for something new in your RPGs, then give 99 Spirits a shot. The puzzle-style battles are fun and interesting and allow you to forgive the less interesting aspects of the game. The localisation is excellent, even if the story isn't quite so interesting, and the sound and graphics are solid and pleasing. If you like RPGs and word puzzles, then you'll definitely enjoy 99 Spirits. If you prefer traditional RPGs with more in-depth, exciting stories, then this may not be the game for you.