A striking and important visual novel from the character designer of Overman King Gainer and the developer of Shiren the Wanderer.
What They Say:
Junpei, a normal college student, suddenly finds himself involved in a deadly conspiracy he could never have imagined. He wakes aboard an old cruise liner. Dazed and confused, he stumbles around the room he finds himself in, trying desperately to remember how he got there. The first thing he notices is a number, scrawled across the door... A bright red number 5. As Junpei's memory returns, his mind is filled with the image of a mysterious figure in a gas mask, and their haunting words: "You are going to participate in a game. The Nonary Game. It is a game...where you will put your life on the line."
Artwork: Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors (hereafter 999) sticks to the standard visual novel design of character "paperdolls" in front of largely static backgrounds. However, it does add a touch of pizazz by including several different brief animations for characters, and some rendered CGI for sequences of elevators and doors opening and closing. Character designs have been done by former Overman King Gainer and Capcom designer Kinu Nishimura, and they are attractive and varied. Background CGI images are detailed but rarely cluttered, which helps you find the items you need to advance through the game's puzzles. It's still a visual novel, with the graphical limitations that implies, but it's a high end one.
Prose is more functional than flowery: You won't be rolling it across your palate like a fine Nabokov, but it communicates in a matter of fact style the immediacy and danger of your situation. With that in mind, the translation by Aksys is excellent, able to communicate somewhat abstract mathematical and scientific concepts clearly, with no glaring errors (I saw one typo). Wordplay and puns, which are essential for some puzzles, were also handled expertly. Some might fault Aksys for overusing salty language, but I felt the profanity fit in with the tension and danger of the situation.
Music is mostly heavy dissonant techno, designed to unsettle and make your pulse pound. To this end it is extremely effective. At certain times, I had to play with no sound, and I found the puzzles easier to solve without the music's unsettling presence. That said, it's also more atmospheric than enjoyable, and I can't see myself remembering any specific songs or seeking out a soundtrack. Sound effects are used sparingly, but effectively, the majority of which are haunting sounds such as static, clock chimes, flowing water, and the low groaning of the ship's hull slowly being torn apart by water pressure. The one glaring omission is the lack of any voice acting. I wouldn't expect (or want) the entire story to be acted out, but it's a bit jarring to read about how a character's scream echoed through the corridors of the ship and to hear… nothing.
999 comes in a standard DS case with an attractive, if somewhat busy, front cover. All nine characters are shown in the cover art, with main characters Junpei and Akane front and center. The 999 logo is easily visible on the right side, making it easy to identify. It's very eye-catching, and I know I'd be intrigued enough to take a look at it if I hadn't been looking for it already. Back cover features a brief synopsis and some screenshots with no major spoilers, which is much appreciated. Company and purchase information, as well as the ESRB rating of M takes up the bottom of the back cover.
999 can be played entirely with the stylus, but the easiest way to navigate is with one hand pressing the buttons and one hand interacting with the touch screen using the stylus. Gameplay is broken up into two sections: the "Novel Part" and the "Escape Part". The Novel Part plays pretty much as a standard visual novel. You can either tap the stylus or press a button to advance the text sections, some of which can be 30 minutes to an hour long. If you come to a fork in the story, you'll be given a list of choices to select from, either by tapping with the stylus or using the control pad and the confirmation button. On subsequent playthroughs, the right button on the control pan can be used to fast forward through text you've already read, and story paths you've already selected will be greyed out, so you can know which paths you haven't yet explored. It's much appreciated, especially since playing through 999 multiple times is absolutely essential.
