We don’t often see wordplay as a key mechanic in PC games these days, outside of the educational stuff you’re forced with as a kid or anomalies like Typing of the Dead: Overkill. The concept just isn’t easily marketable and it honestly sounds like more work than play, which is why 99 Spirits came as a pleasant surprise.
Being a Japanese title certainly helped in its reception, considering how their PC games market is largely made of text-based releases. It’s only thanks to the localization efforts of Fruitbat Factory that we English-speaking folks get to see the charm behind this indie gem first-hand, though it didn’t go through the process unscathed. Nonetheless, 99 Spirits is something those with patience should consider.
The heroine’s role is fulfilled by Hanabusa, a determined young woman who, as a child, was orphaned during a Tsukumogami raid on her hometown. Tsukumogami are everyday household objects that come to life on their 100th birthday, or in some instances, possessed by a vengeful spirit – it’s fairly interesting material if you’re into folklore or Japanese culture.
When a routine task goes awry, Hanabusa learns that fate has big plans for her. With a benevolent shape-shifting wolf and a godly spirit-banishing sword by her sides, she sets off to uncover the secret behind the raid and her parents, enlisting the help of gods while also uncovering a plot involving the royal family. I did say it was big!
Personally I find the story serviceable for the most part. It’s enjoyable at moments (helping discarded cookware find new purpose) and downright predictable during others (spoiler-territory deaths) but generally speaking, there was enough material to pull through until the end. The supporting characters fall into bland stereotypes, especially if you’re familiar with Japanese media, yet thankfully stop short of being annoying. I should also point out that there are several diverging options you can take so the game isn’t entirely linear.
Of course, getting to the end is anything but easy. Fights are broken into two phases: Identifying and Banishing. Hostile spirits appear as a mysterious shade, immune to any real harm. To lift the veil, Hanabusa must first learn the spirit’s name by slowly extracting hints – “lowercase words are characteristics of the Tsukumogami, while the uppercase characters are a part of their name” – before she can finally attack it.
This forms the basis of all encounters and makes for a nice, though repetitive, little puzzle. You don’t have all the time in the world as you fend off the spirit’s attacks, but making the wrong guess has its consequences too. Unfortunately, this is also where the game’s biggest problem creeps in: localization issues.
I think Fruitbat Factory did a fantastic job, preserving the humour, personalities and nuances of the story. Rather, the problem here is the difference in word construction between English and Japanese. It’s tellingly obvious that the system was designed around Japanese characters, making the English adaptation feeling a little clunky.
You’ll also spend the first few hours of the game frustratingly guessing synonyms of the right answer; an example off the top of my head would be “Sandals” versus “Slippers”, where characteristics of said item are nearly identical.
It’s undoubtedly in need of tweaking but nothing severely game-breaking should you have patience; in fact you’ll need loads if you intend to finish 99 Spirits. Over time the game rewards you with a bestiary of sorts, listing the names of all spirits you’ll encounter in a given area. You’ll have to slowly fill it up but it sure beats having to guess things all over again when you retrace older areas, a journey you’ll undertake at least once.
Moving forward Hanabusa will unlock three other gems on her sword, granting her interesting abilities. One lets you capture a Tsukumogami, the second lets you gain experience for the captured spirit, and the final one lets you use said spirit’s ability. Given the countless Tsukomogami and their individual skills – attack, support, or recovery – there’s plenty of experimentation for the player.
Furthermore, the spirit’s type and order in which they are captured grant different bonuses too. Above all that, you can upgrade the gems themselves, making identification faster or giving you a higher capture success rate. You can pretty much see where they’re going with player customization here.
If its visual customization you’re looking for then 99 Spirits comes up short, offering only one unlockable outfit bound with stringent requirements… but less so where cloth is concerned. Fanservice aside, at least it comes with passive bonuses.
For some reason or another I slogged through every Steam achievement for 99 Spirits, something I only bother with exceptionally great games. This doesn’t reach the lofty heights of gaming’s greatest but there’s just something about 99 Spirits that pulls you along, making you give it one more chance. Just be sure to use those multiple save slots because your progress might and probably will grind to a halt somewhere along the way.
I’m sure I’ll never touch the game again but I don’t regret the time invested. 99 Spirits has its problems, is slow to get started, gets repetitive and overall feels a tad rough, but the vision and experimentation behind it ignites that exciting rush of potential only indies provide. Pick it up at the next sale if you can be forgiving of a bumpy ride. As a bonus, the original Japanese version is bundled together for those who can read it!
Addendum: A demo is available on Steam and the official website.
Title: 99 Spirits
Publisher: Fruitbat Factory
Fruitbat Factory provided us with a free copy of the game for review.