999: Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors Review — More Than Nine Ways To F*** Things Up

Anyone who plays this game without some sort of strategy guide is either lying or has too much time on his hands.

  • Zero Escape is a series of visual novels on various handheld devices that a lot of anime fans – including those that I pretend to have respect for – have praised for having some of the best storytelling in the industry, and while I resisted at first due to the words “visual novels” and “handhelds”, I have recently gotten back into handheld gaming thanks to my work colleagues making it look like so much fun and figured it was time to see what all the fuss was about.
  • Yes I’m aware that a re-release is coming out for consoles in a few months, and I still prefer to game on those, but the fact that the writer of this series was best friends with the writer of the Danganronpa series to the point that they traded ideas off of each other made me go “fuck it. If it’s really that good, I’ll double-dip for the upgraded version”.
  • 999 is the story about a young college student named Junpei, who finds himself trapped in a sinking ship with eight other passengers and must play a game where they have to escape the ship in nine hours through a specific set of rules that I’m not going to bother detailing here, but let’s just say it involves bombs, watches, and numbered doors with the number nine being very special. As you can probably tell from the title, as well as how the series always calls these death traps the Nonary games, the story as a very unhealthy obsession with that number to the point that it actually uses it as a weapon against the player at times, so don’t rely on your knowledge regarding that number too much unless you have your own unhealthy obsession with seeing Junpei get axed to pieces in a bad ending.
  • The gameplay is like all visual novel gameplay in that it mainly revolves around you reading the dialogue, solving puzzles, and making choices in order to determine the identity of a mysterious masked individual named Zero (no I will not make Code Geass jokes), as well as what the fuck is going on in general. Well, I tell a bit of a lie. The adventure game-style puzzle-solving is Zero Escape’s unique feature and to its credit, it does make sifting through the large amounts of text all the easier, even if part of the reason for that is some of the puzzles are so tedious you wish you could just get on with the story already, Ace Attorney-style. There’s nothing truly unfair about them, but knowing when you have to examine an item to get another item along with remembering some stuff without pen and paper nearby was a bit beyond my admittedly retarded thinking power to the point that I took no shame in using Gamefaqs to get through some of them.

This game really loves to throw questions where you want answers

  • Unfortunately, even if you could get past that, every time you reach an ending – and you will have to play the game multiple times to actually beat it – you start over at the very beginning of the game. While you can skip through any text you’ve already read so that you don’t have to spend another four hours only to get another game over screen, you can’t skip through the puzzles at all. This means I had to do the same tedious running back-and-forth through the game’s tightly pre-determined logic just to open a case I could have easily broken with my fist multiple times, and it gets wearisome.
  • If there’s one thing that most gamers can agree on about adventure games, it’s that they’re not very replayable. 999 is a good example of why that’s the case.
  • But then again, Silent Hill can’t exactly boast great gameplay decisions either, and people love it anyways because of its storytelling. As such, we should probably take a look at that instead. Well I can say with 100% certainty that it is very…okay.
  • Yeah, it’s just okay. I’m not really sure what it is about this game that’s drawn so much critical slobbering from the elitist crowd, as it’s pretty every visual novel story ever except with sci-fi justifications and no character-building moments getting in the way of the narrative. Then again the game was made in 2009, back when Clannad and ef-a tale of memories were seen as the standard for visual novel writing, so I’m just going to assume that it’s not just the mechanics of it all that haven’t aged well over the years.

Hurry! We’re being chased by an Indian Jones-style boulder!

  • Unless you’re really lucky or have a lot of time to spare, it’s pretty much impossible to beat this game without using a guide. To get the true ending, you have to get a good ending first, and both endings can only be accomplished by choosing a specific combination of doors that is never really hinted at throughout the game unless you’re a stickler for plot details. And with the true ending, you also have to choose a specific set of answers to questions that you can never re-do if you accidentally fuck up. Well actually you can, but the DS only has one save file, so hope you didn’t lock yourself out and have to waste an hour getting back to that point.
  • Like most visual novel storytelling, all the routes are actually canon and connected by some form of time-traveling – whether it be by alternate worlds or superpowers or just plain magic. 999 actually has a very scientific explanation for its usage of this tiresome cliche, but whenever it does bother to justify itself, it ends up putting the story on halt in order to deliver Nolan-esque psuedo-scientific speeches that I think the man himself would fall asleep through. And the kicker is that said speech didn’t convince me to overlook that it’s just time-travel again. There’s only so many times you can use that stupid “use what you learned in a past route to solve a problem in a future route” cliche before it gets old.
  • 999 also shares similarities with Nolan in that it’s very story-focused. Most of the characterization is driven by the plot with nothing really standing out about the participants in this game besides gruff amnesiac, bitchy sexy lady, childhood friend, and such. The game does start adding layers to them when you start getting endings that don’t make you go WTF (in the bad way), but until then, you have to sit through the characters just being tolerable individuals in a bad situation for what must have been at least six hours. At least they’re not agonizing stereotypes geared towards the nerd crowd for no other reason than fanservice, but problems like this are why this sort of storytelling can only work in an interactive environment. Because we have no choice but to identify with Junpei, as he’s the person we’re controlling. Well…sort of.
  • There is one big twist at the end that is pretty unique for gaming as a whole and not just visual novels in particular. It was really impressive to me, but it also perfectly highlights why 999 wouldn’t work if you made it into an anime – as if Punchline wasn’t proof enough. Plus, while it was worth playing the game for that, it doesn’t automatically make all the buildup solid gold.

Got to say I like these character designs

  • Although I wouldn’t say it’s a great game, I liked 999 overall. At least it does some unique things in terms of interactive narrative underneath all the faff and chaff, plus I like how it’s the kind of story that can only work as a video game rather than as a book or an anime. Also have to give it credit for at least keeping a main focus all the way through regarding its dialogue and characters – something that was sorely lacking with the last visual novel I played.
  • I wouldn’t say its acclaim is undeserved either. It’s true that even to this day, combining visual novel gameplay with other sorts of gameplay isn’t exactly a common thing, and given the acclaim/popularity of stuff like Rewrite and Steins;Gate, Japan isn’t really going to change its mind about it for a long time. Besides, most of the acclaim I heard for this game were in the puzzles as well as the actual storytelling – not necessarily the story itself. Yeah I found them tedious at times, but it’s not like they’re on the level of the adventure game genre’s peak back in the 90s.
  • I’m not gonna buy the voice-acted PS4/PC port, but it kept me engaged enough to the point that I wanted to know what the fuck was going on and the answers were cool, if a little dated and up its own butt. If you haven’t gotten on these games yet and don’t own a handheld, the re-release will be out soon enough and you can judge for yourself whether it’s a shot then.

Minor Quips

  • It’s ironic that Danganronpa is the more popular of the two series given how almost none of the anime friends I have – let alone the ones that do play Zero Escape – seem to have played it.
  • I have actually played Virtue’s Last Reward since writing this review and will have something written up on it in the near future.

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