The Escape Part are the puzzle rooms you'll need to solve in order to advance. You can tap icons to view your inventory, file of important documents, and a bird's eye view of the room, but it's much easier to press the left and right shoulder buttons as a shortcut. You do not have free movement throughout the room: You pivot the camera to the left and right to view different areas of the room, and you tap the stylus to investigate an area. Once tapped, an area will blink yellow, so you know exactly what registered the hit. This is helpful, as it allows you to know which items are considered related, so you don't have to search through the rooms pixel by pixel. Once you collect items, you might be able to combine them on the inventory screen, or select an item to use in the room. To unlock a door, for instance, you'll want to select a key from your inventory, and then simply tap the door. It's usually very efficient, and once you know what you're doing, you'll be able to glide through rooms, examining them, gathering items, and solving puzzles without having to argue with the interface. The one drawback about the Escape Part is that its not possible to "fast forward" through rooms you've already completed on later playthroughs, so you'll probably be solving certain puzzles five or six times before every secret in 999 has been uncovered. Once you've figured out a room, you can usually breeze through it in 5 minutes, so it's not a game-breaker, although it does eventually get obnoxious.
Content: (please note that content portions of a review may contain spoilers)
Whither the visual novel? It seems to be a jack of all trades, master of none. The writing is usually more instrumental than artistic, so it can never replace literature. The combination of writing and images seems to ape manga: why not just make a comic, instead? If you add music, sounds, and limited animation, as in 999, it seems to be just a cheap replacement for anime or television. Visual novels are often dismissed by gamers as well, as they aren't really proper games. Most of your time is spend reading, and your control is limited to choosing between "on rails" story paths or brief game segments. I'm a fan of some visual novels, such as Aksys' previous Theresia or 07th Expansion's Higurashi series, but it was very hard for me not to see them as a missed opportunity one way or another. I no longer feel this way, and 999 is the reason why. It is a project that could only have been done as a visual novel, and only on the DS with its unique technical capabilities.
At first glance, 999 seems to be something like Saw meets Professor Layton: Junpei, an average college boy is gassed and kidnapped by a mysterious figure in a gas mask, and he wakes up on an abandoned cruise ship. A nearby porthole breaks open, and the ship begins to fill with water. Running upstairs to escape the deluge, he runs into 8 other people who were also kidnapped by the mysterious masked man. While the confused abductees try to piece together what happened, a loudspeaker crackles to life. The kidnapper introduces him or her or itself as Zero, and welcomes everyone to the Nonary Game, or the game of 9s. The 9 people have 9 hours to escape the ship before it sinks, and to escape, they must make their way through 9 numbered doors. Behind door number 9 is the exit. In the numbered rooms are puzzles that must be solved.
The strangeness doesn't end there: Each of the nine people have a bracelet on their left wrist, numbered 1 through 9. To unlock a door, the digital root of each of the numbers must equal the number on the door. Wait, what? For instance, persons 2, 5, and 7 can get into door 5.
2 + 5 + 7 = 14
1 + 4 = 5
But then what happens to the people who get left behind?
Now, if you're a certain kind of math geek, you've already returned from the store, game in hand. Others are surely thinking that the setup sounds completely contrived. Indeed, it first seems to be. However, as you advance in the game, each of the contrivances are explained by the story in a way that begins to make sense. The paths you take through the rooms unlock different clues, and to completely piece together the mystery, you'll need to unlock 6 different endings. The first playthrough can take five or six hours, but getting all of the pieces took me around 20 to 24. I was kept guessing through to the very end, and the final twist seemed to come out nowhere. However, it had come from all that had come before in a completely unexpected way, taking advantage of the ways visual novels differ from books, comics, anime, and video games, and delivering an ending that affirmed the power of visual novels as a unique medium. Saying any more would simply be criminal.
The game is not without its flaws: trying to figure out how to get the different endings can be tricky without hints, replaying puzzle rooms for the umpteenth time can be maddening, and some characters and conversations are awfully silly or cliched, undermining the impact of the rest of the story. However, as the saying goes, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, and on multiple levels.
Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors is likely to go unnoticed by many, and that's a terrible shame, because it really demonstrates the potential of visual novels as a medium of expression. Much praise must go to director and writer Kotaro Uchikoshi and the team at Aksys for bringing this project to the English speaking world. 999's "True" ending is one for the ages, and a complete success. A perfect 9, and very recommended.