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999 (Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors) is out now on Nintendo DS and IoS (as 999: The Novel), and can also be played on the Nintendo 3DS. A PC and PlayStation Vita version are coming in late 2016. Comiconverse brings you this review from our very own Alan Stock.
Game Review: 999 (Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors)
The scribblings of a madman?
Notes lay scattered around me. Lists with headings like “Who is Zero?” or “Seven’s Past” are crammed with facts and questions. Badly drawn flow charts and timelines have annotations like “kills X here?”, “what is wrong with June?” and “1+5+7=13, 1+3=4”. You’d be forgiven for thinking I was either a conspiracy theorist or a crazed detective.
What has driven me to this?
999 is the first in the popular Zero Escape series by Japanese developer Chunsoft. It began life on the Nintendo DS and came out on IoS systems this year as an interactive novel. A PC and PlayStation Vita port of 999 has also been announced, thanks to its sequels’ success in the West, due in late 2016. As a newcomer to the Zero Escape games, I was ready to plunge straight in with the latest outing, Zero Time Dilemma, when I was warned “do not play this series unless you’ve played 999”. Apparently, the plot of the original game is vital to enjoyment of the sequels. Not wanting to spoil them, I took the hint and picked up a copy of 999 first. My descent into obsession had begun.
999 is best described as an interactive novel with comic book stylings, owing much to the visuals of the Phoenix Wright games. The setup: nine random people are kidnapped and imprisoned on an old passenger ship by the mysterious character “Zero”. Instructions are relayed by Zero over the speakers – the nine victims are unwitting players in the “Nonary game”. In nine hours a bomb will detonate, sinking the ship. The players must find an exit by navigating rooms full of puzzles, with deadly consequences for failure, or disobeying the rules. Nine doors bar the way to escape, but can only be passed through by certain combinations of the “contestants” – encouraging them to turn on one another. Meanwhile, the mysteries deepen as to the reason for the Nonary game, why the nine have been chosen, and the identity of Zero – answered in a myriad of twists and revelations throughout the plot. So, to give it a movie comparison, it’s Saw, Cube, and Battle Royale in one, and has more twists than Christopher Nolan doing the twist in a twister.
You play as Junpei, a regular young chap who awakes in a cabin on the ship. The door is locked and in moments, the window cracks and seawater gushes in. You must solve a series of puzzles left by Zero to escape the room before it floods, using a touch screen interface to explore, examining static-screen environments and manipulating items. At least, you do if you are playing the DS version of the game. The IoS version cuts the puzzles from the game completely – relegating them to descriptions, or just a lame “the characters solved some puzzles and got through the rooms”. This is a real shame, as the puzzles are not only well designed, but add to the sense of location and revelation that’s at the crux of 999’s appeal. It’s a clunky way to modify the game’s format and sacrifices the player’s engagement – instead of being part of the events of the story, you feel more like a bystander. The IoS version is still worth playing purely for the great story, but if you can, get hold of the DS original, or wait for the PC/Vita port.
Back to the DS, 999 has a lot in common with other “escape the room” games but the puzzles often require real thought. The other puzzle rooms in the game follow the same format as the first, although later Junpei is accompanied by companions who offer insight and advice whilst puzzle-solving. Keep struggling and you’ll get more hints, making it hard to get stuck. This can be a bit annoying when you want to figure things out for yourself, but it keeps the story moving along. Weirdly, there’s no time limit to the puzzles, which is at odds with what’s happening in the story – if you just wait in that flooding room, you’ll never drown. Likewise if you were really bored and left the game for 9 hours, the ship won’t sink, time only advances as the storyline does. These concessions are understandable to avoid frustration, but they do somewhat lower the urgency of the game.
Aside from the puzzles, there’s little gameplay to be found on either version – aside from some dialogue choices, the rest of the game is mainly an interactive novel. Lengthy conversations and plot developments occur between rooms as the story unfolds and mysteries are unravelled. As a player, especially on the IoS version, you’re going to spend most of your time reading. Fortunately, 999 is very well written and utterly compelling. The story careers along at full clip, with loads of surprises in store. Special mention must be given to the great translation from the original Japanese, by localizers Aksys Games.
