Review: '999'

Or 'Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors', the Japanese escape-room mystery visual novel video game.

Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors (999) is a Japanese escape room visual novel video game by Spike Chunsoft (who also brought us the beloved Danganronpa series) and Aksys Games. 999, first of the Zero Escape trilogy, takes place on a sinking ship. You play as a young boy named Junpei who is trapped on the ship with – yep – 8 other people and must escape within 9 hours by going through a series of doors marked 1 through 9. The story is a large mystery that continues to unravel as you play through multiple flows of the game.

The game originally came out in 2009 for the Nintendo DS. It was released in 2017 for the Playstion Vita, Playstation 4, and Steam store as a bundle with the sequel with updated graphics, voice acting, and a few other features detailed below. I played the PS4 version, but also talked with my partner about his experience playing the DS version when writing this review.

As a visual novel, the actual gameplay is rather basic. There is a lot of descriptive text and dialogue, and in between is very little animation. Instead are mostly static art and interactive rooms in the style of Danganronpa, Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney, etc. On the art and animation front, this game has aged quite poorly, though even for its time I’m sure it was no contender by a long shot.

Another ding is that, common with other Japanese anime-style games and media in general, there is a character with jiggly boobs (yes, they bother to animate them in a very otherwise-static game) and a lot less clothing than everyone else. Her personality is cool, but her design is just unfortunate and unnecessary, serving mainly as fan service.

While I can name similar games like the ones above, there is a lot about this game that is, in my experience, truly unique.

The biggest distinction is its mechanic of requiring multiple playthroughs to get to a True Ending. In both the original DS and the PS4/Vita/Steam versions, the game designers make this mechanic bearable (possibly more-so in the latter version) by letting you speed through parts you’ve already played so you can unlock other flows.

What’s extra great is that the mechanic is core to the theme of the story and not some unrelated gimmick.

Apparently, in the DS version, there is also an important distinction and mechanic between the text that appears on the top screen and what appears on the bottom screen. This obviously couldn’t be replicated just right on the PS4/Vita/Steam version, but the storytelling still worked. I admire the creativity that went into the DS one.

Like other mysteries, you get strung along different conclusions, only to find out you were wrong, again and again. At least in this one, unlike certain other stories (like the show Clickbait), those conclusions aren’t forced into you and purposely mislead you into something completely wrong. They leave you exhilarated and itching to get closer to the truth.

The characters are a lot to take in at first – there are 9 right from the beginning, after all, and seem to be completely unrelated to each other – but over time many of them do grow on you. At the same time, there is some eye-rolly heteronormative dialogue that is not uncommon in Japanese anime, as well as other tired tropes of boy-saves-girl, boy-protects-girl-from-gruesome-things.

The puzzles are, for the most part, just challenging enough to be fun. I had to get used to the specific escape room mechanics and the way the dialogue clued me into clicking more specifically on certain small areas, but once I did, I rarely found myself so frustrated that I looked up the answers. (Maybe I did 5-10 times total?) That’s not to say that they were a walk in the park, but they were just in the sweet spot for me. The puzzles also had a nice variety to them, and the ones that did reappear were the more fun ones for me. I overall considered these mechanics well-designed.

I also found myself learning a lot of real-life trivia about the Titanic, chemistry, obscure mental conditions, and so on. Educational things are always a plus in my games!

If I had to recommend a single mystery visual novel series, I would pick Danganronpa any day over 999. Danganronpa's characters, mystery stories, music, world building, and wackiness are just so memorable on another level. (It probably helps that their games are longer, too, to develop that gamer attachment.) But 999 is solid on its own and a lot lighter: it took me 7 hours to get all the achievements on PS4.

If you don’t mind the dated and simple mechanics, art, and animation, and you’re an escape room fan looking for a quick yet deep, fun mystery, 999 is a great game to play.

Overall rating: 8/10

(+) story, puzzles, some of the characters, the storytelling itself, quick though satisfying length to do everything, trivia
(-) dated and unmemorable art and animation, scantily clad anime boob character design, a few frustrating puzzles, tired heteronormative tropes