19th Dec2017

‘Nine Parchments’ Review (Nintendo Switch)

by Rupert Harvey

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Borrowing heavily from the likes of the Magicka and Diablo series, Frozenbyte, the Finnish team most famous for Trine, offers Nine Parchments – another game set in a whimsical world of wizardry. But leave your puzzling hat and exploration compass behind, because this is strictly a twin-stick shooter dressed in high fantasy clothing. Instead of guns the player shoots fireballs, and instead of grenades we have AOE spells.

There’s more than a hint of J. K. Rowling in the barebones story, which opens in a wizard school. When the titular parchment pages are blown away and swept into the corners of the land, it’s up to you – with your selectable avatar – to go on a linear adventure to retrieve them. Occasional faux-literary intonations from the narrator give the tale the feel of a children’s storybook, and the graphics are bright and colourful. But despite the cutesy aesthetic, Nine Parchments offers a solid challenge and requires maximum concentration.

The core gameplay has you traversing the land via a fixed isometric view, battling monsters and mini-bosses in a series of small arenas. Spawning enemies come in a variety of elemental forms: fire, ice, lightning etc. At your disposal is an expanding wheel of spells, through which you cycle to find the best form of attack. A red monster may be immune to fire, for example, but susceptible to ice – it’s a scissors/paper/stone dynamic.

Gameplay changes little, although your repertoire of spells grows, giving you more and more to think about in the heat of combat. I feel the devs missed a trick by not including a stop or slow time feature, meaning sometimes you’ll find yourself circling an enemy while leafing through your spellbook to see what might have any kind of effect. It can feel like a war of attrition at times. The final boss functions as an effective test of your abilities whilst also underlining the lack of variety offered by the game.

There is an Easy mode, although this removes the “elite” beasts, and with it yet more precious variety. The game pulls no punches. Die once and you get an instant reprieve; die again and you’re thrown back a checkpoint, which may mean repeating a series of encounters. There’s nothing wrong with apt punishment, but when it’s the result of falling through a deadly hole obscured by busy graphics, it feels harsh.

Those graphics are gorgeous, even if the richness is surface-deep. One way the game does provide variety is in its environments: everything from sun-baked seashores, autumnal woodland, snowy mountain passes, grim Nordic wastes to pink-blossomed valleys. I yearned to explore this world more deeply, but the player is fenced in by invisible walls. Indeed, the opening moments may feel dispiriting, with exploration aggressively limited, and apparently innocuous rock pools a source of instant death.

The controls, while slightly floaty, are responsive. A light auto-aim locks spells to enemies, although in handheld mode it can be difficult to track which direction you’re facing. Secrets take the form of magic quills and treasure chests. Disappointingly, you’ll find them all superficially hidden behind scenery rather than as rewards for solving puzzles. There are also tons of hats and brooms to collect to augment your character, along with a fully-fledged skill tree.

Nine Parchments is well-produced game, and is aesthetically breathtaking at times (the score is delightfully twee). It runs well on Switch, retaining a pretty solid 30fps throughout. But it is very ordinary in terms of its gameplay loop. Clearly it’s designed with multiplayer in mind; and as a co-op campaign, Nine Parchments offers a mindlessly fun blasting party. But it’s hard to recommend as a single-player experience. Twenty years on, it’s really no more advanced a game than Gauntlet Legends – which is fine, as long as you go in with moderate expectations.

Nine Parchments is out now on Nintendo Switch.

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