So, it’s been about four years since I originally reviewed Zero Escape: 9 Hours, 9 Persons, 9 Doors, and with the third installment in the series, Zero Escape: Zero Time Dilemma only a month away, I decided I should refresh myself on a series whose intricacies and strong narratives that acted as a key source of inspiration for me as a writer. …And of course I’m going to review them. I mean, the very idea of investing a lengthy amount of time into a game and not reviewing it would be positively preposterous after doing this for four years.
Zero Escape: 9 Hours, 9 Persons, 9 Doors Review
Platforms: DS(Reviewed), iOS
Developers: Spike Chunsoft
Publisher: Aksys Games
So, what exactly is this strong narrative about? Well, 999 focuses on a group of 9 people who find themselves trapped on a cruise liner, where they are informed by the enigmatic figure referred to as Zero that they have 9 hours to escape this place. To do this, they must participate in the Nonary game, which tasks the characters to band together through this ship and traverse through a series of escape the room puzzles before locating the exit, a door labeled with the number 9.
That’s the story at the surface value anyways, but beyond its titular motif, 999 manages to tell one of the most intriguing and sprawling stories I have ever seen in a game. It’s a very smart and thorough story that manages to combine science fiction, science fact, and popular misinformations into something that is informative, interesting, and even a bit impressive at times. I could get into the various ideas brought up, from glycerin crystallization to automatic writing, but this is a game best experienced when you know next to nothing about it. With no real expectations beyond quality, the twists and turns the story takes are all the more surprising and engrossing.
There really is nothing negative I have to say about the story beyond maybe one or two petulant details that really don’t matter to the experience, and every element is rather well done. The characters, though not necessarily deep, all have unique qualities to them, and relate into the plot in an organic way. The writing itself is necessarily vivid and detailed, when a lesser translation could have tarnished the story. While the numerous dark themes of the plot never become too obtuse or overbearing to make the story needlessly grim, as there is much fun to be had in this extreme escape adventures.
That said, the fact that this is my second full playthrough of the game, and I remembered all the major plot beats begs the question of whether or not the game holds up when its core mystery is no longer a mystery. I would certainly say so as the story is very well crafted and engaging in its own right, but there are some things about how the story is presented that became tiresome. You see, 999 does not follow a linear story, as you can influence where you go throughout and be rewarded in different scenes and a different ending. These can be gotten by following a certain route, not that the game directly explains this to the player but if you want to see the true ending and the natural conclusion of the story, you will need to go through the game a total of five times.
Fve times of going through the introductory hour, which is easily the weakest and most drawn out plot of the story, in addition to being the most dour note of the whole experience. Five playthroughs that will surely retread old parts of the story, which you can thankfully fast forward through, as well as puzzles that must be solved multiple times. Yes, player intrigue ideally masks this away as a minor annoyances, but an annoyance nonetheless. Though, I’d be lying if I said my familiarity with the story made these stretches more tedious than they would be for a first time player.
I mentioned puzzles, which is the source of the majority of 999’s primary gameplay, escape the room puzzles that manage to feel streamlined, logical, and free from general clutter. They never feel too cumbersome or annoying, and once you know exactly what you’re doing, they shouldn’t take much more than five minutes during another playthrough. Although, even the final puzzles of the game don’t offer much in the way of challenges. Sure, they are nice little brain teasers at some point, but there is a lot more complexity that could be added to these puzzles… and Spike Chunsoft clearly realized that. They also probably realized the presentation here was a little dry, but I’ll save that for my review of Virtue’s Last Reward.
The sprite work and animations of 999 are competently done, if a little limited. With a series of limited animations, poses, and expressions for each character, some of which don’t transition into other poses and animations fluidly. The numerous CGs often utilize a very muted color scheme, and don’t look necessarily great given the resolution of a DS screen. While the environments are often a blurred depiction of dull and predominantly grey and brown backdrops, which come with the setting, but nevertheless leaves something to be desired. Even when the settings are more colorful, there is a certain musty look to everything.
Dialog is represented with a series of chirps whose pitch and tone vary from character to character, while the soundtrack is quite effective at creating an oppressive atmosphere, moments of sorrow and loss, or amplifying the level of intrigue in a given scenario. That said, the presence of some tracks and the length at which they play can work to their detriment, even if you are having the dialog automatically progress itself by pressing B, L, or the touch screen. It’s also worth noting that the text speed itself is very slow and that cannot be changed. As someone with a slow reading speed, I didn’t particularly mind it, but I’m guessing that faster readers may have problems with this.
I feel like I’m being a bit harsh on this game, even though I still had a lot of fun going through 999 once more. It’s an engaging and interesting story that goes in unique places, and establishes interesting mythos that can be, and was, followed up upon with subsequent installments. It’s still among my favorite stories in any game, and the night I first completed it, where I stayed up until 2 AM, playing the game under my blanket, is still one of my most cherished gaming memories of all time. While it isn’t perfect, and there are things I can criticize, I’d still go as far as to say this is one of my favorite games of all time, plain and simple.
Boy do not like using publisher provided screenshots in my reviews. Hopefully this will never happen again.