Although the nine characters are fairly stereotypical, their interactions and backstories flesh them out nicely, and you do get invested in them. This makes it all the more painful if, or should I say when, they die. Indeed, if you make the wrong choices this can happen, and probably will – the game has a surprisingly dark tone considering its visuals, with some especially disturbing descriptions and difficult choices for the characters to make. The mood is somewhat lightened by plenty of silly banter, and a cringe-worthy burgeoning romance. The change in tone can sometimes be refreshing and these moments prevent the game becoming too melodramatic – but it jars with the frightening situation the players are in, and doesn’t seem believable. After all, if you had nine hours left to live in a maniac’s game, where no one trusts each other and death lurks around every corner – would you be hunting for a way out, or waste your precious time with inane chitchats and comedic interludes?
As the story progresses you get a say in some major plot choices, when the nine players decide which rooms to enter next. Each character wears an immovable numbered bracelet which limits which doors they can go through. There’s an ingenious maths-based system which only allows certain combinations of bracelets to go through each door, that system is also used to great effect throughout the story. Aside from creating some interesting conundrums for the nine players, this allows you to choose which order to explore rooms, and who will accompany you. These route choices have major consequences for the final ending of the game – and this is where the game’s key feature lies: there are multiple endings to find.
There’s six endings in total, and IoS adds another “bad” ending. In many of these, things may turn extremely nasty, and most of the endings provide more questions than answers. It can be disheartening on your first attempt. But this is a game designed to be played more than once. The branching narrative system allows you to uncover the larger mysteries in 999 over multiple playthroughs and figure out what’s really going on. Although branching stories in games are nothing new, the plot of 999 makes brilliant use of them. Different branches team you up with different characters, so you’ll uncover more about each person and the events of the Nonary game as you try new routes, gradually piecing everything together yourself, and hopefully saving some lives in the process. It’s definitely worth persevering to discover the “true” ending which unveils the full truth in a brilliant climax.
Unfortunately, this brilliant narrative structure is also 999‘s greatest weakness – but only on the DS version of the game. Although when replaying the game you can fast-forward through text you’ve already seen, you can’t skip it and jump to the key decisions. Even worse, you are also forced to replay the exact same puzzles you’ve already completed. This becomes very annoying and time-consuming over multiple playthroughs, especially if you end up with a repeated “bad” ending after all that slog. On IoS, it’s not much of a problem, as you can easily skip to the major plot branches and there’s no puzzles to replay.
Essentially the branching choices of the narrative can be boiled down to a simple flowchart, which the IoS version helpfully provides – you can always create your own if you’re getting stuck, like I did. If you’ve paid attention, there are also hints within each plot branch to guide you to the good endings without resorting to a walk-through. Fortunately replaying the game is not all worthless; re-reading conversations with knowledge gained through previous playthroughs can be revealing, and the “failed” playthroughs often uncover extra story revelations. But on DS, forcing the player to replay content again and again undermines the sense of urgency and threat in the game, replaced by mild annoyance and boredom. That is, until you finally hit new content, and then you remember why you loved 999 in the first place.
Because despite the downsides of 999, with both the puzzle-free IoS version, and replay-grinding DS version, the quality of the story more than makes up for these shortcomings. Its genuinely riveting stuff and the way the different story threads intertwine over multiple playthroughs is brilliantly done. You’re never sure what’s coming next, you don’t know who to trust and there’s no guarantee things will end well. The knowledge that making the wrong decisions might well mean death for you or your comrades keeps the tension high. You’re constantly trying to figure out the answers to the mysteries yourself, and changing your opinion on what “the truth” could be; like any great murder mystery, this is half the fun. All the story branches are memorable too, with the “true” ending being epic in both length and revelations, with a brilliant final twist which is especially good on the DS version.
999 has one of the best game stories I have ever encountered (and I have played a lot of games), and now I have seen the “truth”, I can’t wait to get started on the next in the series: Zero Escape: Virtues Last Reward. 999 is a must-play for anyone who enjoys a good story and some great twists. Hopefully the forthcoming Vita and PC ports will combine the puzzles from the DS version with the accessibility of the IoS version – we shall see. For now, its a return to those scribbled notes to figure out some final answers. And did I ever find out “Who is Zero”? – You’ll just have to play it for yourself and see!
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An amazing interactive story full of twists and turns, which makes great use of a branching storyline and multiple endings. The DS version is better due to its puzzles, but suffers from replaying issues. PC and Vita versions are coming in late 2016.