Nine Sols review: A 2D Sekiro-like so good it converted me to an entire genre

What to compare Nine Sols’ flowing Sekiro-like 2D combat and layered metroidvania exploration to? The eternally sequel-less Hollow Knight? The punishing roguelite trappings of Dead Cells? 2D Souls-nuzzling Salt and Sacrifice? I wouldn’t know, because I’ve always had such trouble with slashing, blocking, and jumping in two dimensions that not only have I barely played any of the above, I’ve missed out a swathe of important platformers in the belief I just didn’t have it in me to manage them. But Nine Sols is so generous, so creative, so lucid and upfront in its ruleset, even as it crushes you with sometimes absurd difficulty, that playing it has opened up an entire library of classics I might have otherwise missed out on. I don’t have the experience to tell you what this game does better than others of its ilk, but I can tell how it made me feel. And for a game that murdered me with such relentless frequency, Nine Sols made me feel invincible.

You’re Yi, a white-furred maybe-mouse, maybe-fox who I will refer to as a mox, should it come up again. Yi exhibits the winning combo of being a diminutive fluff streak that exhibits only stoicism, seriousness, and a shocking capacity for violence. Technically, you’re a Solarian, one that’s made home in the realm of New Kunlun. It’s a place that hides dark and painful secrets beneath its apparent beauty. Ornate East Asian architecture gives way to dystopic industrial runoff, and hellish cybernetic factories await underneath tranquil pagodas. There are nine rulers of this place – the titutar Sols – and Yi has decided that number is too high, possibly because he can’t count them all on his mox paws. Go kill them, won’t you?

Yi fires a bow in Nine Sols
Image credit: RedCandleGames

Yi’s moveset starts modest. Two light strikes with a third beefy thwack if you combo them, a jump that can be held for more air, a slide-dodge fortified with nutritious i-frames, and a swift parry that can be performed both grounded and aerially. Parry perfectly, and you’ll take no damage from an attack, but a slightly sloppy attempt still rewards you by dealing ‘internal’ rather than regular damage, which heals slowly. Either way, you’ll gain a point of Chi, which can be spent on slapping magic talismans on your foes then detonating them for chunky damage. Stay sharp, and combat becomes an invigorating dance of slashes, deflects, talisman slaps and rhythmic explosions. Each move feels painstakingly paced to flow into the next.

The game’s own Steam page describes the combat as ‘Sekiro-lite’, which pleases me, because a.) now no-one can shout at me for making FromSoft comparisons and b.) Sekiro is FromSoft’s best game, in case you still wanted to shout at me about something. Like that game, some foes slash out frantic cadences that have you respond in kind, temporarily turning Nine Sols into a rhythm game. This can be either incredibly engaging, like when you’re mastering the patterns of a rampaging robo-horse boss, or utterly overwhelming, like when you’re up against two speedy elites, and a bunch of stinger launching wasps, and the floor is falling out, and you’re having to phase through laser columns. For all its honest, masterable combat encounters, Nine Sols is not shy about dolling out sporadic draughts of overly frantic bumwater, so it’s a testament to its almost clairvoyant understanding of my exact tolerance that it never drowned me in such.

Luckily, you’ve got options for when the skies open up and the bumwater poureth. An air dash (that arguably takes too long to gain) rounds out Yi’s defensive and traversal options. A bow with limited shots that refill each time you visit a root node (bonfire) is your crowd control panic button. A heavy attack that’s slow to charge, but can be done so while evading, can immediately thwomp a shielded foe off the board with the right upgrades. Those upgrades, and the money you’ll spend on further augments, is doled out from the soulslike playbook, necessitating corpse runs or defeating your previous killer to regain them after death. When Yi takes too much damage, he can use his healing pipe, just like your usual souls tinnie. Except there’s a certain stylish abandon to scoring your mox an opening to honk his good-good for a quick heal, as if it’s just another link in the combo chain like a rushed gulp of estus never was.

