99 Spirits is the first game released by japenese indie developer TORaIKI and the second translated by Fruitbat Factory who, in case the name sounds familiar, is the group that started by bringing the game, reviewed too by us, War of the Human Tanks.
In the present case, we find ourselves in front of a japanese RPG with puzzle and enemy-catching elements and is inspired by the Japanese legends of Tsukumogami. First thing we notice, which is consistent during all the game, is the awesome game art, both graphic and musically. It’s really wonderful to play indie games with a presentation that can’t be shy of any “big” game.
99 Spirits comes with standard wide rims, powerful engine and spacey interior
Let’s start saying this indie game is story-driven. But, behold! Don’t expect endless reading sessions, because 99 Spirits has a perfect mix of playing time, combat mechanic complexity, dialog lengths, story pace and plot depth. Everything’s so well geared that just when you start to get the feeling of having done quite a job of fighting monsters, you get some relaxing time with cut-scenes. Not only that, but combat abilities are also introduced at a pace that is related to the events that happen, so, on one side, you don’t feel compelled at any moment with any steep mechanics and, on the other side, you get a constant feel of progression and accomplishment, power and story-wise, without the need to go through any tutorial -there are a few combats that do explain new abilities, although they can be skipped if you wish so.
The story is situated in ancient Japan at the the Heian capital and is conveyed through dialogues, be it with you or among NPCs. The game’s prologue introduces your character, Hanabusa, at childhood, when she losses both her parents on a raid at the Capital, conducted by the Tsukumogami, and is saved by a mysterious white fox. Your adventure starts when the girl is grown up, in a quest to free the city and the neighboring regions of those who raided the Capital when you were a child.
You’ll learn those, the Tsukumogami, are objects possessed by evil souls of people and you’ll meet quite a bunch characters, both to help and deter you, with their own intentions, personalities and cliches. You’ll meet from skirt-chasers to Gods -and skirt-chaser Gods, too! The story is straightforwards and there’s just a main quest line, although there’s a skull-hunting side quest you can follow in parallel to get some rewards.
Unique combat mechanic
So, how can you battle those evil objects? Well, combat is divided in two parts. In the first you fight some kind of smoke and have to guess which object it is that you’re fighting by using the ability Soul Split to get information -both letters of the word and hints- and Soul Bind to try guessing the name and reveal the spirit’s true form. Once you’ve correctly called the enemy’s name the second phase of combat starts, in which you can actually damage it. In this later part of combat you get access to your other abilities: Soul Discard to capture it -gotta catch ’em all!- and Enshrine Soul and Equip Soul, which allow to use the Yin and Yang abilities of captured Tuskomogami, once you’ve unlocked them, which is done by killing several enemies while they are under your power.
You do also need to known that each of these 5 abilities “are” 5 gems you acquire throughout 99 Spirits quest line, and that they need to be charged during combat to be able to trigger those effects. How? Both phases of combat are divided in turns, which consist of three strikes each. At each turn you can choose whether to attack or defend -but so can the enemy!- and successful hits and defenses will charge the gems You can block incoming attacks by quickly pressing the X key when you’re about to be hit, and can counterattack with, quickly too, Z.
Can you catch ’em all?
If that was not enough, different objects possess different particularities: possessed weapons hit harder, armor is resilient, food containers constantly heal themselves, stoves can hit with fire, and so on. In the late game there are harder enemies that can also do special attacks that can only be blocked if you’re defending on that turn, so a point of combat strategy adds here. The Yin and Yang abilities you get to learn are also related to the object: a spear can do an extra hard blow while a door can auto-defend you. However, the number of Tsukumogami you can control at any moment is limited, up to 5 as you advance, and they will also serve you on the world map.
So, how do you get into all that action? You have to navigate through different areas, which are represented by gridded rectangles. Every few squares you move, usually four, the yet foggy Tsukumogami move one and if you’re caught you’ve to battle them. There are blue markers, which would be your chests that contain an item, green ones to represent merchants and yellow for special events. Walking into an arrow brings you to an adjacent zone. So, when you don’t want to fight you just have to carefully plan your movements to avoid contact.
A few loose knots on 99 Spirits
While the experience is greatly positive, there are a few elements that feel somewhat loose or unfinished. The main one, and the only somehow affecting gameplay, is that you get to gain experience and level up, and you are even granted PX bonuses for being proficient at combat -e.g. don’t missing any counter attacks-, but you don’t ever know how many points you have and/or how many are remaining to reach the next level. It’s also unclear what are the benefits of leveling up, as there aren’t any stats to watch, much less to spend points into.
The map areas do also feel somewhat beta-ish, compared to the high polishing of the rest of what 99 Spirits has to offer. Having such a great art in all the game makes the grid with square markers grind. For example, blue ones could have been drawn as chests or removed soil and each merchant could have it’s own graphic -e.g. the character itself-. Even the grids would thank some decoration to differentiate different zones of the same area.
We also found a handful small typographic errors and got a couple game crashes when the game had been running for some hours. What was a bit annoying is that, sometimes, when accessing the save screen through the bind key -Z while in a map zone-, it didn’t display correctly. We never got this problem when saving from the menu.
The only missing thing for us would be the ability to rebind keys or to use a controller, since our ergonomic keyboard isn’t the fittest to bash the keys that are used to play -the lower row of letters: z, x ,…, n, m.
99 Spirits? y/n
Hell YES. 99 Spirits has a great art direction, an original story and a unique gameplay that reminds to both Pictionary and Pokémon with a great result. If all indie Japanese indie games are this good I’ll start to learn the language ASAP. It can’t be missing in any indie game collection.
Just to finish, we must say it took us a dozen hours to complete the story mode, but being a completionist, catching all Tsukumogami and unlocking all abilities, would probably take something near 15. When you beat the final boss you can continue playing in a Game+ mode, although it isn’t clear if it adds extra difficulty, and you also get access to drawings and some curiosities about the development of 99 Spirits.
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