Nine Parchments is a cooperative top-down action RPG in the vein of games like Diablo or Gauntlet. It plays out more closely to Magicka, since instead of melee weapons, you primarily wield elemental spells. Though it has its faults, Nine Parchments is an engaging and challenging title, best experienced in multiplayer.
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You play as one of eight different wizards in training, although only two are available at the start. After failing their wizarding exam, the young students set out to recover nine lost parchments, both to gain mystical power and to prove themselves as more than magical hazards. It’s a light plot that doesn’t go anywhere, but it serves its purpose.
The gameplay is simple: up to four players explore together through treacherous top-down environments. It uses a twin-stick control scheme; you move with the left analog stick and aim your magic with the right one, allowing you to simultaneously run and fire wherever you want. Each character begins with three predetermined spells, but you gain more as you retrieve parchments. I tend to prefer close-range combat in games, which is limited here due to your staff’s weak physical power, but I enjoyed experimenting with the 40+ different spells. Each falls into a different attack type – such as beam, projectile, or throwable bomb – and elemental property – like fire, ice, lightning, death, or life.
Success revolves around casting the right spells against each foe. But it’s easier said than done, for a solo player at least. Most enemies are immune to their own element, sometimes a second element due to magic circles. And with only three starting spells, you may find yourself constantly waiting for your single effective one to recharge. Additionally, large enemy swarms will often bombard the screen, giving you little opportunity to blink, quite literally in this case, as your method of dodging is through a teleportation move called “Blinking.” Even after Blinking behind an enemy, it will usually quickly turn back towards you, its only target. This makes it particularly difficult to fight enemies that reflect frontal assaults. That said, I felt accomplished every time I survived a difficult, sometimes unfair onslaught.
These issues are mitigated in multiplayer. With up to three teammates, not only do enemy encounters feel fair, but the overall experience is more entertaining with friends. The sense of comradery is strong in this game: surrounding enemies, healing and reviving each other, and combining beam attacks to create highly unstable magical blasts; combat is most satisfying when players are synergistic. However, not everyone will appreciate the friendly fire, and I found it most annoying when playing with randoms online. It can be hilarious with friends, and the mechanic balances out powerful spells, but I’d still have liked an option to turn it off to alleviate frustration. At least, there are serviceable options to invert the friendly fire or split the damage between characters.
My online experience was smooth. I had no issues with lag or disconnections. And it was easy to host or join games, even ones in progress. However, any sort of chat system would have helped both to offset friendly fire and to laugh together. As it is, having random teammates is not as amusing as couch co-op or chatting together with friends online. Regardless, it’s commendable that these diverse player size options are present. Unfortunately, due to how save files currently work, it’s difficult to switch between playstyles. If you want to go from single-player to multiplayer or vice versa, you must write over your current playthrough and start from the beginning. Without a stage select, it’s incredibly inconvenient to be locked in to either style for a multi-hour game, but the developers at Frozenbyte thankfully plan to implement multiple save files eventually.
That aside, the progression balance is well thought out. Regardless of how many times you restart the game, all of your characters retain their levels. And in Nine Parchments, your levels don’t equate to stats, but instead to skill points that you can invest into a character’s unique skill trees. Through this system, you can handicap your character while playing with lower-leveled friends by not investing any skill points. Or you can jump into a game with a beefed-up character, reinvesting points however you wish. It may help when playing the toughest of four difficulty levels, hardcore mode, in which your game ends when your team wipes out – no retries. Thankfully, the other three settings are generous with checkpoints and unlimited retries.
A first playthrough will likely take about five to eight hours, but you’ll need to complete it multiple times to obtain everything. By playing as other characters with different starting spells, subsequent playthroughs may be very different. But as fun as combat is, it can get fatiguing. There are a small number of enemy types, and it gets tedious facing the same foes throughout the two dozen levels. Intense boss encounters break up the constant fodder fights, but there isn’t much beyond that. Dungeon crawling is bland, despite the beautiful set pieces borrowed from Trine, another Frozenbyte property. There are almost no puzzles to speak of, and exploration amounts to finding five hidden quills per level or treasure chests. Though aside from cosmetic hats, the only interesting loot consists of stat-granting staves that also activate special missions to unlock characters. Achievements that unlock character variations further increase replay value, provided you can get past the repetitive gameplay loop. At least a wonderful orchestral fantasy soundtrack accompanies the lush environments, and the in-game voice acting remains charming and rarely annoying.
Nine Parchments is Frozenbyte’s magical take on the top-down action RPG. The collection of characters and spells makes for an engaging experience, enhanced when playing with friends. There were some frustrating segments, due to a mix of enemy resistances and friendly fire. Otherwise, combat was solid, though I wish the environments were more substantial as opposed to simple, pretty backdrops. Regardless, this magical adventure is fun in bursts and will attract fans of the genre.
A review copy was used for this article. You can find this review on Miketendo64.