The visual novel should be the ideal gateway drug for non-gamers. Particularly on DS, it seems a natural step up from a Kindle, and a couple of paces behind chat-heavy graphic adventures like the Ace Attorney series and CiNG's Hotel Dusk or Last Window.
Chunsoft, developer of 999: Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors, has enjoyed some success in the East with its Sound Novel series, most notably with the SEGA-published 428: Fusa Sareta Shibuya de which earned a rare 40/40 score from the popular and influential Famitsu magazine. Yet 999 is the first of its kind to be released in the West, perhaps because its occasional puzzle interludes make it feel less like a traditional visual novel and more like a Professor Layton adventure – at least if Hershel and Luke had watched a lot of Saw films recently. Within the first hour, someone's insides have decorated a corridor courtesy of a bomb in their small intestine, which is admittedly a touch less genteel than Nintendo's flagship puzzler.
The victim, along with player character Junpei and seven others, is part of a bizarre experiment known as The Nonary Game. Each character has a bracelet on his or her left wrist, primed to detonate if they break any of the game's rules or if their heart rate flatlines. The ultimate object is to reach the door marked '9', passing through a series of numbered rooms along the way and solving the puzzles set by a number-obsessed, gas-masked sociopath known simply as Zero.
These riddles range from the kind of fare you'll find in any Flash 'escape the room' puzzler to more thoughtful and intricate conundrums. The challenge is pitched just about perfectly; puzzles are satisfying but rarely especially taxing, allowing you to progress the story without too much trouble.
The items you'll need are always in the same room or area you're trapped in, and patient players will eventually happen across the right solution simply through thorough tapping and a bit of moderate brain-work. One minor issue is that some solutions are all but gift-wrapped and hints are often a little too obvious. "It's screwed onto the wall," says one character about a clock, almost immediately after you recover a screwdriver. What to do, what to do...
But the puzzles aren't the focus; they're merely a sporadic diversion from the branching plot. 999's American publisher Aksys Games has previous in this genre, having resurrected the career of quiffed, chain-smoking detective Jake Hunter by reworking his poorly edited and translated Western debut Detective Chronicles into the not-half-bad Memories of the Past. 999 represents another step forward for the Aksys localisation team, and despite a few inconsistencies, it's a solid effort.
M Night Shyamalan would love the plot, a high-concept thriller with sci-fi elements and a sackful of twists, including a brilliant closing reveal (spoiled slightly by a real groaner of a final-frame gag). It stumbles a little with a romantic and particularly fanciful conceit as the game heads towards its 'true' ending (one of six), asking the player-reader to suspend just a little too much disbelief.
In places, the exposition-heavy dialogue reminded me of Inception; both game and film take the time to make sure their audiences are absorbing some complex ideas. Some such exchanges are inappropriately timed, though – one sequence sees characters enjoy a lengthy conversation about glycerin whilst trapped in a freezer, which lessens the urgency of the situation somewhat. While the script does its best to build up a menacing atmosphere, the lack of time limits on the puzzles and the characters' rather philosophical approach to their situation is at odds with the nine-hour countdown imposed by the enigmatic villain. That, and there's no way to make 'Nonary' sound even remotely threatening.