Yi flanked by massive statues in Nine Sols
Image credit: RedCandleGames

You’ll find upgrades to that pipe, alongside myriad other trinkets, as you explore. Nine Sols’ world branches out from a central hub, with interlocking metroidvania-layered zones, largely accessed through new abilities rather than keys. You might get stumped by a sentry robot that glows green just as it swings its weapon, only to come back later with the new air parry you need for this type of attack. Levels themselves are teeth-gnashing, incisively constructed gauntlets with plentiful checkpoints, force-feeding you microdoses of pain and triumph. One stage sees you leaving a giant mech only to avoid and bait pursuing crosshairs to help you clear a path to a boss. Like, say, The Resi 4 remake, Nine Sols has such a tight and developed combat loop it likely could have supported the whole journey, alongside the traversal platforming. Instead, like Resi 4, set pieces are plentiful, give each step of the journey memorable character outside just new tilesets and environmental hazards.

So, you don’t like 2D action games, Nic, but surely you’ve played your fair share of platformers? Nope. Again, I’ve always found them incredibly difficult, or else not rewarding enough to make up for how hard I find them. Give me Sekiro’s boss rush over Mario 1-1, or DMC 5’s Dante Must Die over the first bit of Spelunky, because I honestly find them much easier. But there’s such flow, tightness and variety to Nine Sols’ traversal that something about it just stuck, much like Yi can stick to vertical surfaces, chain a launch jump into an air dash, and then kick off of a chain of floating green platforms with Nine Sols’ traversal analogue of parrying – the Tai Chi kick. I love this kick dearly. It’s a wonderful miniature alchemy of sound, motion, and animation, and spying these platforms soon began to trigger a Pavlovian excitement in me.

It’s that realisation, that “maybe I do like platformers after all?”, that means I’ll be thinking about Nine Sols for a long time. Is this just a really good one? Have I been gameboozled? It certainly feels hard to overstate its quality, whether it’s in its rock solid good-amount-of-frames or wonderfully expressive animations, painterly backdrops or splashes of cult graphic-novel depravity. You haven’t lived, I say, until you’ve seen an adorable mox splatter the meaty chunks of a torturously augmented human over the floors of lavish ornamental palace. You’ll leave your sanctuary after a conversation in which the small child you’ve adopted calls a rotund, Sanrio-ass bear “uncle chubby,” and go turn a floating slavery mouse into a gibbering, bleeding, mind-controlled mess. It’s both cloyingly charming and unbelievably dark.

Yi defeats a floating mouse boss in Nine Sols
Image credit: RedCandleGames

Here’s some issues, straight from the newbie’s mouth, in the knowledge that you’re still allowed to complain about your first time being punched in the solar plexus. While bosses are often huge enough for parry readability to come naturally, some of the smaller enemies exhibit fiendish micro-tells I had to learn through trial-and-error rather than instinct. Various hazards in levels do damage but then reset your position to right before you whiffed the jump, which is probably necessarily but still jarring, especially when they send you several jumps back. The first few hours of the game are quite story-heavy, which means few chances to get acclimated to the combat, which means many deaths. About half the conversations are twice as long as I’d have liked, especially since meeting a new, vibrantly-sketched character is always a treat in itself.

But these complaints are but drops of bumwater in an otherwise tranquil and deeply invigorating guzzle of videogame. Nine Sols simply would not stop delighting me every couple of screens with a new set piece, or some gorgeous background, or a brand new weirdo to chat with, or another revelation about its dark, enchanting world. Or, yes, a blisteringly difficult combat encounter that lets you feel every bit the skillful murder mox. ‘Taopunk’ is how the game describes itself. I’ve always loved such philosophy for how it never purports to have the answers, simply that it’s a toolset to find them yourself – to point the way to the moon without asking you to praise its pointing finger. Nine Sols pointed out the fun in a whole new genre for me, but I suspect I’ll still be thinking fondly of its weird mox paws for some time.

This review is based on a review build of the game provided by the developer.

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