Nine Parchments is the latest game from Finnish studio Frozenbyte, and having been first released on Steam and Nintendo Switch at the back end of last year, now finds its way onto the Xbox One.
At first glance, this looks and feels a lot like a Diablo game with the isometric view and co-operative elements. Sadly though for all the macabre folk out there, Nine Parchments is a decidedly more upbeat and colourful affair that doesn’t require you to defeat the denizens of Hell itself. Though there are plenty of demons to best.
No, Nine Parchments has you playing as one of eight apprentice wizards – only two are available at the start of the game – who are looking to boost their spell repertoire and go in search of the missing Nine Parchments to fill their spellbooks.
The game features some gorgeous looking environments that are given full attention with the isometric view. Starting off on a beach, it won’t be long before you are at the top of the cliffs, about to enter a vast, snowy tundra before heading down under the surface with lava pits and deadly drops. There’s a lot to look at too, from dilapidated buildings to ice caves, but as the levels are extremely linear, you cannot explore these. It’s an environment ripe with opportunities to explore and discover secrets galore, but there aren’t any. The only additional areas come from locked doors or extra side-quests where new characters can be unlocked, providing you have found their respective staff.
There are 32 levels in total, eight of which are easy boss fights. You’ll find that each takes about 15 minutes to complete; this depends on whether it is done in single player or multiplayer.
Aside from the boss fights, single player can be deceptively tricky. Many encounters are the right level of difficulty, but when there are a large number for enemies – usually once per level – things can get quite out of hand and you will regularly end up being sent back to the last checkpoint.
Multiplayer, on the other hand, is a cakewalk by comparison and that’s mostly due to the amount of enemies not scaling up when extra players are added. Even with two players out of the maximum allotted four, Nine Parchments offers no challenge which isn’t ideal for a game designed to be played in co-op.
Co-op can be completed online and locally and is the way the game is meant to be played, with drop-in and drop-out for local multiplayer. The biggest challenge doesn’t come from the enemies but rather your own friends; friendly fire is enabled and has a massive impact on the overall proceedings.
Any attack can – and will – cause damage to your comrades and fellow academy students, but the same happens to the enemy team also. The same goes for healing and buff spells; if a player is to throw down an area of effect spell near you and an enemy, both will receive a heal. Also, some larger enemies have auras around them that negate a certain type of spell, but if a player stands in those areas, they will receive the same resistance. Share and share-alike is something that Nine Parchments thrives on.
And when you aren’t getting hit with fireballs or ice shards from a friend across the map, most areas where enemies spawn have un-protected edges – sometimes in the middle of the area – that again you will fall down. At first this is funny, but after the 30th time – coupled with infrequent checkpoints – it does begin to cause a few expletives.
Nine Parchments is incredibly deep tactically but when there is a large group of enemies with various resistances against a full team of four players, the best tactics are thrown out of the window and it’s left to you to hit them with everything you’ve got. Eventually though, you will triumph.
Also surprisingly in-depth is each character’s skill tree. Each has three different skill trees – with new ones being unlocked after unlocking different variations of the characters – that can be customised at the start of each playthrough, but not during, providing you have levelled up enough to have enough skill points. Combine these with a choice of 27 different staves – each with unique stats – and 49 spells in total across six different elements (fire, ice, life, death, electricity and steam) and Nine Parchments is designed to be played again and again, with huge scope to build your ideal character.
However, we need to talk about the combat. You see, as much depth as there is in customising and tinkering with your character, the combat in the game is very bland and repetitive. Working with a twin stick control scheme, each battle simply boils down to literally running around in circles to avoid enemy projectiles/get around their front shield, and then blasting them with your chosen spell. Even with a fully levelled up character, far too frequently my spells have run out of mana and it becomes a disappointing exercise in dodging attacks until the one spell that would cause damage to a group of enemies has recovered enough.
The games’ Achievements are all tied into defeating each of the bosses and unlocking the character variations. There aren’t any Achievements specifically for completing the game at higher difficulties or defeating set numbers of enemies, though to unlock all character variations you will need to complete the game on Hardcore, which introduces a permadeath feature. Thankfully the Achievements aren’t too much of a grind.
It’s clear from the beginning that a lot of effort has gone into Nine Parchments’ aesthetics, skill trees and overall progression, but this comes at a price to what you will spend most time in the game doing: killing wave after wave of enemies, with that becoming less and less fun each time. My single-player playthrough came in at about seven hours, but this required repetition of multiple sections due to falling off cliffs one too many times. A team of four could breeze through this in about five hours, and not struggle at all. But after that point, even with the temptation of unlocking further variations of each character and trying out new skill trees with a plethora of new spells, there is no temptation to spend any more time with the battle mechanics.