Adventure Gamers Awards
If a picture is worth a thousand words, apparently a number is worth tens of thousands. Or even hundreds of thousands if that number is nine. Numbers are quite literally at the root of ChunSoft’s 999: Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors. This part-visual novel / part-adventure for the Nintendo DS represents a grand game of life and death for a group of abducted participants. The clock is ticking on a possible escape, and the blood-red numbered doors that stand between them and freedom are protected by deadly hexadecimal math-based traps. That may sound a lot like school (it’s certainly how I remember mine), but it’s a fascinating premise that’s rife with potential: a maniacal madman with a passion for puzzles, random strangers forced to cooperate with people they can’t fully trust, and an intriguing pseudo-scientific backstory about the powers of collective consciousness. But is it able to fully realize its abundant promise? Nein!... I mean, no. Alas, the many positive elements are somewhat countered by tedious storytelling technique and one of the worst endgame scenarios ever devised. There is still much to like in 999, but the numbers don’t always add up.
The story begins where so few stories do: in the middle – both chronologically and numerically speaking. A young college student named Junpei wakes up, groggy and disoriented, in a locked room resembling an old ship’s cabin. Strapped to his wrist is a watch-like device showing only the number “5”. There’s no time to ponder the meaning of this mystery, however, as the porthole soon cracks, allowing water to flood in. Attached to the door is some kind of passcode-protected card reader, but where are the cards and what is the code? Figuring that out is just the first of many challenges in 999 that follow the same basic formula of locked doors and logic puzzles. You’ll need a calculating mind to overcome them all, and a whole lot of patience as well, because interspersed between (and often during) these sporadic gameplay sequences are long, long, LONG periods of expositional narrative that move the story along at a glacial pace that belies the urgency of the situation.
“Glacial” is an appropriate word, as you may just be on board the Gigantic, lesser-known sister of the Titanic that became a WWI hospital ship. But Junpei is not alone, as he soon meets up with eight fellow captives. Like many Japanese adventures, 999 features a colourful and eclectic cast of personalities, including a pigtailed, pink-haired little girl named “Clover”, her blind older brother, a scantily-clad dancer, and an oafish brute with amnesia. There’s also a pretty young woman named Akane, whom Junpei recognizes as a dear childhood friend he hasn’t seen for many years but still has fond feelings for. Each person is similarly numbered between 1-9, and at last your host introduces himself over the loudspeaker as “Zero”. You’ve been chosen to compete in the “Nonary Game”, he says, and the goal is simple: reach the #9 exit and live; fail to do so and die. The catch is, all numbered doors can only be opened by 3-5 people whose numbers equal the digital root displayed. If the mere thought of that makes your brain’s left hemisphere ache, rest assured that the principle is explained in detail and quickly becomes intuitive. (And if not, a built-in calculator will help you through.) Oh, and there’s only nine hours left before the ship joins its twin at the bottom of the ocean… But no pressure!
Actually, there is no real pressure. 999 isn’t timed at all, as the hours lapse in predetermined increments no matter how long you take. That’s good, because a TON of time is wasted with endless yakking between the characters themselves. Let’s be clear here: my criticism is not that there’s so much dialogue, period. I enjoy reading and will gladly delve deeply into a compelling story. And indeed there are some juicy moments served up here. The extraordinary circumstances allow for an interesting character study of people coping with fear and pain, conflict and cooperation, desperately seeking some understanding behind the purpose of their entrapment. And when various tragedies strike their ranks, the paranoia is ratcheted up even further, fuelling suspicion and raising all-new unanswered questions. Where the storytelling goes off the rails is its insistence on digressing into banal, socially awkward and emotionally stunted exchanges that do nothing but kill the tension with wasted filler. Far too much of the script is better suited to cheap reality television than a gritty, panic-inducing thriller. Even the game’s own narration acknowledges the tendency: with the first ninety minutes towards deadline already wasted, “all they had to show for it was impatience.” I know how they felt.
While the translation from the original Japanese is nearly flawless, the writing itself is in desperate need of editing. Even on a good day, we don’t need yet another groan-inducing description of dinner plates or topical mini-lectures on each and every library shelf we’re forced to examine, let alone during a life-threatening emergency. Even the simplest of exchanges can be drawn out interminably. After discovering a picture, someone chimes in with a helpful suggestion: “What’s the date of the photograph?” To which Junpei, suddenly incapable of rational thought, replies, “It doesn’t have one.” “Did you look on the back?” “The back?” “Yes. The reverse. The other side.” Argh! Good thing there isn’t a death timer counting down the seconds with this kind of snappy dialogue. What’s worse is that regardless of the topic, 999 is relentless in stating and repeating the same details over and over again. To a certain extent that’s beneficial for handheld games, which are often played in fits and starts while on the go. But this is not a story that lends itself to short bursts, and constant repetition is no substitute for a decent recap (which isn’t available). The continual harping on identical topics time and time again is tiresome and serves no purpose but to bang you over the head with the obvious. It’s relentless and tiresome in its constant repetition of things you already know, rehashing the same things time after time. (See what I did there?)
While plenty of conversation is rightly devoted to speculation about Zero’s identity and whether anyone in the group has hostile intentions of their own, a secondary theme of “morphogenetic fields” is soon introduced. You may never have heard of it, but everyone in Junpei’s party knows a story and expounds at length about scientific experiments that somehow relate to the theory of invisible fields of communication on a cellular level. The subject matter is obviously building towards something, often curiously weaving ancient Egyptian and Titanic lore into the mix, but for the longest time these conversations exist only as lengthy, disconnected anecdotes that are totally misplaced given the desperation of the situation. The concept itself is not hard to understand, and at first you’ll be curious to see where it leads. Unfortunately, the payoff is anything but worthwhile. Without giving anything away, the story takes a completely nonsensical turn for the absurd at the end. Wait, no – correction: the real end. Only those players willing to play the game through at least twice will ever get to see it play out in full, and probably several more times unless you’re extremely lucky or consult a walkthrough ahead of time. But more on 999’s abysmally-imposed “replay value” shortly.
Fortunately, the game is more successful when it remembers it’s a game. Once freed from the shackles of the latest yakathon, you’ll get the chance to explore your immediate surroundings in search of the next available exit. Locations are always quite confined, as Zero has restricted your movements to a sequentially-planned route, but over time you’ll discover the ship’s wheelhouse, communications room, and casino, among others. Each new area has a handful of screens to scour for items and clues to solve another round of puzzles. Junpei’s first-person perspective lets you rotate the camera in set increments using either the +Control pad or onscreen arrows, and selecting interactive items is as simple as tapping on them with the stylus. The first click highlights a hotspot while the second elicits either an action or observation, or switches to a closer view. Camera angles can be a little disorienting at first, and at times it’s hard to “see” key objects, so it’s important to be thorough. An overhead map view is available, but it can’t be left on the top screen as you explore, as the designers inexplicably opted to show the same view on each screen by default.Continued on the next page...
What our readers think of 999: Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors
Posted by TimovieMan on Feb 6, 2013
Great story, interesting concept, and an awesome mindscrew of an ending.
Like a true visual novel, you'll be spending a lot more time reading in '999: Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors', than you'll be actually playing. Fortunately, the "Nonary Game" (as it is called in-game) is a very intriguing and engrossing concept, and...