A game where you will put your life on the line...Edit
My mind is still unraveling.
It's been three days since I started playing. Three days that stretched into three nights. Late nights, staying up well into the A.M. hours. It wasn't a choice. It wasn't a decision, ahead of time, to play like that. But as my mind began to become more and more intertwined into the world I'd begun exploring, it seemed impossible to stop. I couldn't stop. I was playing 999: 9 Hours, 9 Persons, 9 Doors. This is the game that you might have heard described as a text adventure, or a visual novel, translated for our American market and given an M-for-Mature content rating -- a rarity on DS. And though it is all those things, those things fail to describe what you'll truly find in this box: One complete and total mindf***. 999 opens with our hero Junpei, an average college-aged kid, waking up in a haze of cloudy memory in a place he's never seen before. As he gets his bearings, he quickly discovers the grim situation he's in -- he's been kidnapped. Kidnapped, and taken to a ship adrift somewhere in the ocean. He soon meets up with eight other victims and they all discover, together, that they've been gathered together by a madman to play through a sick and twisted human experiment called "the Nonary Game." It's a game of life and death -- and death is far more frequent. The victims struggle to work together, trying to follow the strict rules that the kidnapper, "Zero," has laid out for them. Things get bloody quickly, though, as personalities clash and everyone's individual self-preservation instinct comes up against each of the others.
To make matters worse, the players only have nine hours to complete the game before the ship they're in is sunk, killing them all. And, to make matters even worse than that, each one of the victims has a bomb placed in their bodies that will explode if they try to break any rules.
So, safe to say, Junpei's had better days.
That gripping premise is just the beginning in 999, though, as after the game's storyline sets itself up you then begin to take control of the path the narrative will thereafter follow. Like one of those old "Choose Your Own Adventure" books, you'll be presented with decision options along the way -- which of the other players you, as Junpei, will team up with. Which of Zero's deadly numbered doors you'll choose to enter. And even seemingly unimportant casual responses to questions in dialogue with other characters.
But that's where 999 really starts to get you -- nearly every single thing you do and say is critical. Whether you live or die over the course of an entire nine-hour playthrough could very well hinge on the most innocent of selections you make somewhere around hour 3, or 5, or 7. Picking the right doors and choosing the right conversation options can access entire new paths of possibility going forward. 999 has six different endings to achieve, and you'll be so engrossed in the mythology, conspiracy theories and the intricate ways in which the characters' backgrounds are interwoven with one another that you won't be able to put your DS down for days. And that's only part of the experience. The majority of your time with 999 is spent in dialogue and interaction with other characters, as the "visual novel" term suggests. But in-between those interactions is the actual gameplay of the game -- puzzle-solving to escape the traps and obstacles Zero's set up throughout the giant ship.
If you've ever played "escape the room" puzzlers before then you've got a good sense of what you'll be doing here -- Junpei finds himself locked into a series of rooms filled with riddles, always paired with different teams of characters drawn from the pool of eight other victims, and you, as he, must explore each environment and solve every puzzle in order to move on to the next set of challenges. This plays out by taking the DS stylus in hand and cycling through each scene, touching objects on the screen to interact with them and picking up some items to use as keys and tools.
It works wonderfully well. Puzzle-solving and exploration of this sort has been seen before here on DS, but the tension that's built and the terror that surrounds these characters as they're attempting to accomplish even the simplest of tasks gives the entire experience a palpable urgency. If you screw up, you feel it, and you really start to freak out that these people you're trying to help are going to end up dead. And, worse, that's a real possibility -- you'll almost certainly choose a path that gets somebody killed your first time through. But then that becomes 999's final master stroke -- multiple playthroughs. This game is intended to be failed at least once or twice, forcing you to take what you've learned from your mistakes and start over again, from the beginning, picking different paths on subsequent runs. The game activates a fast-forwarding feature that lets you speed through dialogue you've already seen before, and greys out decision options you've previously picked so you can remember to select a new direction when you come to the same sets of crossroads.
It's in these multiple runs that your mind will begin to get well and truly twisted, as mine has, from the different revelations into the plot you'll uncover from having chosen other paths -- and, eventually, everything comes together to create one incredibly well-told and beautifully written story that will still have you thinking about all its details and complexities three sleepless days later. 999 isn't perfect. It comes close, honestly, and no doubt it'll become one of your favorite experiences ever played on DS if you choose to buy it, which I encourage. But, in fairness, I've got to address three detracting issues before wrapping up this review. They're minor, but they're there.
The first is an inconsistency in urgency. 999 does perhaps too good of a job at convincing you of the approaching doom facing these victims in less than nine hours, and so their tone ends up feeling off anytime they begin to joke with another or take things too lightly. Characters will go off on conversational tangents that take 15 minutes to walk through, which can seem a bit ridiculous in the situation they're in -- inevitably, some other victim then bursts into the discussion screaming something like "What the f*** are you guys waiting around for? We're going to die!" to force the reality of the circumstances back into the spotlight. There's no actual countdown timer implemented, either, so it never matters from a gameplay perspective how long you take with each individual puzzle or room exploration -- that seems like a bit of a miss. It could have been a selectable option to turn an in-game clock on or off, at least.
The second issue is that 999 sometimes feels like it's being a little too kind and doing too much to over-explain things and hold your hand through its puzzles. Again, you'll be set up to want to move as fast as possible through these sequences because of the urgency of the storyline, but then the game will make you sit through lengthy, laborious puzzle explanations that you can't choose to skip over. It will even repeat these same explanations two, three or four times over if you don't immediately solve a puzzle on the first pass and instead decide to go explore the current room some more before completing it. Finally, the fast-forwarding feature that's implemented to help you more quickly move through each of your playthroughs beyond the first is nice, but doesn't quite go far enough -- it only allows you to speed through story sequences, meaning you'll have to play several of the same puzzle rooms again and again in your pursuit of alternate endings. This is sometimes understandable, because on occasion a character will offer you a different path of dialogue right in the middle of an exploration and you wouldn't want to bypass those critical moments. But it definitely becomes annoying having to unlock the same briefcase, or combine the same items, or make the same "discovery" in the same room for a second, third or fourth time.
Those are the issues. They're not much, as I said, as you'll certainly forgive each one in turn as you make your way deeper and deeper into the spiraling madness of 999's twisted plot -- but they are worth noting, as when a game gets this close to reaching perfection you've got to note what few missteps it does take. In fairness, and in the hope that any potential follow-up game might also right those minor wrongs.
My mind, I hope, is nearly finished unraveling. After three straight days, nights and early, early mornings spent playing through the entirety of 999 and accessing each and every alternate ending, the enrapturing spell this game has cast on me is finally beginning to let me think straight again. This experience, and this story, though, is one I hope every DS owner (17 and up) will explore. 999 will break your mind. And that's a very, very good thing.