When trapped in a do or die situation, how do you react? How do you change when faced with a situation that forces you to evolve, and pushes you to to your absolute limits? What do you do when the darkness of death is encroaching you, and all you have is just a glimmer of hope? This is what you are faced with this in 999: Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors, and I found something that I never would have without it.
When your life is on the line, everything is different. In 999, this statement is the basis of the game, and a core reason why it’s so great: we follow our protagonist Junpei as he is kidnapped and is forced upon a sinking cruse-liner to play the Nonary Game, a game where his life is on the line. Along with 8 other participants, he has to seek a way out by going through finding the door with the number 9 while overcoming the many obstacles in their way. They only have 9 hours or else they’ll sink, they have to follow Zero (the person who set this whole game up)‘s rules of the digital root or else they’ll explode, and they have to find all of the mysteries aboard this ship or else they will never manage to survive this grueling experience. It’s a tense, extremely engaging, well written story that does everything well, and is one that’ll hook any unassuming fan and blast them in a ride.
The Zero Escape series (with 999 as the first game, Virtue’s Last Reward as the Sequel) is a collection of everything done right in the Infinity series then amped up to another level, polishing everything you can imagine: it excels with its premise to hook you in, it has the extremely well executed character interactions and mystery you would come to expect from Uchikoshi, it has nearly perfect pacing throughout the story, which is executed in a way that keeps you hooked and engaged throughout. The SciFi elements of the story are executed in a way that intrigues and engages, it creates an amazing atmosphere that only improves immersion and to top it all off, and it has plot twists that will blow your mind.
It manages to do this with its biggest differentiator that this story has: its ability to manipulate tension, and mood, using all of its elements to influence you. This story has a lot of tools under its belt, but they use it to make you feel like you’re in the situation, making you feel everything that the characters feel, pushing you to the limits. The work has really quick pacing makes this game almost like a roller coaster, exhilarating and moving, always influencing you with the ever-present knowledge that death is imminent, a feeling that is something rarely replicated in another game. The feeling of being trapped yet having a time limit to your doom while trying to work with people who may or may not be trying to kill you… it gets you suspicious, it gets you nervous, it gets you moved, it raises your adrenaline and the way that this story influences the reader in such a way is up with the bests out there, making it a trip to remember. It creates the hollow and abandoned atmosphere that the infinity games rocked at, but since the tense of the game was amped up and the mood was made more engaging, it’s even better.
That being said, it’s not just how the story handles the plot, the plot itself is pretty well written as well. The characters are interesting and engaging because they are fleshed out and developed, the word choice used in the descriptions and conversations are entertaining, being funny and witty when it wants to (RESPECT THE FUNYARINPA!) while being serious and interesting when it needs to, and the intricate and engaging SciFi elements... just wow. With the concepts of All-ICE, Morphigenic Fields, and more, the SciFi in 999 is one of the best handled, and the way they make it integral to the plot along with the human story of the premise is done really well here, enabling them to create the extremely strong narrative that the game creates.. and a strong narrative it is. Really, I have nothing but praise for the story, and everything about it is pretty much damn near perfect... so great.
Unlike the typical visual novel which is solely reading text and making choices, 999 is one of the few visual novels that actually have real gameplay, and this comes in the form of puzzle sections, the rooms where you need to find the way out to progress the story. What makes the gameplay a stroke of genius however isn’t either of the gameplay modes, but how the game manages to blend these two elements, alternating between both seamlessly, never burning you out on either while maintaining the insane level of tension that makes this game great. While many times gameplay can inhibit your experience with the story, this is almost never the case in 999, where the gameplay is an essential aspect of the game, complimenting pretty much everything here.
Also, while the best aspect is how each are handled together, each element is solid by itself. I appreciated how the difficulty curve of the puzzles is pretty solid and gameplay uses the DS’s hardware pretty well to make the gameplay pretty good. As for the VN elements, while I wish there was a better skipping mechanism (it’s wonky and slow), they did a great job integrating multiple routes into the game, with your experiences you’ve played through effecting the stories in a way that it doesn’t feel like you’re wasting your time. I particularly enjoyed the elements that popped out of the safe ending while you were playing the True end, and how they kinda hint at the other endings as you play through the game (Hello, Axe ending!). Its structure and gameplay compliment the core of the story, and it’s a big reason why I fell in love with this genre.
