Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors ReviewMark Ainsworth
Being tipped as a visual novel with escape the room' gameplay segments will no doubt make a lot of folk cover their eyes and ears and run for the hills screaming to get away, yet if you were to do that it would be a mistake. Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors (simply known as 999) is an absolute master class in video game storytelling in every aspect from character design to writing and even to the atmosphere the musical score creates while unfolding the complex narrative.
999 is the story of nine people that have found themselves kidnapped by a fellow named only as Zero' and have awoken on an old ship whose location is unknown. What is known, however, is that our hero Junpei' and his eight new companions have just nine hours to escape the ship with their lives intact. In order to do so however requires our group to enter through nine doors each with a puzzle on the other side and whether people live or die depends on the choices you make although you'll have no idea at the time of choosing just how important that seemingly passive comment could be.
You see, that's where this game strives, in its narrative and it needed to as the only gameplay' to speak of is the escape the room segments of the game which in themselves are well designed and fun to play. The overall structure of the game can be broken down to this in essence narrative, dialogue choice, room choice, room escape' which may seem like not a whole lot or not interesting and that's where you'd be wrong. Each aspect of the game is handled so well that you find yourself all but enthralled within this little title and a lot of the credit has to go to the localization team as they have captured the very nature of the narrative perfectly, there are no discrepancies with the text and it reads just as well as any great book.
The escaping segment of the game is done incredibly well, you'll investigate a particular room (or multiple areas depending on your location) and this is handled entirely via the touch screen. You'll be scrutinizing all of the rooms and backgrounds you can see and all the objects within them to find the next clue that leads to your escape; you can also rest easy knowing that everything you find in this game has a purpose so there's no red herring as it were. This means that paying attention to anything and everything pays off and you will be rewarded in some way or another and not always in the form of an item but rather interesting notes from your companions or humorous dialogue. Speaking of the items you find, some will have a fairly obvious use while others must be combined with each other to make a new tool or new item entirely. While there is the strong theme of nine hours to live the puzzles themselves have no time limits, so those of you thinking that maybe the puzzles and game is all on a real time 9 hours would be mistaken although that would have changed the urgency' of the title entirely.
The premise of 999 can often feel like the Saw films at times but with less on-screen gore and more descriptive grisly text to depict the gruesome nature of some of the games more grim scenes which works to its credit; writing in games this good is rarely seen. The nine rooms you can venture through will rarely feature the same characters following you through as the rules of Zero's' game dictate that only 3 to 5 people are allowed through any one door at a time meaning your group will split into multiple teams to access different rooms. This leaves you and your team wondering when the next time you'll be seeing your friends will be, if at all. It should also be said that if these rules are broken a bomb is detonated within the person killing the rule breaker and presumably anyone in close proximity.
The characters you meet on this journey through human nature under pressure and the fight against an unfair fate seem like a typical anime bunch at first glance, yet due to the effortlessly good prose used to portray them and their plight you soon uncover damaged psyches and people with tortured pasts. The eight that Junpei' meet aren't openly spilling their backgrounds immediately however as the cast all issue themselves code names as protection in this somewhat hopeless situation, it's through the nine hours however that they come together and whether it's when they clash or tell a tale of woe you learn a lot about each character. This is shown through the lovable goofy giant Seven' or the blind but intuitive Snake' and even June' who is actually Junpei's childhood friend who he hasn't seen in 9 years.
The reason you grow to like these characters is the writing and while I've said this at least one too many times already it's the truth, think of all the other anime style games that contain cut scenes and voice acting to get across their characters. You immediately think of a somewhat shoddy attempt at a dub especially when it comes to the games that are developed in Japan and the localization simply isn't on a par with this title. By not having any voice acting or large amount of animation to show off character emotion it's the prose that truly shines, the level of description and the talent at work is great. Each character is believable and their desperate struggle against time is conveyed brilliantly and when you add this into an overall fantastic plot and you have a great package for those willing to give it a chance.
The musical element to the game is composed well and adds to the atmosphere. The composer has managed to capture the mood of each scene and situation fittingly and the game offers 6 endings for you to discover. It is recommended that you hunt for all 6 however as the game somehow makes them all fit together in an attempt to help you understand the true ending (unlocked after triggering a false ending first) which has a simply mind blowing twist that I refuse to explain here as it must be experienced not told.
It may read as though I have done nothing but praise this game but what would you have me do? Lie about shortcomings that aren't there? Even upon completing the game once you are then allowed to fast forward through scenes you've already read to save time so you can hunt down the content you have yet to see even more efficiently and while a chapter' skip would of been handy it doesn't detract from the experience. Depending on who you are you may complain that the game is too text heavy or not gameplay centric enough and I'd honestly say that's an issue for you and not the game as Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors shows just how well story telling in gaming can be in this journey of nine people in a race against time to save themselves and discover the truth behind Zero's Nonary Game'.
Disclosure: We are provided copies of games from the game companies for some games that we review.