Release Date: August 15, 2006
Ninety-Nine Dynasty Warriors Extreme Legends Nights … or thereabouts
Before I say anything, I want to declare this: Simple gameplay does not equal bad gameplay. With this axiom in mind, we look at games like Nintendo's DS cult hit, Trauma Center: Under the Knife, in which you trace things, with the odd stylus motion thrown in here or there. Trauma Center is perhaps one of the coolest games I've played all year.
Similarly, Ninety-Night Nights is a game based on a simple premise: Kill everything you see. You are one of six warriors playing through different angles of the same war, killing everything and everyone you come across in open battlefields using massive "orb attacks" or a series of combo strings. There's nothing too original here, and it's certainly not groundbreaking or complex gameplay. You essentially mash your X and Y buttons until everyone around you is taking a dirt nap. So the question then must be answered: Is N3's gameplay simple, or is it dull?
N3 owes its lineage to a genre started up by the likes of the Double Dragon and Final Fight series. The two-dimensional franchises of yore trolled from left to right while waves upon waves of bad guys walked into your swath of destruction. Simple? Yes. Boring? Perhaps after a few hours. The genre of beat 'em ups have traversed into a three-dimensional realm, and game series like Dynasty Warriors have simply continued the same formula with a different perspective.
N3 falls into this same genre without any pretense of shaking things up. Some may view this as a crippling stance to take for game design, while others see it as a safe means of evolving and progressing a genre. Since its launch, N3 has suffered its slings and arrows due to its simplistic nature, but there are some qualities the game possesses that cannot be denied and ought to be praised.
To appreciate a game like Dynasty Warriors or its off-shoot Samurai Warriors, one has to do a lot of reading. The basis for Dynasty Warriors comes from one of the oldest books in human history, Romance of the Three Kingdoms. All of the characters and sub-plots of DW stem from this massive tome, and unless you're familiar with the background story, DW can feel esoteric, if not downright obtuse in its narrative.
N3 overcomes this narrative problem by forging a story that anyone can relate to, with archetypal characters that are not singularly possessed by any one culture. Interestingly enough, the story is not the same for each campaign, but almost a "what if" version, depending upon who you play. That narrative twist in itself keeps things somewhat fresh as you progress through the campaign, and there aren't too many titles I can think of that portend such a narrative subtlety, especially a game that is ostensibly as "simple" as N3.
Along with campaign progress, there is also character progress. Each of N3's five main characters (and one unlockable character) can progress nine levels, where new combo strings become available, in addition to access to some new weapons or items. (Yes, there are achievement points for each level.) Each character has at least five weapons that can be used to upgrade your default weapon. You can also find some new pieces of equipment to further equip your character with better stats and abilities; items and weapons are very similar to the upgrades from DW.
In fact N3 mimics DW in many ways, and according to how you feel about that, it is either a blessing or a curse. You have a life meter and an orb meter, which is equivalent to DW's Musuo Meter. The orb meter is filled by collecting orbs from the enemies you kill, and once the meter fills up, you can activate it to go on a rampage and kill just about anyone who comes close to you. However, while you're killing people during this brief orb attack mode, you start gaining blue orbs to fill up a third meter called your "orb spark meter."
Once this meter is full, you have what pretty much equals a nuclear weapon that will wipe out everyone on the screen with a nice cinematic flair. This two-tiered system compels the player to think somewhat strategically about when to use these attacks. Filling your orb meter is not as quick as it is in DW, so using your orb attack senselessly can leave you in a lurch when it comes time to fight that level's boss. Likewise, you don't want to use your orb attack until things look a little dire because you want to maximize the amount of blue spark orbs you can gather. The likelihood of using your orb spark attack more than once per level is very low, and you want to save that orb spark attack for something special and worthwhile.
