Nine Parchments is the latest title from Frozenbyte, the developer of games such as the Trine series and, more recently on Switch, Has-Been Heroes. Just as the Trine series did before it, this game places a heavy focus on co-operative play with up to four players able to team up and enjoy the adventure together. You can play alone if you like but, for reasons we’ll explore a little later on, you’ll want to make sure you have a group of friends available for this one.
After a mysterious explosion hits their academy, a team of slightly reckless students (one of which, Cornelius, somehow manages to sound like an even whinier version of Frodo Baggins) embark on a quest to return nine magical parchments that blew away. To do this, you’ll be exploring various levels and using magic abilities to defeat monsters along the way, all while keeping on top of upgrades, new abilities, and new characters. While the classic RPG elements of skill trees and a levelling-up system are present here, it never feels complex or like there is too much to understand; it is an RPG in perhaps its simplest form.
The levels themselves are very similar; you’ll begin at one end, run through until you reach the other end, and simply try to survive the enemy attacks as you explore. To break up the repetition a little you’ll come across boss battles every now and then - these act as milestones within the game and you’ll collect one of the missing nine parchments with each of these victories. Thanks to the increased repetition of the main levels, these boss battles are often a treat; they can be pretty challenging at times but, with some clever strategic thinking, you’ll manage to overcome them and find yourself eagerly anticipating the next one.
The combat works around an elemental system (fire beats ice, for example) and combining the elements with a suitable style of attack is key. Most attacks are long-range but come in different forms such as continuous beams of energy, or short bursts that do a little more damage with each hit, and these can all be accessed on a rotation system triggered by the shoulder buttons. You can also use close-combat melee attacks, but these usually create more risk than reward and you are much better off keeping your distance from enemies. Coming up with the best strategies and carrying out the attacks can be really fun, but the actual amount of fun you have might depend on how you choose to play.
We decided to play through the game on a solo quest first and, for the first hour or two, things were still fresh enough that we were enjoying the simple but satisfying combat. Unfortunately, after a while had passed, the aforementioned repetitive nature of the level exploration started to make the game drag a little; some of the initial ‘magic’ was lost. The boss fights did stand out as we mentioned, but the rest of the time we were left hoping for something more.
Luckily, things changed in multiplayer. Roaming around the levels with up to three other players can create all kinds of havoc; it is scarily easy to comically set your friends on fire or leave them desperately fighting for their lives while you fumble around deciding which attack to use. Naturally, this kind of thing is best enjoyed between friends who can communicate, so while jumping into games with strangers online is an option, we’d recommend local wireless as the ultimate way to play. Even though the repetitive nature of the levels remains, working out new tactics together – especially when surrounding enemies – and a much better life system (where players can restore fallen comrades by standing over them, as opposed to a simple two-life system in single player) really help to make things more enjoyable.
Just when things were looking up, though, we encountered the next major problem. Nine Parchments has a very strange feature in place whereby you can only have one campaign running at a time, even across different modes. This means that if you switch from a multiplayer campaign to a solo one, or vice versa, all of your story progress will be lost – you always have to start from scratch. You keep your unlocked weapons, upgrades, and level – the idea here is that you can complete the game and then re-play it with your new gear as often as you like – but of course this creates a rather serious problem.
If you’re wanting to see the story through to the end you have two choices: you must either play through the entire game on your own, making sure to never jump into any multiplayer action until it is done; or you can play exclusively in co-op mode, waiting for your friends to be online each time you want to play (and therefore never touching the game when you leave the house without a Wi-Fi connection). The decision is frankly baffling. Frozenbyte have addressed the issue, stating that a fix should hopefully come in January to allow multiple story runs to sit side-by-side, but you have to wonder why this wasn’t considered a day-one inclusion, especially for a portable console.
Despite the occasional online connectivity issue, the game does work perfectly well in other areas. The worlds are gorgeous to look at – not quite as stunningly beautiful as Trine in this humble writer’s opinion, but very lovely nonetheless – and the combat runs very smoothly indeed. We did notice, though, that playing with a Pro Controller either with the console docked, or in table top mode, seemed to offer a much better experience; the combat revolves around a twin-stick approach and the control sticks on the Pro Controller offer much more precision than those on the Joy-Con.
Nine Parchments is a game with an awful lot of potential; the combat is fun, the multiplayer co-op works a treat, and the gorgeous art creates a visually impressive world to explore. Repetition in the format and layout of levels - and the incredibly strange decision to delete your save data when wanting to switching between single player and co-op games - are unfortunate shortcomings, however. If you love your co-op adventure-type games, and especially if you like the sound of the light RPG elements, you may well get a good time from this game – just keep our warnings in mind.