Speaking of somewhat lesser-well-known games: have you heard of 99 Spirits? I hadn’t heard of 99 Spirits. A game by Fruitbat Factory, it concerns — and I immediately and without reservation admit that the information that’s about to follow and that information alone was enough to make me grab the Indie Royale bundle it was a part of — the Japanese folklore ghost-type of Tsukumogami, or ‘the spirits of 100-year-old objects that have become self-aware and evil’.
Okay, fine, I was a little wary about buying a game solely on the strength of its hook. So I looked up a gameplay video, and it seemed to show some Japanese woman fighting the Tsukumogami, capturing their spirits and using them in battle. Yes, you read that right: we have a potential Japanese object-spirit Pokémon situation on our hands here.
And that’s the last thing I remember before my credit card was out, the bundle was in my possession, and 99 Spirits was installed and ready for launch on my desktop.
(Spoiler levels: Narrative, low (only the early opening). Mechanical, rather high.)
Oh hello, Immediate Options Screen! What’s a collection of tweakable game setting preferences like you doing in a literally-just-launched-this-game kind of game start like this?
No graphics, audio or controls options, huh? I’m sure they won’t be missed. As for the rest… my PC is figuratively awe-inspiring, so whatever Effect Load is, it can keep doing that at High. I’m a braggart and a masochist, so the difficulty follows suit. And from what I’ve seen from the one gameplay video I watched, the voiced parts of this game are pretty much all combat taunts. So I’ll leave that to Japanese: I find I can tolerate endless repetitive voice clips much better if I can’t actually understand what is being said.
After that rather rude interruption, this is the actual title screen of 99 Spirits:
Oh my Steve, would you look at that? Is that a pressure cooker with wings? And a grumpy one-eyed footstool with a buff claw hand? And what looks like a lamp shade with a sexy long leg? And, and, and… God, I hope the entire game is like this. Just this, 100%, forever.
Since there’s nothing to load yet, I don’t feel like exiting and we’ve seen the settings already, I dive straight into a New Game. ‘Would you like to see the prologue?’, 99 Spirits asks, which immediately puts me on guard a little: in my experience, only games that are acutely self-aware about the quality of their movies offer a skip up-front. But sure, I’m still incredibly optimistic. Let’s do it!
We start off with this:
Before transitioning to this:
And then, this guy:
99 Spirits tells its story through the time-honoured mechanic of Talking Anime Heads and Text. I’m okay with this, and it even reinforces the idea that the language selection I made earlier was done solely to ‘benefit’ the combat taunts. Onwards!
Lots of people talk in quick succession. The village, because the background tells us this is a village, is under attack by the Tsukumogami. Weird-hat man sets off to help out some villagers, while a woman with apparently just one eye does… something or other, I’m not sure.
Suddenly, a shadowy guy appears!
Also, a Tsukumogami! It looks less like the self-aware spirit of an object and more like an evil cloud with an eye, but maybe that’s just me.
The woman is killed, the man falls under evil guy’s sway or something, evil guy blames the whole thing on the Tsukumogami and on some nobles for some reason, and a little crying girl is escorted by a talking white fox.
I’m skipping over some of the fine details of this epic because of space constraints. All you need to know right now is that that previous paragraph is an accurate summary of what happened, and also that it’s now ten years later for some reason.
The little crying girl, Hanabusa, is now the pink-clothed swordswoman, Hanabusa. Because of the rather traumatic way in which Hanabusa lost both of her parents (as far as she knows), she’s devoted her life to rooting out the Tsukumogami menace. In fact, the game begins in earnest as Hanabusa sets forth to a location called the Shura Valley, where some Tsukumogami live. Hey, let’s go there now!
This is the Shura Valley:
Yeaahh… 99 Spirits is not incredibly big on detailed environment design.
A brief tutorial explains what I’m looking at, here. The little girl in the top left is Hanabusa, obviously. I can move her around by clicking in one of the squares, which causes her to path her own way thatward. The blue clouds are Tsukumogami, the blue pyramids are items I can grab.
Items play into the various bars on my screen. Health is the most obvious one, because this is a video game. The WR bar next to it represents my sword’s wear and tear, which’ll reduce its effectiveness to 0 should it ever fill up. And there’s also a Hunger percentage I can lower through eating. No idea what it does, but I have rice balls, so I’m unconcerned.
The Move button moves me, making it completely unnecessary, the Items button gives me a simple list of inventory items, and the Config button opens up a secondary options screen containing some text speed settings and the Save and Load commands. I can actually Save and Load on the world map by using Z and X, which… again, doesn’t instill me with great confidence. Any game that gives you the tools to quicksave and quickload that prominently…
Still, no time to dally about that, there’s Tsukumogami to kill! I run straight into the nearest cloud, because CHAERG.
So as far as another brief tutorial can tell me, I fight the Tsukumogami like this:
Every… let’s call it ’round’, I can attack (Z) or defend (X). Attack consists of a number of strikes — I’m going to say three — which I launch at the Tsukumogami, whereas Defend puts me in a defensive stance, awaiting attacks. During either mode, between my strikes, the enemy Tsukumogami can decide to attack: if it does, I can block its attack with X, then retaliate with Z. Of course, if I don’t block in time…
I wail on the Tsukumogami for a bit, missing a fair few defensive strikes in the process. I can already tell this game is going to tax my reflexes a lot. Maybe putting it in Hard wasn’t the smartest idea? On the other hand, I can also tell that once I get the defending down, I shouldn’t be taking a whole lot of damage to begin with. We’ll leave it for now.
I battle the three Tsukumogami on the field in quick succession, but each fight ends with them running away and me not achieving something. If only there was some way…
One brief fox god-involving cutscene later, I am now holding a magic sword. Because that is how these things go.
My new magic sword holds five magic gems. Currently, two of them are active. I fill the first one by attacking, and the second one by defending; counterattacking fills both at the same time.
If the first gem is full, and in-between turns, I can press the C button to obtain a hint to the Tsukumogami’s true form. This hint can either be a descriptive word — like ‘container’, or ‘porcelain’ — or a few letters — like ‘WL’, or ‘O’.
The second gem, through the press of a V, allows me to guess at the Tsukumogami’s identity. I do so by actually typing out the name of the object I think it embodies. For instance, a porcelain container with WL and O could be…
And it turns out that it is!
Spirit duly revealed, I bash it to bits. It still fights back, but this time I actually win!
I smack some more Tsukumogami. Most of them are as well-drawn as I hope they’d be.
I kill the Tsukumogami and save the town! Oh yeah, the town was under attack. Should’ve maybe mentioned that, I’m thinking.
In said town, I now have access to NPC services. For a cost, I can repair my sword, fill my belly and buy items; HP restoration is free. Care to guess what those NPCs look like?
I’m almost immediately sent on a second mission: to retrieve some nobleman’s fan, which he dropped in Tsukumogami Central, I mean Shura Valley again. To help me, I’m given a page of the Spirit Index, which lists ten possible Tsukumogami names. Like so:
Now, instead of guessing all the time, I can simply try to look up the relevant Tsukumogami name after catching a few hints. I worry that this might make the game a little boring? But then again, I somehow doubt that these ten Tsukumogami represent literally every enemy I can run into.
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