Recently, some friends and I were searching for a new multiplayer game to play; in particular, something a bit more fantastical and magical, as a change from our time with Zombie Army 4: Dead War. From the exhaustive list of candidates, we picked out Nine Parchments, a top-down twin-stick shooter where you wield not guns, but magic! The colourful and co-operative nature of the Frozenbyte-developed game drew us into grabbing it in a PlayStation Store sale. In this post, I will briefly run through my thoughts on the game; it isn’t going to be a full review, as you’re limited to one character for each campaign run, and frankly, I’m not compelled to repeatedly play each mode with different characters. Without that knowledge, I don’t feel comfortable giving a full verdict. However, that is why I have the 10 Hours With… series, so I can still talk about my time with Nine Parchments and perhaps give an indicator of whether or not it is a game you would enjoy too. Let’s get into it!
It is telling that Nine Parchments comes from Frozenbyte, as the physics-based system of how different magic types combine is a core element and reminds me a lot of their puzzle-platformer Trine series. Indeed, the gameplay very much takes the focus here, as the story is very (and I mean very) straightforward. A brief introductory cutscene explains how, during an opportune moment, your group of apprentice wizards run away from their academy in search of the powerful Nine Parchments. That’s, well, sort of it on the narrative side (even the climactic moments aren’t particularly explanatory), and the lack of detail does make it a struggle to connect with the context of events. So, the game relies on that magic-led gameplay to keep you invested, and it’s… Partially successful. We delved in as a group of three – up to four players are supported, local or online – and quickly started discovering and experimenting with our individual sets of spells; you get a different base selection depending on the characters you choose, and then gain new abilities as boss fight rewards.
For example, I started off with a life-taking beam and electric storm attack, as well as a small healing circle. From the choices of spells offered from the early boss encounters, I happened to get a lot of healing-based magic, so decided to become the healer of the group. This was in contrast to the plethora of fire spells a friend received, leading to them becoming the main damage dealer – with our third player having a good balance of offensive and defensive spells to round out the party. It’s important to have a range of magic types, as a significant part of combat is about matchups; it’s the sort of system you’d expect, where fire does extra damage to ice and so on. Depending on the respective skillsets of your party, you’ll take different targets in battle – in addition, if you, say, meet an electric-immune enemy and you only have electric offensive magic, you could be relying on a friend to take them out (or, if you’re desperate, you can melee with your staff – but with the limited damage of this and your fragile health bar, it might not be wise). The natural magical role-taking is quite satisfying, and the presence of a skill tree emphasises the vague RPG feel. With the randomised offers of spells, there is even a slight roguelike essence, as alternate approaches can be adopted through either playing as different characters or selecting different magic.
If that all sounds like a smooth system where you’ll be stylishly choreographing your magic in an elegant dance, well… From my experience, it often doesn’t go that way, aha! There is a sense of chaos to playing Nine Parchments that is exacerbated by playing with multiple players; for our team of three, once we started meeting larger groups of enemies, the shared-screen format started to get quite stretched to the point of discomfort with all the various spells firing in various directions. Your health bars deplete very quickly (especially in close combat), so players will be zipping this way and that to avoid incoming attacks; as well as your general movement, two charges of an evasive teleportation move can be stored at any one time, and they’re they’re crucial in the most frenetic moments. Even keeping track of your own character can be tough in certain moments, and as a healer for the group, a lot of my time was spent keeping an eye on where my friends (and their health bars) were at. If you’re in multiplayer and your health is reduced to zero, then you can be revived, with a timer that is sped up by others standing in your immediate proximity – if everyone is taken out, then you get one final revive, too.
With how intense the action on screen can get sometimes, I describe Nine Parchments as Overcooked with magic due to how heated multiplayer sessions can get! A lot of that is because we turned on friendly fire – I’d actually argue this was quite a defining choice, as a lot of hilarious (and sometimes, contentious) moments were the result of us (purposefully or accidentally) firing off a spell and damaging another player. This resulted in the occasional scuffle, and the game feels designed to accommodate this. Levels are all quite linear, and tend to take the structure of multiple combat encounters broken up by short breathers to stop, explore, and if you feel the need, have your own inter-party duels. Indeed, this game served as part of the inspiration for the name of our new video game podcast Friendly Fire, haha! When you’re in the battles your meant to have, it’s important to work as a team – still, when one of the players has an attack that creates a wide-ranging circle of fire, it’s hard not to get a bit of collateral damage. The end of each level shows the stats of every player, whether that be damage or healing to friend or foe, so there isn’t much place to hide!
