Nine Sols – Review

Nine Sols - Key Art

Nine Sols is a 2D action-platformer from Red Candle Games, a talented Taiwanese studio known for the phenomenal horror games Detention and Devotion. Blending the exploration of Hollow Knight with the parry-based combat of Sekiro, Nine Sols features a self-described ‘taopunk’ aesthetic, edge-of-your-seat boss fights and a fascinating story.

You play as Yi, a Solarian on a quest to awaken the titular Sols, members of an esteemed council in the mysterious city of New Kunlun. Piecing together the many mysteries of Nine Sols is a huge joy, with layers of discovery peeling back as you progress through the game. The art style is simply gorgeous. It mixes the traditional with the distant future, all done in a hand-drawn, comic book style. Platforms, enemies and other objects in the foreground are 2D, with occasional scenes having 3D models in the background.

When conversing with the many residents of New Kunlun, the beautiful character art is given a chance to really shine. Simple animations bring them to life, as does the minimal but effective voice acting. Important story beats play out in stunning comic book panels, which do an incredible job at making the world and its characters feel more tangible.

Nine Sols - Boss

While Yi does have a standard three-slash combo attack, the combat in Nine Sols is intrinsically tied to parrying. Pressing Left Button at the right time allows you to parry most attacks, which builds your Qi gauge. By pressing and holding Right Button, Yi leaps forward and places a talisman on his foe, which then explodes after a brief delay. It took a while to wrap my head around the rhythm required to parry and then quickly apply a talisman, but once I got it down, it became endlessly satisfying.

Combat of course gets far more complicated and chaotic from there, there are many upgrades, abilities and other tools to uncover as you make your way through the city. These are all paced wonderfully alongside the difficulty curve found in the enemies and bosses of this world. Additionally, it never feels like you have too much to contend with. All of Yi’s different abilities compliment each other, with no single method feeling overpowered or useless.

The boss fights in Nine Sols are super challenging. The vast majority of them forced me to stretch my skills and tweak my build to only just claw my way to victory. It is worth considering whether hard fights are your thing, however, as they will absolutely stop you from seeing the credits here. Prepare to spend hours on single boss fights.

Nine Sols - Bench

The narrative and characterisation is surprisingly deep. Through flashbacks, item descriptions, conversations and the aforementioned comic book sequences, Nine Sols explores themes of family, tradition vs futurism and spirituality vs science. Yi is a complex protagonist and fully involved in the narrative, which is somewhat unusual for the genre. He has lengthy dialogues with both friend and foes, and there are even certain moments where you can choose how to respond. Following Yi on his journey is of huge benefit to the rich story Nine Sols has to tell.

An hour or two into the game, you will reach the Four Seasons Pavilion, which serves as the game’s hub. As you encounter friendly faces out in the world, the Pavilion will gradually become a cosy home base. It’s here you can upgrade Yi’s gear, drink home-brewed wine of questionable origins, and buy items from an ancient living weapon.

Certain items found in the world can be brought back to a human (or ape-man, as the Solarians call them) boy named Shuanshuan. Over the course of the game, Yi teaches him how to make pottery, play music, write stories, cook food and much more. Each of these gifts leads to a short scene playing out where the writing seamlessly weaves in exposition and wonderful characterisation. Having this hub to return to is a fun and clever way to break up the pace of exploration and combat, flesh out Yi and his companions, and to mark your progress.

Nine Sols - Chat

As always, a Metroidvania lives and dies by its sense of exploration and progression. I’m happy to report Nine Sols excels in this regard. Each area of New Kunlun brings new mechanics, enemies, upgrades, music and aesthetics which keeps things fresh and interesting right up until the credits. More than this though are how the story beats are handled in each area. Red Candle Games has managed to tie each Sol to the function of their designated area extremely well. Gameplay will suddenly shift up in a way that reflects the unique personality of each Sol, which is a delight every time.

The music is another standout element. It’s a perfect blend of East Asian vocals and instruments with a hard-hitting industrial/electronic sound fitting of the far future, sci-fi setting.

There are a handful of flaws that stop this being a perfect experience. Namely, the fast travel system, even when upgraded, is a little finicky. Fast travel allows you to travel anywhere from the hub, but if you’re out in the world, you have to first teleport back to the hub before then teleporting to your desired location. This seems like an arbitrary restriction.

Nine Sols - Dream

Another thing that stood out to me was the complete lack of female characters that join Yi at the hub. Of the six or so characters who populate the hub, none are women, or female presenting. Sure, some of these six are robots, an AI or an ancient living weapon, but these appear male. There are a fair number of female characters among the Sols, including their leader, but it would’ve been nice for some of Yi’s companions to be women too.

Nine Sols is a blast from start to finish, featuring a singular art style, polished but punishingly difficult combat, fantastic characters and a sharp script that tells an emotional, highly conceptual story set in a fascinating world. 2024 is shaping up to be a phenomenal year for Metroidvanias, with the likes of Prince of Persia: The Lost Crown and Animal Well already showing there’s life in the genre yet. Nine Sols effortlessly continues this trend.

Rating: 9/10

Nine Sols was reviewed on Steam with a code provided by the Developer.