• 9 Hours, 9 Persons, 9 Doors Review - Nintendo DS

    Opening with your narrator waking groggily in an unfamiliar room, your instruction is clear and one that is repeated throughout the game – seek a way out. When a nearby porthole cracks and starts taking on water, and the only door is soon realised to be locked, the emergence of this instruction soon becomes apparent... And yet how did you even get there? Whilst barely treading the waters before a figurative dive-bomb in at the deep end, this first impression of 999 sets the tone for the forthcoming experience perfectly; desperate ‘escape’ sections that pull together ideas from point & click and puzzle games, all whilst surprisingly detailed text excerpts interject throughout as you struggle to piece together the reality of the rather dire situation you have found yourself in.

    Whilst far from the first DS game to focus more on telling a story than delivering action-packed gameplay, Chunsoft has taken the narrative-driven model and pushed it a step further with 9 Hours, 9 Persons, 9 Doors. Penned as a visual novel, 999 takes the rare stance of driving the majority of its action via wordplay alone; whilst there are still some ‘traditional’ adventure-game staples – briefly animated characters portraits, simple sound effects, static location shots and the like – lengthy descriptions of sights, sounds, smells and emotions are the real power behind the game’s world. Given some scenes involve a lot of physicality this is a bold choice, and it’s a testament to the game’s writers (or perhaps translators in this case) that some of the more gruesome and gritty scenes in the game manage to invoke strong reactions in the player without needing to be graphic in a literal sense.

    The story itself is summarised well by the game's title: 9 people are kidnapped and unwittingly forced into participating in the 'Nonary Game', the objective of which is to escape a ship set to sink within 9 hours, by passing through a series of 9 numbered doors – the last, most vital of which bearing an ominous '9'. All of this is orchestrated by a man hidden underneath a cloak and behind a gas mask, who identifies himself only as Zero. It's through the aforementioned numbered doors one of the more sadistic elements of the game presents itself, with the permission to open these only being granted by the bracelets that have been placed upon the game's participants. Each of these bracelets has been assigned a number from one to nine, and the characters split into smaller groups where their collective digital root matches that of a door it will open; these same individuals must then pass through before it closes to avoid setting off a series of explosives that have been planted inside their bodies during their transport to the ship. Story-wise it takes cues from many directions – it's part Battle Royale, part Cube, arguably even part Saw, and yet it casts off the cruder shackles of these inspirations, and employs some deliciously cunning set pieces to keep everything tense and yet cerebral at the same time.

    A cursory glance across the rag-tag bunch of characters certainly sets the expectation that there are some stereotypes at play here – such as a fickle, red-haired school girl, a mountain of a man that comes up short in the intellect department, and a calm, selfless, white-haired older gentleman – and although it does not alleviate these concerns entirely, there are pleasant deviations from the predictable, helping you learn to love and loathe the game’s cast accordingly. With concern for their nearest and dearest back in the real world, each takes on an alias, with the notable exception of your character Junpei, a 21-year-old student, who along with his number 5 is quickly outed by 'June' – number 6 – a childhood friend of his and budding love interest that can hardly contain her confusion or excitement in seeing you. Whilst this connection is established in the opening scenes, the nagging sensation the player has of there being an ulterior motive to Zero's selection of players is masterfully controlled, and as trust builds amongst the nine, the gradual unravelling of threads in each character’s backstory keeps the player hooked.

    It cannot be denied that the story is the star of the show here, and yet the escape sections alone make for a strong enough basis to recommend the game – behind each of the 9 doors are a series of ‘escape’ sections, each comprising of collectables and interaction points that will eventually lead you to solve critical puzzles that unlock your way forward. Whilst thankfully not becoming repetitive, there is a clear emphasis on number puzzles (unsurprising given the game’s title) – something made slightly easier to bear given the availability of an in-game calculator. Similarly, whilst you dabble in Morse code, baccarat hands, hexadecimal, compound-element composition, number grids and the like, any pre-requisite knowledge is covered off by dialogue between characters that manages to avoid being either presumptuous or patronising. Whilst the difficulty rises as the game progresses, it’s not a steep incline – often more time will be spent trying to find all of the appropriate areas on screen with which to prod at with your stylus, and even this will never leave you stumped for too long given the ring-fenced nature of the escape rooms limiting you to only a handful of screens at a time.

    The biggest fault that can be leveled at the game is that the first play through will tease many plot points yet, ultimately, disappoint. Despite there being a number of clear plot junctions throughout the game, the optimal path through these is far from obvious, and with one of the six endings being a pre-requisite to accessing the ‘true’ ending on a subsequent play, multiple journeys through the game are a must. Given a single play through will only see you passing through a small handful of the numbered doors, a second play to experience some new puzzles is easily coerced from the player, whilst in reality unlocking all of the game’s content will require many more repeat visits and end up a slightly tedious affair – even with the option to fast-forward previously seen dialogue, and the know-how to solve puzzles in a fraction of the time. Whilst an artificial extension to the game’s longevity like this is quite unnecessary, the true conclusion is frankly brilliant, and justifies any manner of time thrown at it. Whilst a ‘Visual Novel’ is perhaps not to all tastes, those not instantly repelled by the concept alone should take this as a high recommendation.

    Score: 8/10
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    Temjin Virtual On Figure, boxed

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