Sadly, the linear level design gets quite repetitive after a while. There is not anything wrong with linearity if there is enough variety to support it, but the general fight-explore-fight structure of Nine Parchments remains so similar that the element of surprise quickly fades. Exploration is mainly just spotting Chests and Quills as you make your way through levels, with the former containing either EXP or new cosmetic hats, and the latter being the generic collectibles of the game. Even the hats have limited appeal, as your character is so small on the screen. The other main side activity is unlocking new characters, which you do by completing specific challenges to unlock a trial location – these aren’t very taxing puzzles though, and don’t deviate too much from the established formula of magic combat. If you were playing on your own, this game might quickly get stale; it was the extra energy of playing with friends that kept my personal motivation going, and distracted me slightly from certain drawbacks.
Combine Your Magic
Some of these drawbacks don’t even originate from the game mechanics, but some choices on the technical side of Nine Parchments. Once you begin a run of the campaign, there appears to be no way to change certain settings, such as stopping other players from joining your game online. This left us open to being repeatedly joined by random online players, messing with the rhythm as we attempted to get them to leave – it happened a lot as we approached the final boss fight, and really disrupted the build-up to it. You could say it’s our fault for the way we set up our game, but this really should be easier to toggle on and off – and even joining a previously created game session was not clear, with the option to invite other players not available; everyone has to manually join the previous save data. Yes, these are quite specific complaints, but these sorts of technical quirks are unnecessary nowadays for a staple feature such as inviting other players to a game.
For all my criticisms of Nine Parchments, one area it does shine is the art direction; as you may be able to see from the images in this post, there is a vibrancy to the colour palette that really stands out. Again similar to the Trine games, it strikes a Saturday-morning-cartoon vibe, immediately catching your eye with bright, bold colours and never getting particularly dark. This surface-level appeal goes well with the sense of depth the top-down viewpoint provides, the foreground with your characters merging into the extra detail of the background. Whilst the actual level structures can be repetitive, the same is not the case for the environments, which range from luscious forests to cold snowscapes, intimidating lava pools, and more. When you combine that with the smorgasbord of colours from your spells, it paints a vivid picture, even if the intensity of the fight may stop your realising it at times. Nine Parchments is less impressive on the audio side, with a soundtrack that is rarely more than your expected fantasy fare.
The enemies have traits of birds, insects and more, with alternate appearances depending on their magical attribute. Yet, that doesn’t quite mask how often some of them recur later on, as the game noticeably runs out of new enemies to throw at you – other than in the boss fights. Those boss fights, though, should get a mention. Checkpoints of sorts in your adventure, they’re welcome changes from that slightly exhausting level design, but they’re a mixed bunch. Occasionally they’d be a severe difficulty spike where it took multiple attempts to emerge victorious, but then at other times we’d sail through. Either way, the change of battlefield they bring is refreshing – the boss might enclose the field into multiple icy sections, the floor may fall away over time, or enemies may jump out of surrounding portals in a style similar to a particular Ocarina of Time boss fight (you’ll know the one). On the other hand, it was disappointing how sudden the final boss was; whilst a clever way of challenging your knowledge of the game, this is where the shallow story really showed, as there was not that emotional investment into how the story would end.
Aside from the main story, there are also arena and challenge modes to test your skills further if you see fit. Combine that with the quite extensive unlockable roster of characters, and there is longevity to Nine Parchments if you need it. Indeed, the unlockable characters are creative designs that veer from the humanoid starting roster – perhaps you’d like to play as a standing cat or a mechanical owl? It did seem jarring that you cannot switch out for one of these without starting an entire new playthrough, though – it’s counter-intuitive, stopping you from experimenting with your appearance on the go as much as you can with your magic. As I say, for all of the fun I had with Nine Parchments, I don’t feel that urge to play the campaign again and again. Similar to the technical quirks I brought up, it’s decisions such as this that can have quite a detrimental effect on the experience as a whole.
Overall, Nine Parchments doesn’t quite match the exciting potential of a co-op magical twin-stick adventure. The core magical combat is satisfying to a degree, but it’s never quite clever or varied enough to be fully absorbing. In my opinion, the game really needs to be played with a group to soften some of the issues with repetitiveness and story. There is clear intent to give the player side content and reasons to play again, but some technical drawbacks hurt and delay that. Furthermore, the length of the game lands in an awkward middle ground, where the campaign is too short to have that epic adventuring feel, but too long to encourage me into roguelike-esque repeated playthroughs. Really, Nine Parchments needed to commit one way or the other, especially for solo players. Despite all of this, it can offer an entertaining time for a group of friends, especially if you find yourself drawn to more magical aesthetics. To reiterate, though; do consider carefully whether you turn on friendly fire or not…