Fruitbat Factory is at it again – the developers who brought Yakiniku Banzai’s War of the Tanks to the English-speaking world back in 2012 recently localized TORaIKI’s 99 Spirits, a grid-based Japanese roleplaying game for the PC.
Set in Heian-era Japan, the story begins with supernatural murder and an anonymous(ish) betrayal. A group of tsukumogami (self-aware spirits of everyday objects), aided by an unnamed traitor within the local temple, attack the capital and slay a shrine maiden, whose husband disappears after the battle. Their daughter, Hanabusa, flees the fray with the help of a white fox. Flash forward to ten years later: Hanabusa has grown into a skilled swordswoman with a grudge against tsukumogami and an oddly powerful passion for pickled foods. One day, a white fox spirit named Komiya appears and presents her with a supernatural sword crafted by her parents. Soon after, the sword is damaged by a mysterious tsukumogami claiming to be her long-lost father, and Hanabusa sets out on a quest to repair the sword and discover the truth of her father’s fate.
99 Spirits features most of the classic RPG elements, including leveling, stat-monitoring (hunger, health, and the state of the sword all affect Hanabusa’s ability to fight and survive), and currency/trade interactions. Gold is earned through vanquishing enemies and completing quests, and some found objects, like gems, are specifically made for trading. In addition to stocking up in town, players will also randomly encounter other travelers who will offer specific trade opportunities.
Of course, not all of your encounters on the road will be peaceful. Tsukumogami run rampant throughout the land, and the more ground you cover, the more monsters you’ll face. While you’re given the options of avoiding confrontations or retreating if you walk into a fight by mistake, battles make you stronger and build your index of known tsukumogami. Most importantly, fighting is fun.
In addition to the basic attack, defend, or use item options, battling involves word games. Tsukumogami, being the supernatural creeps they are, cannot be defeated merely by bashing their brains in. They hid their true shape to protect themselves; thus, you must first guess their true name in order to make them vulnerable enough to kill or capture. Your sword has five gems built into it, and each comes with a gauge that must be filled by attacking or defending in order to use the power of that gem. The first and second are the most vital; the first allows you to receive hints about the name, and the second allows you to name the spirit and defeat it once and for all.
Surprisingly, the puzzle factor doesn’t slow battles down at all – if anything, it makes things more hectic. While the tsukumogami will not attack out of turn and will wait for you to make the first move, players must be quick on their feet and react without hesitation to defense and counterattack prompts which occur after an action is chosen. Memory and word association skills are also tested, as the hints for the names are only displayed briefly and come in pieces, sometimes as letters from the name itself, other times as clues to the tsukumogami’s identity (such as “instrument” or “clothing”). The faster you figure it out, the shorter the fight is and the less resources you use up – and the more experience you gain.
Most of the words are common words in any language – things like “spoon” or “sword” – but some, like “machete,” are less common, and a few, like the “torii” gate, will be especially difficult for players not familiar with Japanese culture or language. Luckily, in addition to getting help from the sword, you can also purchase (or, if you’re lucky, find) pages from a tsukumogami index – basically, a word bank. When the second gem’s gauge is filled, you can view the index to see if the name you’re trying to figure out is listed there.
In addition to a seriously catchy soundtrack, 99 Spirits features vocal audio in both English and Japanese (the text remains in English either way), though unfortunately very little voice acting is actually heard in the game apart from the prologue and Hanabusa’s shouts during fights. As far as the English audio goes, the prologue is overdramatic and a little awkward, and sounds better in Japanese (at least to a non-Japanese speaker like me). Hanabusa’s voice, on the other hand, sounds pretty good either way, though she seems to have a very limited range of exclamations which wear out fairly quickly. The dialogue, at least in English, ranges from average to amusingly histrionic. It’s difficult, for example, not to laugh at a line like, “Prepare to be destroyed, you diabolic one!”
The characters and the story itself, however, are moderately interesting and are interwoven well into the gameplay, though some of the old clichés are clearly still alive and kicking. The mysterious traitor at the beginning is a familiar face, in that it’s the usual “friend” all the characters seem to trust even in spite of a shady demeanor and the occasional sinister chuckle. The heroine’s father seems like he has something to do with the bad guys (oh yes, we haven’t heard that one before), but she trusts in his goodness regardless. And, despite her spaced-out expression and fairly average personality, Hanabusa seems to somehow be particularly alluring, as several male characters find it necessary to comment on this regularly. Even the fox seems to think she’s foxy.
Still, the quest to repair the sword is an exciting adventure, and both narrative and gameplay are graced with excellent pacing. Rather than bombarding the player with too much information or tutorial instructions all at once, mechanics are introduced gradually in bite-sized bits as more is revealed about the sword’s powers and the nature of the tsukumogami. Both spirits and human characters are plentiful and nicely varied in both design and personality, if a bit under-developed or non-dynamic. Numerous references to ancient folklore and mythology add a little depth and are an added bonus for gamers with an interest in Japanese culture.
Though not a flawless experience, 99 Spirits manages nonetheless to be a strangely addictive JRPG, and it is at least worth checking out the free demo found on the official site. The soundtrack and full localized version can both be purchased from the Fruitbat Factory store, and a deluxe edition featuring both the Japanese and English versions, as well as the music, is also available for a few extra bucks. Additionally, the game is currently up for voting on Steam Greenlight.
[review pros=”Engaging combat mechanics with a unique twist, excellent pacing, catchy soundtrack, high amount/variation of enemies and characters, interesting references to Japanese folklore, includes both English and Japanese audio” cons=”English dialogue and voice acting is sometimes awkward/overdramatic, some narrative clichés, characters could use more development” score=75]