Wednesday, 23 March 2011

Death Count - 9 Hours, 9 Persons, 9 Doors

The genres for video games are vast. Most are aware of First Person Shooters. Real Time Strategy is less common but hardly unheard of. But then there's the Visual Novel; a genre only really paid attention to by a much more marginalised audience. They are what the name suggests - games that are interactive books - focusing on the story depth and characters rather than action sequences.
Games of this type vary in quality; the Ace Attorney series is the best example released in the West, but Japan has its own special sub-genre of risqué Visual Novels that creep me out.

9 Hours, 9 Persons, 9 Doors (herein referred to as 999 for my sanity) is very much its own beast. An easy way to describe it would be "The cast of Ace Attorney in a Saw film", but that doesn't quite do it justice. You play through the eyes of Junpei - a teenager who has woken up in an abandoned bedroom on a ship. The only thing in his possession is an irremovable metal bracelet with a '5' on it. Then inexplicably, the room starts to flood with water, and Junpei must find a way to unlock the door, or die trying. He finds that he and eight others are playing the 'Nonary Game', where success means escape, failure means drowning, and breaking the rules means a bomb in your stomach going off.

The game's puzzles all function similarly, each room you enter contains a set of puzzles resulting in an escape route unlocking. None of the tasks are straightforward, but they're all based in sensible leaps of logic, solved with patient thinking. So while there is a sense of atmosphere and tension in solving the puzzles (though there's no time limit), it's not frustrating - a lesson that the Professor Layton series could learn from.

With the puzzle sections so short, the bulk of 999 is instead taken up with narrative; and damn is there a lot of it. There can be hours worth of dialogue in between each interactive element, sometimes even within the room escape sections. This would be unbearable under most circumstances, but the story is strangely compelling. Of course, it doesn't exactly stand up to a quality ink-and-paper novel, but the subject matter and quality of the translation from Japanese is impressive. While there is no on-screen gore, descriptions of violence and of any 'rule breakers' you come across are done creepily well.

The character depth is what made the game for me. While the room puzzles are enjoyable, they're brief. This game survives entirely on the strength of its narrative; so thank goodness it's such a good one. In the early stages of the story, the characters feel like numbered narrative devices, but as you progress, all the characters become fleshed-out and empathetic; you'll definitely find a favourite. This is coupled with a quality soundtrack done by Shinji Hosoe, previously known for the high-octane techno tracks he creates; this is first foray into ambient and atmospheric tunes, and it works incredibly well.

999 has multiple endings, depending on which puzzle rooms you decide to tackle. Each ending explains more about the characters and nature of the Nonary Game, so repeat plays are necessary to understand everything. On subsequent runs, you're able to fast-forward through text that you've already seen; which makes the process much quicker - sitting through some of the longer cut scenes again would be maddening.

999 rewards the open-minded gamer. A game consisting of 'pulp novel' dialogue will be a huge turn-off for some, but the execution is so well done, I implore the adventurous to check it out. Be prepared to use an importing website, though - while the American release has been available for a few months, there is no sign of an EU release as of yet.

This review has also been hosted on The Yorker and can be found here.

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