Where are my archers? Ninety-Nine Nights equips me with backup forces that are, for combat purposes, useless. My archers appear grouped around me at the click of a button and promptly do nothing. They ignore the goblins swarming around us. They wait. "Attack," I yell, or some other badly-translated-from-the-Japanese battle-cry. My archers head for the nearby hills.
It's up to my trusty sword and me. Another iridescent swipe, another handful of limp goblins goes flying into the air. The novelty of battling hundreds of enemies at once is rapidly wearing off. With nothing to distinguish them, they become a surging body of bodies that fills the space around me -- more like an environmental hazard than an enemy.
I tap the attack button. I'm racking up dozens of kills. Death counts in videogames often serve the same function as high scores in pinball. Ninety-Nine Nights lets me make a killing. The Xbox 360 has already plagued us with the hideous disappointments of Kameo and Dead Rising in the emerging kill-a-lot genre. Ninety-Nine Nights gets it right.
Not only can I annihilate enemies by the swordful, but the process gradually becomes more intricate -- almost tactical. As I kill enemies, I increase in strength, and I gain new maneuvers. My swings begin to encompass several steps, then leaps. I learn spectacular attacks that launch me into the air and bring me down like a divine hammer upon my enemies. The game gives me the power to leave the goblin army an enormous muddle of limbs and torsos strewn across the valley floor.
By now my archers have arrived at their hillside, and they begin firing at the sole surviving goblin, who has gotten lost amid some beautifully 3D-modeled boulders. My archers are terrible attackers, but their arrows fly through the 360 air with lovely cloudy tracers following after them. They're the best indicator of that damn goblin's general location. Once I spot him, I kill him. That's one less goblin in the world, and one more point for me.
THE GOOD: Not only does the fighting become more intricate as the game progresses, but the full story of Ninety-Nine Nights encompasses a number of unique characters, many of whom get their own storylines in which to develop. Treasures hidden (and guarded) around the sprawling battlefields can change my abilities dramatically mid-mission, transforming even basic exploration into a character-defining activity.
THE BAD: Many of the game's flaws, such as keeping the camera focused tightly around my main characters instead of offering me a panorama of the landscape, turn out to be necessary. The battling, even when it's against hundreds of enemies, really does become tactical and precise. Still, a little more help from the computer-controlled allies would have been nice. They're armed and ready. Why weren't they given the brains to fight? At least they share that flaw with most of my foes.
THE BOTTOM LINE: A sprawling fantasy brawl with enough character building to make it the Xbox 360's most personal action game.