WARNING: some spoilers ahead. Easily enough to spoil plot but not puzzles. Despite the fact that this game is now ten years old, you have been warned.
Disclaimer: this game was originally released for the Nintendo DS, but my first experience was with the Windows PC version.
On April 14th, 1912... the famous ocean liner Titanic crashed into an iceberg. After remaining afloat for two hours and forty minutes, it sank between the waters of the North Atlantic. I will give you more time. Nine hours. That is the time you will be given to make your escape.
The first game in the Zero Escape series, Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors (often abbreviated to 999) is an interactive visual novel game created by Chunsoft - now Spike Chunsoft - and published by Spike and Aksys Games. Nine strangers are abducted and trapped on board an ocean liner as part of the Nonary Game. The strangers are told by a mysterious, mechanical voice known as Zero to escape the ship by finding a door marked with the number 9. The team are told that there are rules and that violating them will cause a bomb in their gut to explode, instantly killing them; the detonators for the bombs are hidden in the bracelets affixed to their wrists. The team then scramble to find the exit by traversing through the ship and its other eight numbered doors. The player takes the role of Junpei, a college student; also in the game are Junpei's long-lost friend Akane, known by her codename June; old, wise, and gentle Ace; the blind but brilliant Snake; brash youngster Santa; headstrong and fiercely protective Clover; bulky amnesiac Seven; pragmatic mother-hen Lotus; and the initially
quiet 9th Man. Despite being poorly received in Japan when it was first released in 2009 on the Nintendo DS, it was loved in the North America and Europe markets enough that two sequels were released for the Nintendo 3DS - Virtue's Last Reward and Zero Time Dilemma. Later, all three games were ported to other major platforms.
I was first introduced to this game as I love escape rooms. I did a touch of research - not a lot, mind - and the first thing that came to mind was the Saw franchise. After being assured that there was virtually no stabby gore involved, and after one of my friends was kind enough to buy me the bundle of 999 and VLR (as they are commonly abbreviated), I embarked on the journey. And I do mean journey, even if it was more of a mental journey than a physical one. I was also told pretty quickly that I'd appreciate the Escape Sections of the game, which was the main drawcard - however, I honestly found the Escape sections lacking. These puzzle-style portions of the game are interspersed within the game at reasonably regular intervals such that the game could easily be marketed as an "interactive novel with bits of puzzle", but they have a tendency to be "find key, put key in lock, rinse and repeat" and the few "traditional" puzzles that do exist, clever as some of them are, are definitely not enough to make up for the remainder of the Escape sections. What's more, I can't recall a single Escape section - i.e. puzzle - which isn't interrupted with a flashback, long plot explanation or backstory exposition, or some other event that completely distracts and detracts from the puzzle enjoyment. So if you're looking to play this game purely (or even partially) for the puzzles, don't.
On the other hand, if you're looking to play this game for the story, do. There was enough going on in the storyline in my first playthrough that I was convinced that finding the remaining endings was well worth my time. Once I'd started to uncover more of the six endings (seven in the iOS version), I was pretty much hooked - hypotheses running through my head about who Zero was, who killed the dead characters1, why they were all there in the first place... It's been labelled and marketed as an interactive novel for a reason. Although I did find a lot of redundancy and second, probably unnecessary explanations of some of the concepts in the writing, overall the ideas that were conveyed did get me thinking (what is it with Japanese media and philosophy?). I liked Lotus' idea that we're all simply wireless monitors for one or more other entities, somewhere else - I don't particularly buy it but it's a thing to think on. The plot is also not without its moments of comic relief - a sequence featuring June and Junpei just before they step into an elevator springs to mind.
The characters: I gave them vague descriptions at the start because that's actually all you get unless you explore the depths of the game (and I'm not keen on spoiling the game that much...) - the situation they're in forces the characters to reveal nothing about themselves. And, of course, it all comes out eventually. One is a killer, one is a CEO, one goes crazy in one ending, one knows a lot about that anaesthetic that they found in the hospital room. Some of it comes out with all the subtlety of a brick, but there are some still rather well-constructed twists in the characters' backstories, as well as the main story (turns out the game is actually a science fiction game in the end). As for the characters' design: I'll go ahead and make the gripe about Lotus' design being sex appeal with no real reason, though I will make the point that for the most part the characters ignore her outfit and direct any disrespect towards her as a person, not her choice in clothes - the one part where her outfit is brought up is when she's described as an "exhibitionist grandma", which in itself is not great treatment. Her character is a very interesting one in the end, though I'm not fully convinced that this makes up for her design. Change my mind. Finally, the gender makeup of the main cast of nine passes my "coin-toss" test2, which I'm happy with.
