Review by Neo_Sarevok
"999 is a thought-provoking unique narrative combining gaming as an art, puzzle, and storybook."
999: Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors is a Nintendo DS mature-rated visual-novel from the makers of Aksys Games. It was originally released in Japan under the name "Kyoukugen Dasshutsu 9 Jikan 9 nin 9 no Tobira" in December 10, 2009. You are Junpei, a typical apartment-dwelling college kid. Immediately at the game's outset, Junpei is abducted and sent to an isolated abandoned cruise-ship. His abductor is an anonymous person shrouded in a gas-mask, named Zero. Zero says Junpei has been given a special privilege to undergo a life or death struggle called "The Nonary Game." Junpei later realizes he is not alone, as eight others have also been abducted, seemingly bearing no knowledge of anything. Immediately, Junpei is confronted with questions: Who can he trust? What are the character's motivations? Why was he abducted? Who is Zero? What the hell is going on? Let the Nonary Game begin.
The Nonary Game is both simple and convoluted. Nine characters are trapped on an abandoned cruise-ship. They have nine hours to escape before the ship is submerged in water. Each character has a wrist-band labeled with a unique number from one to nine. The ship has a variety of locked doors, each labeled with a one to nine number. Door 9 is the exit - if the characters can find it! These doors may only be opened with 3-5 characters and only if those 3-5 satisfy the door's digital root. For example, if a door is labeled "5," the characters with wristbands of 6, 5, and 3 can enter, since 6+5+3=14 and the 1 and 4 from 14 add to 5. Once opened, the door shuts in 9 seconds. Only the three characters who contributed to the door opening may enter and leave - violation of this rule by any character leads to a bomb in the character exploding in 81 seconds.
999 seemingly draws inspirations from a variety of films, anime, and games. It is reminiscent of "The Cube" and "House of 9," where seemingly random people are placed in a random environment and must escape. It's reminiscent of "Saw" where an anonymous psycho attains thrills watching people play life and death games. It's reminiscent of the anime/manga "Death Note" as there are a variety of rules both abused and broken, such as the 81 second death rule. The game-play is similar to the DS titles Trace Memory, Hotel Dusk, and Time Hollow as players navigate environments in 1st-person, clicking/obtaining items, solving puzzles, and unraveling a mystery. Finally, 999 draws from the Japanese genre of visual-novel gaming, where multiple-choice decisions offer a multitude of endings and dialog. All these comparisons culminate into a unique story-telling experience unlike anything in video game history. It is, perhaps, an experience only possible on the Nintendo DS.
999's characters are very profound, each with important roles to play. There is June, Junpei's childhood friend. Ace, a calm tall older gentleman. Snake, a prince-like intelligent man. Santa, a young rash bad attitude boy. Clover, a young pink-haired outspoken girl. Seven, a huge mountain of a man in both size and intellect. Lotus, an attractive scantily-clad woman. Then finally, 9th Man, a paranoid nervous short guy who sweats profusely. It is difficult to engage audiences with as many as nine characters, but rather than engage, 999 cleverly restricts us from knowing them, inciting paranoia. The audience doesn't even learn their true names, rather characters are given aliases. This curiosity teases us, consequently engaging us in the absence of details. The audience feels just as confused as the characters - who can we trust when we don't know who anyone is?
The character's behaviors are a bit unusual. They prefer thinking methodically and nonchalantly without regard for their nine hour dilemma. Typically, they're only uncomfortable by the time when the ship's clock reminds them of a new hour. Laughably, it takes them an hour merely to introduce themselves and discuss their predicament. One scene in a walk-in freezer is especially comical, as two characters casually open up a long-winded discussion over crystallized glycerin as they're freezing. I can't speak from a Japanese mindset, but as an American I'd say, "Hurry the hell up!"
999, despite being an anime by appearance, is a story grounded in modern reality. Though some of the reality is speculative, it can't be discounted as a possibility. This makes the game's suspense more unnerving that this reality could descend on us. More than once I visited Wikipedia to cross-reference history lessons and scientific facts the game was providing. 999 teases gamers, blurring the concept between reality and fiction. Saying more would be spoilers.
The overall translation is superb. Some English DS adventure titles, such as "Lux Pain," suffer from typos, misunderstood jokes, or poor pacing. 999's translation, however, is very descriptive, poetic, and English appropriate. It fantastically emphasizes Junpei's moods and the atmosphere. In one scene where Junpei is describing a bloody corpse, he mentions the stench of meat, the decor of blood, gravity pushing pieces down walls, and other unsettling words as a substitute for imagery. As a suspense visual-novel, everything is effectively descriptive, including the creaking of the ship, the tapping of character's shoes, eerie environmental cues, and more. The script instills interest in even mundane objects, like elevators and staircases. In writing, the game pushes the mature rating, but visually, much of it is teen rated.
Despite flirtations between Junpei and his childhood friend, June, there is nothing sexual. All conversations are teen appropriate. The story writers limiting Junpei and June's romance is a clever decision, as heavy romance would compete with the game's suspense. Instead, the game offers only enough romance to make you respect June and Junpei as rational young adults and providing readers an anchor to vest their trust. Their minor romance is an ironic distinction to the situation Junpei and his companions are in, considering they're not supposed to trust anyone.
