Note: I re-reviewed this game in 2016. Please disregard this original review.
It is no secret that visual novels are not often made in the West, and there are many people who consider themselves to be open to any kind of game, but this is normally the one genre that they have never tried. And while I myself was a Visual Novel virgin until early 2012, I ended up getting around to play a game that I had lying around for about 6 months, when I got it in an Amazon sale, 999: Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors, one of the few visual novel games to actually be released outside of Japan, and to sell enough to justify the translation of its sequel.
Now, my first impressions of the game were something along the following: “999? More like Nein, Nein, Nein! This game has some of the most tedious dialog that I have ever seen, this is a ‘Visual’ Novel, right?” But that was the old me, who now lives in an outhouse and eats shoes. Before, I just played the first 90 or so minutes and thought that if the game could not engage me within an hour, then I will not play it. But that was before I could really grasp concepts of subtlety and pacing, when I was angry and was looking for a break from studying for finals. I wanted something that I could relax to, but that is not what 999 is trying to do. But what it does do, is something pretty damn amazing.
999: Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors Review
Release Date: 16/11/2010
Price I Paid: $14.99
As you could guess from the very Japanese structured title, this game is about 9 people going through doors, although there are not exactly 9, but that does play a significant role, within 9 hours. What the game is about, is 9 random people who wake up on the Titanic and are thrown into several trials where they have 9 hours to live. The characters themselves are a colorful cast of stereotypes that all have a layer of complexity to them, well mostly, one of them dies within the first hour. However, this is one of those games that is very difficult to review, mostly due to spoilers about what happens. And trust me, some really crazy shit happens throughout this game.
From just odd learning experiences that teach you philosophy, mathematics, and obviously a lot of history about the Titanic. The most prevalent one of which is math, but do not let that turn you off, because it never ends up being more than addition, and even if you are absolutely awful at thinking about numbers, the game gives you a calculator. What I am saying is that this is a game that was structured around a mathematic equation regarding every one of the 9 people summoned onto the Titanic representing, a number that is one a wristwatch that can explode if they do not follow the rules to a very cruel game they were placed in, known as the Nonical Game. The Nonical Game was set up by a mysterious person named Zero, who himself is another mystery altogether, who demands the 9 central characters to go through multiple rooms in order to earn their freedom and figure out just what the hell is going on. But this is a game that does not actually end unless you play through it multiple times, but even though you only need to go through the game twice, I would recommend going for all 5 endings.
While one of them is true, one of them helps to establish how the true one could make any sense, and 3 are bad, they are all so memorable that I would recommend playing them all. And toss that in with the fact that every bad ending playthrough will go by quickly due to your ability to zoom through the text, it is worth replaying the puzzles to get to. Speaking of which, the other half of this game beyond the narrative is a total of 16 rooms with puzzles and a lot of individual character developement. The puzzles themselves vary in how they are solved, and there are many in each room, but it really boils down to well done graphic adventure problems that avoid what I call the, “Use the Pie on the Yeti” method that was common with Graphic “Point and Click” Adventure puzzles of the 1990’s. All of them follow logical solutions and are pretty neat to explore, because there is so much dialog and optional exposition thrown in. And after going through the introductory puzzle in about a minute, not counting fast forwarded dialog, I felt like a badass for taking notes, which is a thing that I Love about this game. By the end of my 5 playthroughs, I had 3 pages of diagrams, numbers, math equations, and narrative hints, and I love having a physical reminder of what this game taught me, and caused me to learn about.
You see, there is this thing called tangential Learning, it is where one medium mentions something that inspires someone to do research on the mentioned topic. One good example with games is with Sephiroth, and how more people now know what the Sephiroth is. With 999, it works with not only the history of the Titanic and its sister ships, but Ice-9, Glycerin, Baccarat, and the idea of generation-based telepathy. But what is not only a gold star, but an extra 15% on the narrative grad that I would give this game, is that it is all relative to what actually happens.
This is also a game that gets your brain working, from the progression method of needing to combine the tenths and ones placing of 3-5 people whose added numerical representations sum is used in order to generate a number equal to a door that you want to pass through. And if that confused you, trust me, the game explains it in a far simpler manner, they introduce it to you during the first room. You do this while never leaving a person behind and making sure that everyone escapes, well, except for that one extremely evil option that I took on my first playthrough. Now I could complain about this concept not being used to its fullest potential, but that would require the entire game to be restructured, besides, that’s one of the main differences with 999 and its sequel, Zero Escape: Virtue’s Last Reward.
But shifting towards the presentation, I have to say that this game is very good at recycling visual and audio assets. Characters look very detailed, but have little in terms of animation, rooms only have a few angles, since this game decided that 3D models would only be used for items that are used in the puzzle, and most of the doors, even ones that are not the titular 9. It is not bad, and I actually find this likeable due to how scrappy, but clean it really is. It remains minimalistic, but is of very high quality due to the solid character and environment design. The audio is very eerie and helps establish how deep the characters are in the shit. It is solid for individual listening, but with the game, it helps ooze the atmosphere all over you, even if you do not notice it all the time. I also think that the idea to have the dialog crawl for every character use a different tone, was brilliant. While this can be seen as annoying at first, it becomes endearing and enhances the experience, kinda like how the dialog noises in Banjo-Kazooie help give the characters an identity.
But how is the actual quality of the writing, how is its presentation and translation? The answer is excellent. I could barely even tell that this was adapted while playing it, but that may be due to the fact that there is not even a hint that the characters are Japanese, other than the fact that none of them are not white or tanned, and they use feet to measure things. But back to the writing, it can be disgusting, tense, and shockingly funny at some parts. But it suffers from one problem, and I do mean one big problem. A ton of the things in this game do not make sense unless you look into the game, or more likely, go to, *Spoiler Alert* and have the creator explain what exactly happened. Now, the game does try to explain everything, but somethings are just hard to fully explain into the narrative without causing it to feel bloated. If that Q&A was unlocked after you beat the game, I would be fine, but due to the balls to the wall insanity that happens in the end, some of the explanations are simply hard to follow. Hell, even the biggest questions in the game are followed by no straight answer in the game, you need to dig for it. And if you figured something out, good job, but not everyone else who wants to hear a good story wants to play through the majority of the game twice just to get a clear answer.
But beyond the issue of confusion, this game is wonderful. Characters who are colorful and develop, a wonderful use of tangential learning. Wonderful writing and progression that begs to be experienced multiple times. And an overall good atmosphere, due to how dull and lifeless the world looks, but it remains interesting at the same time. I could talk about this game for hours, but I just want to let the people know that 999 sure as hell is a 9! Do you see what I just did there? God do I love this game’s Nonical motif! And look back, it goes deeper, I tells ya!
The game manages creates an immersive world, has well designed and enjoyable gameplay, and may only be lacking a few additions or a bit of polish.
Note: Do NOT do any extensive research on this game, I tried to keep this as spoiler free as possible, hell, I did not even mention the main character’s name. Just take this flow chart for all the endings, and buy this game if this review even sparked a bit of interest. Buy it and enjoy the misadventures of Ace, Snake, Santa, Clover, Star, June, Seven, Lotus, and Pigeon! And bring a notepad with and do not be afraid of writing anything down, always look for patterns, many involving this game’s favorite number.