As for the voice acting in the remaster - well, put it this way. I've never really been a fan of dubs, I much prefer subs. Thankfully the remaster gives you the opportunity to play with subs, but I stuck out the dub for one very good reason - Ace's English voice artist is the same as for Batou in Ghost In The Shell: Stand Alone Complex. Every time Ace did something not-very-nice, I had an excuse to scream "BATOOOOUUUU! NOOOOOOO!" at my screen (much to my fiancée's annoyance). Otherwise the dub was a bit unbelievable at times, but again, I've come to recognise that as standard. (Should I?)
I briefly touched on the fact that this game is a science-fiction game (major spoilers here). It's clear from the outset that the game is set in the not-too-distant future - there's no flying cars, spaceships of any kind, any species other than those normally found on Earth; but there is some technology that for 2009 is a bit... futurey. The characters' bracelets are scanned into and out of door locks and detonators are (supposedly) placed inside of them. In 2009, this kind of digital device would probably cost an arm and a leg to make, yet not less than 11 are seen in the game (and probably up to about 20). I could see RFID or NFC playing a reasonable hand in their creation in 2019 but probably not ten years ago, such has been the pace of technology. Gadgetry aside, what really makes these games science-fiction is the in-depth exploration of morphogenetic field theory - to cut a long story short, one-way telepathy between exactly two people - and the multiple-universe theory. There's a few other bits and pieces commented on, such as ice-9 (a fictional substance that has nonetheless been synthesised), but morphogenetic fields remain the theme of the game (and the series). As much as it's an interesting topic, the exploration and deconstruction of the idea doesn't really hit its stride in this game (although it does in the other two instalments).
As a small afterthought, as much as I thought it'd turn out like Saw and Cube - it didn't. Whereas the aforementioned movies rely on traps and torture to garner their appeal, 999 is very much media that has latched onto the (real-world) escape room craze and taken it in an interesting direction (though it's unclear to me if the craze predates the game or vice versa3). It relies on puzzles and notably avoids gore and cringe horror, instead focusing on the story and only really getting awful during the bad endings. The body count in the "true ending" is 3 (other endings bring this body count up to almost the entire cast), but they make perfect sense within the context of the story and are not unnecessary or over-the-top. Well, maybe a touch.
- Graphics: 7/10 95% of what's on screen is artwork in anime/manga style, but it's not bad.
- Sound: 8/10 I've long preferred Japanese voice acting over English, but the English dub is passable. The soundtrack is also rather good, and Zero's voice is suitably creepy.
- Playability: 5/10 Point-and-click with virtually no difficulty curve. It can get a bit monotonous at times.
- Lastability: 9/10 Once you've seen one ending, the chances that you'll go back for others (whether you're a completionist or not) is rather high.
- Plot: 9/10 Twists and turns everywhere. There's limited predictability that nonetheless relies partially on your choices within the game.
- Overall: 38/50 = 7.6/10 I can see why this game popularised interactive novel games in non-Japanese markets.
Now, it is time. Let our game begin. I wish you all the best of luck...
1 Yes, there are dead characters. Hell, one of them dies in the early game.
2 For a show/game/movie/book with n main characters, toss a fair coin n times. If the probability of tossing k heads is not within 1.5 standard deviations of the mean, where k is the number of characters of one gender and k≤n, there needs be a good reason for the imbalance. This of course does not take into account anyone who is neither male nor female, or indeed both, so it's not the best test but it's my go-to for equality. 999 barely passes. Dream Daddy passes because the whole idea of the game is that the player character - you - is looking for a male romantic partner, so the skew towards male characters is justified.
3 The first real-world escape room games as we know them came into existence beginning in 2007, though exclusively in Japan. 999 was released in 2009. I have no data on when the craze became the craze.