9 Hours, 9 Persons, 9 Doors Review

999: 9 Hours, 9 Persons, 9 Doors [Available only on Nintendo DS]
ESRB Rating: M
Players: 1
Genre: Visual Novel/Adventure
Publisher: Aksys Games
Developer: Chunsoft
Release Date: November 16th, 2010

Parent Talk: 999 is not at all a game for children.  It’s bloody, violent, and easily the most profane game in the DS library, hence the M rating.  Some characters have especially foul mouths and use excessively inappropriate language.  999 caters to the older gamer, in the same way murder mystery thrillers and crime stories pander to their respective audiences.  The complex subject matter and lengthy text as well should deter younger gamers.

999 features a horror film premise, like SAW.  The characters have been collected for a bizarre game overseen by a lunatic known only as “Zero”.  The difference between this and SAW is that 999’s concept is intelligent and its characters likable, not just fodder for gruesome executions.  The experience plays out more as an interactive novel than a traditional game, with large amounts of text.  In fact, the graphics are limited, at most still frames and basic animation.  Often the screens are blank, occupied only by text.  Still, 999 simply must be experienced; the story is incredibly gripping.  It’s one of the most unique and satisfying DS games available.

The Great:
Awesome plot.  Most games are linear, bestowing all relevant knowledge with one playthrough—most of the secrets are revealed and pursuing anything past that usually results in “extra” or “hidden” content.  This isn’t the case with 999, which demands multiple playthroughs because of the intricate story.  Progression varies wildly based on your choices, meaning characters may say different things, visit new areas, and discover new plot elements.  Sometimes an event’s significance isn’t revealed until a second, third or even a fourth play through.  Better yet, the dialogue is fantastic.  The characters are realistic and likable, and interpretation is a tough job: are they being sarcastic and funny, or is there hidden motive/murderous intent?  You’re kept guessing, so you don’t know who is or isn’t trustworthy.  There are flaws for sure, but 999 has one of the best stories in a DS game.

Without spoiling much, you begin as a 21-year old university student named Junpei.  He wakes up inside an unidentified room with a bracelet locked onto his wrist.  Our protagonist is in trouble!  He soon meets others sharing his fate, and they all learn of an obligation to participate in the “Nonary Game”.  By following the rules, Junpei and Co. can escape with their lives—but you may face the choice of killing other characters to accomplish that.

The Good:

+ Strong characters.  999’s distinguishing strength is its storyline, obvious for a text-heavy adventure. Characters aren’t one-dimensional stereotypes that die at some point.  They often contribute to conversation and have interesting insight.  It’s fascinating that getting to know them is entirely your job.  By making friendly choices and engaging characters in certain ways, they open up to Junpei.  Character interaction ranges from playful banter and witty sarcasm to uncomfortable tension and urgency.  999 is unsettling and riveting.

+ Clever puzzles. 999 is similar to Professor Layton.  Puzzle-solving is central to the gameplay, but it fits the context of the story.  999 is about exploring rooms and finding exits.  Master puppeteer Zero has set up elaborate contraptions all over the ship, and brainpower is necessary to overcome them.  It’s impossible to conquer each puzzle in the first go, however. Each door leads to unique puzzles.  Alternate routes uncover new challenges and plot elements.

+ Solid writing. For a visual novel, quality prose is a must. The creative team did wonderfully crafting the story.  The script is both believable and fun to read.  I noticed one mistake—a typo, early in the game. It’s an unfortunate localization oversight but it hardly ruins the game.  The writing shifts quickly from profane outbursts to nervous joking or waxing intellectualism.  The most jarring moments include character lines that focus on scientific mysteries.  It’s legitimately interesting, but breaks the tension.  The characters are most human when dealing with tough situations, joking, or struggling with one of the many mind games.  The scientific conspiracies sound like they were taken from a textbook.

+ Visuals. While mostly static images, Chunsoft cleverly implemented different styles.  Anime character portraits, hand-drawn backgrounds, and 3D-rendered objects make for a strangely satisfying mix.  The effort enhances the experience of a visual novel, rather than appearing as tacked-on aids.

+ Sound. The sound design and music cues are excellent. When in tough situations, the soundtrack kicks in and is entirely appropriate for the pulse-pounding sense of dread.  Shocking moments are accentuated by proper effects.  There’s a strong a sense of ambiance throughout the adventure. Unfortunately nothing is spoken, but it’s an acceptable loss considering the platform.

+ Fast-Forward. 999 allows players to bypass familiar sections. Players can then quickly blow past sections in order to reach new areas more swiftly.  Puzzles can’t be skipped, but it’s an understandable design decision.  Skipping the puzzles would make 999 far too short.

The Bad:

– Dialogue issues.  There are occasional breaks in the great dialogue.  Characters mostly appear human and believable thanks to the strong writing, but the lengthy monologues about scientific phenomena are a turn-off.  The script isn’t poor, but the sequences are a hard swallow.

The Lowdown:

999 is one of the DS’s best releases.  It’s difficult to describe the intricacies and avoid spoiling key moments, but trust my claim that the story is worth the investment.  999 is niche, and likely to become a rare, elusive title—so before that happens, track down a copy and enjoy the sinister Nonary Game!

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