Version tested: DS
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.
Characterisation is solid, reliant on only a few clichés whilst subverting others. There's an amnesiac hulk with a secret past (I guess memory loss had to come into it somewhere), a scantily-clad MILF dancer with a surprising ancillary skill, a guy that's so obviously the baddie it's clear he can't possibly be, and a vulnerable young girl concerned about her blind older brother who's more than capable of looking after himself. Some resonate more than others, but they all get their own revelations during the multiple play-throughs it takes to reach the proper ending.
The curious structure eventually makes sense within the context of the plot – with an explanation for the multiple endings that is at least consistent with the game's barmy internal logic – but it hampers the delivery. After reaching the first ending, which can take anywhere from six to 10 hours, you're encouraged to start again – this time with the ability to skip any repeat dialogue by holding right on the d-pad, a neat idea that doesn't quite go far enough. With some exchanges so lengthy you half expect Solid Snake to turn up, your thumb can be depressed for minutes at a time. A simple scene-skip would be more helpful.
You're also forced to complete puzzles you've already seen, which is hardly ideal, even if a few rooms yield additional dialogue should you choose different options. It's like being forced to watch a film several times over before you can view the ending, and while the ultimate climax is powerful enough to be worth the effort, the fact that completely arbitrary choices can affect the plot progression means you can easily find yourself at an ending you've already seen despite taking an entirely different path.
The translation is fairly polished but a few grammatical errors and dodgy lines slip through. "No doubt about it, they were numbered doors," says Junpei, upon discovering a series of doors with numbers on them. "He wiped a small trickle of blood from his nose with a raised eyebrow" suggests another line, a feat beyond even Carlo Ancelotti. There's also a curious tendency to use the phrase "metal on metal" whenever a door slams shut, which suggests a secret love of ageing rockers Anvil.
At its best, 999 is a gripping tale, studded with moments of brilliance. The first death is an early highlight: the visual representation shows subtle restraint while the description refuses to hold back, filling in the gory details with an almost unhealthy relish. Yet the second attempt over-elaborates, with talk of pizza dough and tomato sauce that will elicit guilty chuckles rather than revulsion. And while the puzzles are generally quite thoughtful, it's a real disappointment when you realise the finale hinges on a bloody Sudoku – and a pretty easy one at that.
The game 999 most reminded me of was the similarly dark – and bafflingly underrated – Lux-Pain, which was equally inconsistent and suffered from a significantly weaker translation, but arguably blended shocks and laughs a little more skilfully than this does. Expect the revolution in storytelling some have suggested and you'll be disappointed. But if you're in the mood for a faintly silly potboiler with a handful of cracking twists, you'll find this a thoroughly enjoyable read.
7 / 10
999: Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors is out now for Nintendo DS in North America. There is no European release planned, but it's region-free and import-friendly.