[16 November 2006]
If you’re not a fan of the Dynasty Warriors series, chances are N3: Ninety-Nine Nights also won’t appeal to you. Like the former, N3 is an action game that has you slaughtering hundreds of enemies at a time. Since this is an exclusive title for the next-generation Xbox 360 console, however, the game’s a lot prettier and effortlessly displays hundreds of detailed 3D enemies on screen most of the time, though you will occasionally experience slowdown.
N3 has been panned by a number of critics, but personally, I think it’s unfairly gotten a bad rap. Sure, it can get pretty tedious wiping out one horde after another, but I’m not going to lie to you—it’s also pretty cathartic to swing your sword and lay the smack down on hundreds of opponents. N3 is a collaboration between two developers, Japan’s Q Entertainment (which created the popular puzzle games Lumines for the PlayStation Portable and Meteos for the Nintendo DS) and South Korea’s Phantagram, makers of the Kingdom Under Fire series for the original Xbox. In fact, if you’ve played Kingdom Under Fire, you’ll be right at home in N3, as you also play a general leading your army and almost single-handedly winning each battle for your side.
What struck me most about N3 is that, by unlocking the other characters, you also get the perspective of the other side in this war between humans and goblins (along with their allies such as orcs and trolls). Sure, we’ve had games where playing different characters shows you another facet of the whole story, as well as titles that allow you to play the Good and Evil campaigns. Here, however, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the goblins were not the evil monsters they seemed to be when I was fighting them, and that the crusaders I was leading were not the purely good heroes you’d think they were.
When you first fire up N3, you can only play as Inphyy, a 17-year-old girl who is one of the leaders of the Temple Knights (yes, they reek of Templars, don’t they?), who are the main source of hope for the humans fighting a bloody war against the goblins. You have to complete her missions in order to unlock some of the other characters. Don’t worry, however, because she’s practically an army of one, mowing down foes with her sword and tirelessly exhorting her men. The other leader of the Temple Knights is Inphyy’s stepbrother Aspharr, who accompanies you in your campaigns and whom you’ll unlock as a playable character once you complete Inphyy’s third mission.
From the start, you can already see the personality clash between the fiery Inphyy and the more compassionate Aspharr. Inphyy comes across as more bloodthirsty, apparently convinced of the absolute righteousness of the Temple Knights’ cause and willing to do whatever it takes to win this war. Meanwhile, her stepbrother is just as powerful a fighter, yet he is unhappy about waging this war and doesn’t believe in killing (though of course he has to slay his enemies in battle). The plot and these moral dilemmas will unfold through cut scenes in between missions, and once you unlock every character (the game has seven playable characters—Inphyy and six others whom you must unlock in different ways), you’ll have a clearer understanding of the story and the reason this game is called Ninety-Nine Nights.
The seventh playable character that you’ll be able to unlock is the secret one—and probably the least expected. You need to complete all the missions of two unlockable characters in order to play as the secret character. I won’t spoil the surprise, but this character turns out to have one of the most tragic tales, and brilliantly reminds you why you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. N3 shows you that the monster might be more human, and the humans, the real monsters.
This, to me, is one of the most remarkable things about N3, because in playing one of the unlockable characters, the goblin Dwingvatt, I realized that the enemies I was originally fighting as Inphyy and the other human characters were not cardboard monsters but well-rounded creatures who could be just as noble as the so-called heroes. In fact, it’s somewhat jarring to play as Dwingvatt and see his tale unfold, with the cut scenes showing the atrocities committed by Inphyy and her Temple Knights. When you’re slaughtering enemies in video games, you don’t usually stop to wonder about their wives and children. When you’re burning down their villages, you don’t pause to think about the plight of the innocents. They’re just monsters, after all. Yet play the game from the perspective of the goblins, and you’ll find yourself outraged by the injustices, with Dwingvatt coming across as the more noble hero. I guess, just as in the real world, it’s easier to dehumanize and demonize your enemies, so you won’t have to wonder why you’re killing them.
As I said, N3 won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, some aspects of the game are frustrating. For one, N3 doesn’t have any in-game saves—either complete the mission or start that stage all over again. Unfortunately, practically every mission is almost insanely long. We’re talking wave after wave of enemies, so it does get frustrating to reach the final part of that mission, only to be killed by a cheap shot and have to start all over again.
The combat system features combos as well as special attacks. You have two types of special attacks, the Orb Attack and Orb Spark. You fill up the Orb Attack meter with red orbs every time you kill an opponent with your melee attacks. Once it’s full, you can unleash a very powerful attack that takes out groups of enemies with one blow. Your enemies then drop blue orbs, which fill up your Orb Spark meter. And yup, when this meter fills up, you can unleash your Orb Spark attack, which is an area attack that unleashes your character’s version of a weapon of mass destruction. We’re talking Dragon Ball Z-like screen-clearing attacks here.
You’ll need a certain combo and maybe a certain weapon and item, however, in order to fight the ultimate bad guy in N3. You get to fight this creep in the secret mission that you’ll unlock after completing all the missions of the seven playable characters. Once you’ve done that, go back to your saved game of Inphyy’s final mission (well, you thought it was the final mission then) and you’ll see a new mission called “Another World.” Good luck.
In the end, N3 has its warts and all, but it’s not as bad as some critics say, and I found it enjoyable in spite of the occasional frustration. Besides, in a world where so many myths about war persist and each side demonizes the other, a game that could help us see past our own prejudices must be doing something right.