on December 1, 2010
This is not a game for children. Do not buy this title for your ten-year-old; the "Mature" ESRB rating on the package is very accurate. The storyline is very heavy in expletives (up to and including the f-bomb) and periodic sexual innuendo.
I first found out about this game about two months ago while reading a synopsis on Amazon. As the title implies, nine people have nine hours to escape from a sinking ship. They were put there by a maniacal person named Zero, who kidnapped them from all over the world to participate in "The Nonary Game", a life-or-death challenge that will thrust the nine kidnapped people into a world of puzzles.
The best comparison that I can draw to this game is a mash-up of PC classics Zork and Phantasmagoria. If you are not old enough to understand this reference, I offer another: Saw (the movies) meets Professor Layton. What Aksys has done is create a visual novel; you must solve puzzle elements in order to progress the storyline. If you ever played the classic point-and-click adventures on the PC (Myst, Phantasmagoria, Zork, & etc.), then it is fairly intuitive (and obvious) that they can be reincarnated on the DS. The touch-screen interface is a perfect way to introduce this style of mystery/puzzle games to a new gaming generation.
Nine Hours, Nine Person, Nine Doors (lets call it 999 for short) excels in intuitive gameplay. The concept is fairly simple: the game is divided into two sections: narrative and escape puzzles. For each puzzle, your character (Junpei) will be placed into an area, comprised of a room or a series of rooms, and he must find items and solve puzzles in order to open the door and escape.
Now the title and the game itself does indicate that you have only 9 hours to escape. This is true, but the gameplay is very forgiving. Time does advance, but it is "suspended" while you are working to solve each escape puzzle. In addition, you are able to repeatedly attempt to solve each puzzle without fear of locking yourself out or dying. Solving the puzzles themselves is fun without being overly complex. Do not take this to mean that the game is easy; it isn't, not by any stretch of the imagination. The game's producer, Aksys, has done a masterful job in balancing how you have to find items and how you solve the puzzles. Granted the puzzles themselves can be somewhat math-heavy (two key concepts are a digital root and the hexadecimal system), but the game is generous about allowing mistakes to occur and even provides a calculator to help those who may not be as adept at mental math.
Now, here is the caveat [minor spoiler]. 999 is a game that requires more than one playthrough in order to find out everything about the storyline. You may think this sounds like a cheap gimmick, and I assure you that it is not. Each playthrough gives you the opportunity to try different things (choose a different door to go through, choose different party members for each door, and so forth), and subsequently, each character will reveal slightly more about themselves and their past. Thrown in for even more mystery is the seemingly random interjection of history: the Titanic, glycerin crystallization, a priestess of Amun-Ra, and more. Aksys makes each playthrough easier by allowing you to "fast forward" through dialogue that you have already read. In addition, whenever a choice menu appears, previous selections are greyed-out so that you can easily remember the last action you took at that point in your previous playthrough.
The only complaint that I have to this system is that you cannot "fast forward" through puzzles that you have previously solved. Since the narrative part of the game can be rather text-heavy, the option to speed through it is much appreciated; however, I would infinitely prefer not having to repeat the "prologue" puzzle in the 3rd class cabin over-and-over. If I had to open that danged red suitcase one more time, I would've gone looney. Fortunately, if you need to walk away from the game, you are permitted to save at any point. In addition, after you beat the game for the first time, you can access each escape puzzle in the main menu and re-enact the escape if you wish to hone your skills.
In order to access every puzzle room, it is necessary to play the game at least more than once. Also, to get the "best" ending, you have to complete a specific "bad" ending first. Finding the "best" ending is at best a crap shoot, as there is no readily obvious way to find it without trial-and-error or consulting a game guide. The best ending, though, is worth it. In addition, each of the "bad" endings reveals a little bit more of the history of each character and can help you solve loose ends that may not be resolved in the "best" ending.
This is where 999 excels. The story is not forced. You will actually delight in reading the text and learning a little bit more about each character. Thrown in is a lot of humor (many of it adult); there were a lot of interactions with the characters that had me laughing so hard that I was wiping away tears. The author of the story is amazing, and it was truly a joy to play through the game several times (I completed it four different times, I still have two endings to watch) and learn a little bit more each time.
In addition to having one of the best "true" endings of any puzzle game that I have played to date, the mystery and motives of everyone involved will lead to a rousing debate between members of the gaming community for a while to come. Personally, I have inserted myself into a board discussion on the Gamefaqs website, trading theories with other 999 players as to the purpose of a specific character as well as a secondary storyline within the game. I will not specify anything here, as I do not want to spoil the surprise for anyone, but suffice it to say I am very pleased that a game has had me thinking about it ever since I beat it.
Graphics & Sound
This game is one of the better games for the DS. While the narrative itself is text, each character has a unique design and the backgrounds are very appropriate for an early 20th century ship. There are only a handful of animations within the game (usually limited to puzzle-solving), but they are well done. The backgrounds are detailed, but not overly cluttered as to make it difficult to find items for a puzzle. Overall, the graphics are a 10/10.
The sound is good, nothing over-the-top, and does help to set the mood for the game. I usually play my games with the sound turned off, but while I did have it on, I found it appropriate to the atmosphere without being too cloying. It would have been nice to hear some voiceacting (reading about a character screaming, usually described in great detail, would have been more realistic), but the lack of it does not really detract from the game. The narrative itself is written with great detail, to the point that the desription of a dead body almost made me nauseous. That said, where the sound falls short the narrative itself picks it up. A solid 8/10.
If you are a puzzle fanatic and love a good mystery, buy this game. The puzzles are fun without being overly complex, the story is extremely well done, and the game is a pure joy to play. I can find little fault in it. If you are sensitive to expletives, it may try your patience, but by-and-large, I did not find them to be overwrought. For the most part, the bawdy language did fit the action and situations presented, so I was able to forgive it.
As stated at the beginning of this review, this game is NOT for children. While it would be lovely to give to a child to solve the puzzles (nothing like some mental exercise), the storyline, some of the graphics, and the language would not be appropriate. The game is very heavily peppered with the f-bomb, s***, b***h, and a few more. While there is nothing overtly sexual within the game, a few campy jokes do allude to some pretty erotic stuff, although it is tastefully done and I found myself chuckling.
999 is perfectly balanced with comedy, a compelling storyline, a great soundtrack, and deep characters that will stay in your heart for a long time. If you are looking for a fun puzzle game that is truly a gem, this title is for you. This game should be one of the games of the year.