The Japanese Role Playing Genre has been severely neglected on the PC with only a handful of notable exceptions. Premier JRPGS such as the Dragon Quest and Star Ocean series have remained rooted in the console market. Can 99 Spirits fill a void in the market, and cater to those yearning for a unique JRPG experience?
99 Spirits was originally a Japanese exclusive title released in the fall of 2012 by indie developer, TORaIKI. This vocabulary based, puzzle game featured a wealth of interesting combat mechanics coupled with an engaging and innovative story. It became selected for a localization project to translate the audio and text assets into English. The task was undertaken by Fruitbat Factory, a developer who specialise in translating Japan centric niche games. Despite being a fairly new company, their pedigree was already strong due to widespread critical acclaim of their first venture, War of the Human Tanks. The 99 Spirits project far surpassed the Indiegogo initial goal amassing $7556 of the $3000 target and won the Eclectic Indie Dev Grant.
The backdrop is based on ancient medieval folklore (Yōkai) originating as far back as the 10th Century. Objects on their 100th birthday rise from the dead and become self-aware transforming into evil spirits (Tsukumogami) with the sole purpose of decimating humankind. Your quest begins with the death of Oyatsu, a shrine maiden (Miko) who was deceived by a mysterious young man. It becomes quickly apparent that this traitor manipulated her master, Hidetada, as a means to attain the Gokon Sword. Riddled with grief, Hidetada confides in the young man, who portions the blame on the Tsukumogami promising to avenge her death. Here you become acquainted with Hanabusa, the daughter of Hidetada and Oyatsu who is mentally distraught with what has occurred. She is given wise and comforting words from a Fox who is willing to protect the only defense against Tsukumogami, the Gokon Sword.
10 years later, the Fox is introduced as Komiya, a servant of the mountain God and instigates your destiny to avenge Oyatsu’s death and eradicate the Tsukumogami. Throughout the story you are introduced to a multitude of characters, (40 in total) which are highly memorable and interesting. Without spoiling the narrative too much, I found the game’s premise and the continuation of its plot to be not only entertaining but believable. You care about the characters and their path wondering what each person’s role is. Additionally, the writing is terrific and its translation is superbly done.
A fascinating story is wasted unless a proficient and fun battle system is applied alongside it. I’m pleased to announce the combat in 99 Spirits is inventive and thoroughly addictive. The Tsukumogami are everyday objects which are obscured and you are required to expose them via the Gokon Sword. Initially, you perform attacking or defensive strikes in a turn based motion with the Z and X keys.
As you choose a strategy, the player must react to the enemy in real time with counter attacks. The system works terrifically well because it’s based on rhythm and timing. As you log more playtime, it improves your ability to press the appropriate keys at the right moment. After a few battles I had already mastered the combat mechanics and found the experience to be very satisfying and intuitive. Once your skills increase you are granted gems which provide you with information to destroy the enemy. These are controlled on the fly with the bottom row keys which cast abilities such as Soul Spirit and Soul Bind. Timing is vital when executing such hints, as strikes from the enemy will remove all your powers from the sword.
These highlight characteristics of the Tsukumogami in lower case letters, and elements of its name in capitals. In turn, you are provided with clues and required to guess an adversary’s name. I applaud the implementation of this mechanic because it makes each individual battle unique. While this may alienate some players who struggle with the vocabulary aspect, there are hints after 16 turns. 99 Spirits is correct in the approach of catering perfectly to a niche audience rather than disappointing a larger consumer base aiming for some wider appeal. The wordplay can be difficult but this adds to the charm of the game as a whole. My only complaint about the gameplay is a lack of pause function during battles. However, I do acknowledge this may have disrupted the necessity to think and make decisions under pressure.
99 Spirits is a vastly multilayered experience with a large amount of resource management. Each move you make drains energy and increases hunger. This can be combated by accumulating gemstones which in turn can be used to purchase Rice Balls. Your sword will also gradually decay and requires Whetstone to maintain its effectiveness. HP is revived by drinking the 100 year old medicine. It is vital to find the balance between prioritizing which aspect to focus on without neglecting another. Shops also provide the opportunity to upgrade your character’s attributes. For 500 credits it’s possible to purchase the Protective Charm perk which increases defense capabilities. This adds another huge tactical element to the game totally separate from the combat. It is admirable this works alongside the battle mechanics, and doesn’t appear to be independent of it.
I was pleasantly surprised how unobtrusive the game’s tutorial was.. Instead of introducing you to a wide array of mechanics before the actual combat begins, it is presented in stages at the appropriate moments. There is even an option to skip all instructions which provides a less infuriating experience during a second playthrough. This should serve as an example to other developers, and is extremely impressive given the small budget. It creates an aura of a polished product, which in some cases far exceeds some AAA releases.
Technically, 99 Spirits is quite impressive barring a few small niggles. The game is automatically configured to operate in a 4:3 windowed mode and looks beautiful. However, when switching to fullscreen it fails to run at the native resolution (1920×1080) and looks partially blurred. The image is locked to a 4:3 aspect ratio and contains black bars when displayed on a 16:9 panel. Also when using a controller navigation on the grid cannot be done horizontally and is extremely cumbersome. However, the keyboard and mouse controls are impeccable.
On a brighter note, the options menu features multiple difficulties, high/low graphic settings and the choice of English/Japanese voices. I would strongly recommend selecting the latter because there is a substantial lack of English spoken phrases during battles which quickly becomes tiresome. It’s blatantly evident this was built as a PC centric title from the off, with more save slots that you could possibly need. The graphic style throughout is individual and aesthetically pleasing which is a joy to look at. What I cannot emphasise enough is how spectacular the entire music score is. From the catchy main theme to melodic and emotional piano sequences, 99 spirits contains a soundtrack which is worthy of notoriety. It’s a rare occurrence when the music alone is worth the price of admission.
Conclusion – Is It Worth Your Money?
Without a shadow of doubt, 99 Spirits is one of the most imaginative and accomplished indie games on the market. The story is captivating and based on an actual Japanese fable. Not only that, the battle system is accessible whilst containing various layers of depth. Accompanied by a well thought out resource management element, the actual gameplay is almost perfect. The immersion is heightened by beautiful art design and stupendous soundtrack. With an expansive plot totaling over 10 hours, containing more than 100 unique monsters, there’s a lot of content on offer. 99 Spirits should be purchased at the current sale price of $14.99 without any hesitation. I would personally opt for the deluxe edition because the soundtrack is that good. I implore you to vote for this game on Steam Greenlight if you were as captivated by it as I was. A demo is also available which provides a brief insight into the gameplay.
- Time played – 15 Hours
- Widescreen Support – Yes (Black bars at 16:9, stretched)
- Resolution played 1280×720 and 1920×1080
- Control Scheme – Mouse and Keyboard
- System Specification – AMD X6 II 1090T @ 4.01GHz, 8GB RAM, XFX 5870
- Game Acquisition Method – Review Copy
- DRM – None
- Availability – Desura, Official Site
- Bugs/Crashes – None