N3 is geared towards creating an epic atmosphere. Battles escalate in size as the campaign continues, and it looks cool when you see masses of enemy soldiers pouring over the ridge in the distance as you cross the battlefield. Battles are marked with some cinematic moments when reinforcements arrive for either side or when objectives change. Every fight mobs the screen, and it looks great. I encountered slowdown a few times when the screen was packed with countless models and I decided to cut loose an orb attack, but for the most part, the game engine handles its chores with ease.
Motion blur is a great feature that is used every time you swing your weapon and bodies fly. Models, while not varied, are elaborate and modeled to great detail and are animated with completeness and subtlety. In DW, you are attacked by groups of four to six enemies, but N3 throws enemies at you dozens at a time. Some of the larger enemy soldiers come at you in smaller groups but constitute a real threat, they look brutally savage to boot.
The overall feel of the game is that of a fantasy epic along the lines of Dungeons and Dragons or World of Warcraft more so than anything else. For the most part, things are kept bright and shiny, but there are some rather dark moments in the game, such as the point where you play as Inphyy and kill goblin civilians. The bad guys look bad, and the good guys look good. There isn't much mixing in between, and the old Western formula of the White Hats versus the Black Hats holds true here.
While N3 heavily borrows its gameplay and functions from DW, it also does a few things better. To begin with, blocking is actually useful in N3. Fighting boss characters by simply button mashing will not only get you beat up but killed if you don't wait and block a few attacks before waiting for an opening to emerge.
The camera is also infinitely better and makes N3 feel a lot less like DW. The camera's view is tied to the right thumbstick, and you can use the stick to swing around the camera and move it up and down and zoom it in or out. As you get mobbed with hundreds of enemies, finding the right view is effortless and comfortable. Likewise, you can use the camera to steer your character as you navigate the terrain. A broken camera would have killed this title, and N3 definitely does well in handling this aspect of the gameplay, an area in which many other titles have fallen short.
N3 also sees fit for you to travel into battle with two companies of soldiers, whereas DW left you with little more than five guys to follow you around and sometimes attack people. Kingdom Under Fire let you order your troops around, and the gameplay centered on how well you used your troops rather than how well you fought, so losing your soldiers would oftentimes cripple your campaign.
N3 takes a not-so-happy middle road with handling your bodyguard. You can choose which unit types to take with you, but I have not been able to determine any discernable difference between the units, with the exception of the archers, who stand off and rain fire onto the battle. Some units may attack faster than others and others have more hit-points, but it seemed to me that each unit was equally worthless in a fight. You can order them to attack or to stand fast and defend, but either way, the bodyguard units left much to be desired. I would have liked to see some ownership placed on my units, and had some development go into them. If my character levels up, so should my bodyguards, making them into an elite cadre of sword-swinging commandos. Being able to improve them through certain item buffs was nice, but not enough. N3's NPC bodyguards are there to do one thing – die. To me, that is a shameful waste of potential for a game that is so "simple" in nature.
Love it or hate it, Ninety-Nine Nights does not pretend to be anything other than what it is: a fast-paced action game. To look at N3 and deride it for being too simple would be akin to looking at "Conan the Barbarian" and criticizing it for being just an action movie. The gameplay is simple, and that may mean boredom to some gamers, but that is largely a matter of taste.
For those who like titles like Dynasty Warriors and Kingdom Under Fire, N3 is a streamlined and slick package that boasts better graphics and camera system. It's derivative and does not push boundaries, but to dismiss it for such criticisms would be unfair. Besides, how does one exactly push the boundaries of a beat 'em up? I would have liked to see equipped items represented on my character, in addition to bodyguard units that pose a more functional use, but these are relatively minor complaints.
Whether you'll like Ninety-Nine Nights for what it is largely depends on how you answer this question: Do you like simple gameplay? If the answer is yes, then you will enjoy N3 and consider your time and money well spent. If the answer is no, then it can end up being an exercise in frustration and boredom. I enjoyed playing it for its unique storytelling method and visual flair, and I found the simplistic gameplay to somewhat refreshing and reminiscent of games gone by.
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