Nine Sols review: A 2D Sekiro-style game so good it turned me into an entire genre


What does Sekiro’s fluid 2D combat and Nine Sols’ multi-layered metroidvania exploration compare to? The eternally lacking Hollow Knight sequel? Punishing roguelite traps in Dead Cells? Soul absorbing 2D salt and sacrifice? I wouldn’t know, because I’ve always had such trouble with cutting, blocking, and jumping in 2D that not only did I barely play any of the above games, but I missed a lot of the critical platforming, believing I simply didn’t have it in me to deal with it. deal with them. But Nine Sols is so generous, so artistic, so clear and direct in its rules, even if it crushes you with its sometimes absurd difficulties, that playing it opened up a whole library of classics I might otherwise have missed. I don’t have the experience to say what makes this game better than others of its type, but I can say what emotions it made me feel. And for a game that murdered me with such unrelenting frequency, Nine Sols made me feel invincible.

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You’re Yi, a white-haired mouse, maybe a fox that I’ll call mox if he shows up again. Yi displays the winning combination of being a minor streak who displays nothing but stoicism, seriousness, and a shocking capacity for violence. Technically, you are a Solarian who has settled in the kingdom of New Kunlun. This is a place that hides murky and painful secrets under its apparent beauty. Ornate East Asian architecture gives way to dystopian industrial flow, and hellish cybernetic factories await beneath serene pagodas. There are nine rulers of this place – the titular Sols – and Yi has decided that that number is too high, probably because he can’t count them all on his mox paws. Go kill them, okay?

Image source: RedCandle Games

Yi’s move set starts out compact. Two delicate hits with a third hefty hit if you combine them, a jump that can be held for more air, a sliding dodge enhanced with nutritious frames and, and a quick parry that can be performed both on the ground and in the air. Parry perfectly and you won’t take any attack damage, but a slightly sloppy attempt still rewards you with dealing “internal” damage rather than regular damage that heals slowly. Either way, you’ll gain a Chi point that you can spend hitting enemies with magical talismans and then detonating them, dealing massive damage. Stay alert and the fight becomes an invigorating dance of slashes, deflections, talisman strikes and rhythmic explosions. Each move seems carefully crafted to flow into the next.

The game’s Steam page describes the combat as “Sekiro-lite”, which makes me ecstatic because a.) now no one can yell at me for making FromSoft comparisons and b.) Sekiro is the best FromSoft game in case you still want to yell at me about something. Just like in that game, some enemies perform crazy rhythms that you respond to, temporarily turning Nine Sols into a rhythm game. It can either be incredibly addictive, as when you master the patterns of a rampaging robo-horse boss, or completely overwhelming, as when you fight two swift elites, AND a bunch of wasps shooting out their stingers, AND the floor is falling off, AND you have to pass through the laser columns. For all his fair, manageable combat encounters, Nine Sols isn’t shy about the occasional sip of overly crazy water, so it’s a testament to his almost clairvoyant understanding of my exact tolerance that he never drowned me in any of them.

Fortunately, you have options when the skies open up and the water starts pouring. Air dash (which probably takes too long) complements Yi’s defense and traversal capabilities. A limited-shot bow that recharges every time you visit the master node (bonfire) is the crowd control panic button. A hefty attack that has a sluggish recharge time but can be performed while dodging can instantly knock a shielded enemy off the board with the right upgrades. These upgrades, and the money you spend on further upgrades, are spent from a soul-like guide, requiring you to run over corpses or defeat the previous killer to retrieve them after death. When Yi takes too much damage, he can exploit his healing pipe just like a normal soul. Except there’s a certain stylish abandon if you want to give your mox the opportunity to honk its goodness for a quick cure, as if it were just another link in a chain of combos that a hasty swig of Estus never was.

Yi surrounded by massive statues in Nine Sols
Image source: RedCandle Games

As you explore, you’ll find upgrades to this pipe and plenty of other trinkets. The world of Nine Sols spills out from a central hub and includes interconnected metroidvania zones that are accessed primarily through modern skills rather than keys. You may be surprised by a sentry robot that glows green while swinging its weapon, only to return later with the modern air parry needed for this type of attack. The levels themselves are fierce, carefully constructed gauntlets with lots of checkpoints, force-feeding you micro-doses of pain and triumph. In one stage, you leave a giant mech just to dodge and grab its crosshair to lend a hand you clear a path to the boss. Much like, say, a Resi 4 remake, Nine Sols has such a tight and developed combat loop that it could probably support an entire journey, complete with traversal platforming. Instead, as with Resi 4, there are plenty of scenery elements that give each stage of the journey a memorable feel, in addition to modern levels and environmental hazards.

So you don’t like 2D action games, Nic, but you’ve certainly played a lot of platformers? NO. Again, I have always found them extremely complex or not rewarding enough to compensate for how complex they are for me. Give me Sekiro’s Boss Rush over Mario 1-1 or DMC 5’s Dante Must Die over the first Spelunky game, because I honestly think they’re a lot easier. But there’s such a fluidity, tightness, and variety to traversing the Nine Sols that something just stuck with it, much like how Yi can cling to vertical surfaces, string together a jump from launch into a mid-air flight, and then launch herself off a chain of floating green platforms with Traverser the equivalent of the Nine Sols parry – the Tai Chi kick. I really like this kick. It’s a wonderful miniature alchemy of sound, movement, and animation, and spying on these rigs soon began to evoke a Pavlovian excitement in me.

It’s this realization that “maybe I like platformers after all?” that makes me think about Nine Sols for a long time. Is it just really good? Have I been? crazy? It’s certainly difficult to overstate its quality, whether it’s solid high frame rates, wonderfully expressive animations, painterly backgrounds, or splashes of depravity from iconic graphic novels. You haven’t lived, I say, until you’ve seen a lovely mox splashing fleshy bits of a monstrously enhanced human across the floors of a lavish, ornate palace. You leave your sanctuary after a conversation in which the little child you adopted calls the chubby bear Sanrio “Uncle Chubby” and you turn the floating slave mouse into a gibbering, bleeding, mind-controlled mess. It’s terrifyingly charming and incredibly murky at the same time.

Yi defeats the floating mouse boss in Nine Sols
Image source: RedCandle Games

Here are some lines, straight from the mouth of a novice, with the knowledge that you may still complain about your first blow to the solar plexus. While the bosses are often enormous enough that parrying feels natural, some of the smaller enemies exhibit devilish micro-themes that I had to learn by trial and error rather than instinct. Various hazards throughout the levels do damage, but then reset your position just before you make a jump, which is probably necessary but still annoying, especially when they send you jumping backwards a few times. The first few hours of the game are quite story-heavy, which means there’s little chance to get used to the combat, which means a lot of deaths. About half of the conversations are twice as long as I would like, especially since meeting a modern, vividly sketched character is always a pleasure in itself.

But these complaints are just a sprinkling of nonsense in an otherwise peaceful and deeply refreshing conflagration of video games. Nine Sols simply continued to delight me every few screens with a modern setting, a gorgeous backdrop, a brand modern weirdo to talk to, or another revelation about its murky, charming world. Or, yes, a fiendishly complex combat encounter that will make you feel like a skillful assassin. “Taopunk” – this is how the game describes itself. I’ve always liked this philosophy because it was never intended to contain the answers, but was merely a set of tools to lend a hand you find them yourself – to show you the way to the Moon without asking for the praise of your index finger. Nine Sols introduced me to a fun genre that was completely modern to me, but I suspect I’ll think fondly of its strange moxa paws for some time to come.

This review is based on the test version of the game provided by the developer.

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