Puzzles in 999 strike a balance between challenge and fun. They draw inspiration from online Macromedia Flash "escape" games, without pixel-hunting frustrations. The objective is simple: Junpei and his companions are confronted with a locked door. Using items in the environment, they must find the key. Once the door is unlocked, they're confronted by one or more additional locked doors. Rinse and repeat. Objects in rooms are fairly easy to find and rarely does the game deceive you. Puzzle items take advantage of the DS's rotation function, found in games, like Apollo Justice. This means all clues should be thoroughly examined 3-dimensionally. Navigating rooms is accomplished in 1st-person. Optionally, a drop-down map can be displayed on the top screen, but it's rarely needed. An in-game calculator is provided for math puzzles and solving digital roots. The puzzles are fun, but the story is what will keep you playing, not the puzzles. The puzzles feel like a distraction, stalling the player from the narrative. The puzzles are not bad, but the narrative is so excellent that you'll regard puzzles as obstacles rather than entertainment.
During puzzles - unlike most games where narrative is recessive to game-play - 999 actively engages characters in dialog. Characters regularly share advice, crack jokes, express fear, accuse others, tell stories, and more. This interaction suggests characters loosely solve puzzles with you, even if not directly providing answers. Examining items a 2nd or 3rd time may provide further character comments. Characters seemingly fight for the reader's attention, no matter the circumstances, as if to contradict the stereotypical adage of video game companions labeled "dead-weight." Character conversations offer reprieves from the puzzles and slow developing spine-tingling clues to each character's identity. Due to mistrust, players may read deeply into all the dialog, desperate for clues.
999 stresses there is a nine hour time limit, but for better or worse, there is no pressure solving puzzles. The player can leave the DS on, watch TV, make a sandwich, then come back with no consequences. This makes the game feel a bit disjointed. For a game effectively placing us in Junpei's shoes, the lack of pressure contradicts part of the suspense. Real-time clocks can work effectively, attested by games like Dead Rising, so it's a shame it's omitted. Perhaps it's for the best, as it provides control to the game developers to better dictate the story.
999's audio phenomenally captures the atmosphere of the game's moods and eerie environments. As you slowly peel back the layers of 999's mysteries, audio clues you in on important spine-tingling moments. Secondary noises include the ship groaning, the character's numbered bracelets ticking down from 81 secs, running footsteps, doors moaning as they slowly open, and more. The audio accentuates the atmosphere. Despite being a visual-novel, this is a game that must be played with the volume high. Treat yourself further and play alone in a dimly lit room. 999 is a unique story-telling experience that should not be interfered by your relatives playing Hip-Hop music.
There are two game-play issues that may negatively impact players. First, there is only one save file. "Professor Layton and the Curious Village" offers three save files with over 100 puzzles and cinematics, so this deficiency seems odd. Second, on the first play-through, text cannot be skipped. This is only allowed on subsequent play-throughs. This may agitate speed-readers, but it's minor enough to forgive.
The game has six unique endings - three bad endings, one "fake," one true, and one required to unlock the true ending. As a result, a minimum of a 2nd play-through is highly recommended. 999's plethora of content make the game entertaining after the first play-through. You'll uncover new puzzles, select new multiple-choice responses, and learn new character developments adding to the game's excellent narrative. This makes subsequent play-throughs entertaining rather than a chore. Unfortunately, the more you replay, the more puzzles you must repeat. Despite unlocking skip-text functionality, puzzles cannot be skipped. Furthermore, skipping text is, perhaps, too slow. This is most evident in the prologue, where you must do the same suitcase puzzle, meet the same characters, and exchange the same pleasantries. You also must HOLD down the skip button - a hassle over most visual novels featuring automated one-time press skip buttons. Regardless, you'll be compelled to endure these inconveniences, because until you see the true ending, you will not want to put this game down. The other endings will leave a sour taste in your mouth, as if the game's villain mocks you into replaying.
The game on its first play-through lasts roughly 9 hours. While this is short, again, you won't be satisfied with only one ending. Exploring other dialog branches, finding new puzzles, and witnessing new endings will prolong the game. Plus, it's a DS title - half the price of a console game. Overall, most will feel satisfied with the game's value, complemented with the game's excellent true ending.
Ultimately, 999 is a thought-provoking unique narrative combining gaming as an art, puzzle, and storybook. It engages players with its cryptic story, teasing their curiosity as they struggle for clues in the environment and characters. The biggest downside is it eventually ends! I am proud to see 999 localized and I hope it ushers in a new wave of Japanese visual-novel enthusiasts. 999 is an embodiment of why visual-novels are great and what oversea markets are missing from Japan. I hope this game destroys the adage of anime visual-novel gaming as boring and instead demonstrates the potential of visual-novels as a positive legitimate gaming medium.
Average Score: 9.4 (rounded to 9.5)
Reviewer's Score: 9/10 | Originally Posted: 11/30/10
Game Release: Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors (US, 11/16/10)
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