Also, I have to mention here that when Askys ported 999 to iOS under the name 999: The Novel, they took out the puzzles. While I haven’t personally played through that version, I’ve heard nothing but lukewarm to negative responses on that decision, and how it really negatively effects the game. The puzzles let you have a breather, and they manage to seamlessly transition between important story elements, some that happen while playing, so seeing this awkard transition where they flash a black screen saying they solved the puzzles is just pretty clunky, like watching a LP as you try to play the game. The original used the hardware in interesting ways, engaging you throughout... the iOS version is a port that works, but could be quite a bit better. Stick to the DS version if you can.
I guess they do the job?
The Visuals of 999 look quite dated by having CG that feels like something that I’d find in an old PS1 game, but it’s that dated look that adds charm to the game, and makes it interesting, reminiscent of an age when adventure games like this still roamed the lands. Ignoring fidelity, it has a nice design aesthetic, but it doesn’t do that much to stand out, it tries to do what it does well. It’s definitely not the best looking game, but it gets the job done and most players shouldn’t really have any issues with it. A nice thing about the iOS port is that they up the graphics, rendering the game in a higher resolution with redrawn sprites, (which you can tell by looking at the difference between some of the screenshots in this review) but they don’t get everything and when they show the DS graphics, it looks woefully dated. Also, I quite like the look of the characters due to the fact that they are pretty well done 2d sprites and they have really unique designs that make them stand out.
Remember how I said that the Infinity series is like a prototype to the Zero Escape series? Yeah, it really comes into play here: it takes the strong points of both Ever 17 and Remember 11, making a soundtrack that is one of the best, if not the best atmospheric soundtracks that are available in gaming. 999 has a soundtrack that exceeds your expectations, doing much more than you would ever hope a soundtrack to do by capturing the essence of everything the game is meant to be, with all the emotion it wants you to feel, then throwing it back at you in a way that will leave you impacted. It’s a soundtrack that wants you to feel where you are, feel what it’s like around and the stakes that are in the air just by listening to it.
This is a soundtrack that will make you feel, doing all it can to manipulate you, while sounding nice in the process. While it’s mostly ambiance, it’s done relatively well by emphasizing the strong tones and melodies that really effect the sound and the mood. When you add to the fact that 999 is the master at manipulating mood, the soundtrack amplifies this even more, making you feel all the tension as possible, moving you in ways that you wouldn’t expect. Its a soundtrack that serves a purpose, doing more than just being background music, while being some of the best background music I’ve heard.. it tells you the core of the world, the core of the situation done in a way that is to be admired.
This all is even more impressive when you consider that they were limited to the DS’s hardware, having to execute midi clips in a chip tune-esque manner to make such an impact, showing that soundtrack does not need to be fancy and orchestral to be effective. It’s simplicity allows its main melody to punch harder, to have a stronger effect, to affect you more, in a world where music has to be bombastic and loud, explosive and large. It’s a soundtrack that makes the most out of what it has while executing it in a way that will make it stand out in time, a soundtrack that does what most in this industry have abandoned but still showing that chip tune is still a great option. It’s just fantastic.
999 is truly a game that is more than the sum of the parts, where the experience playing through this game absolutely shines through. Even though I’ve been gushing so much about this game, it really isn’t enough: the experience of the entire work as a whole is flat out impressive, hooking you in and moving you through an amazing ride that will rarely ever be matched.
To emphasize how impressed and hooked I was, I’d like to tell you what my first experience was like playing 999. When I picked up the game, I had absolutely no clue what I was getting into. While I heard it was pretty good, I didn’t really know anything about it, what it was about, or what I was about to experience. What awaited me was a game that would entrench me into my new favorite genre, a game that I view as the pinnacle of storytelling in video games, and a game that would blow my mind so much that it changed my perspective of games forever. To me, 999 was a game that was so gripping, so compelling, with an amazing atmosphere, and just amazing writing: I started the game at 7 PM, and when I finished the first route, it was 3 in the morning. It hooked me like no other game has hooked me before, and no game has hooked me since, and it did this with a compelling story, writing that makes you connect with the characters, writing that engages you with the work, writing that is both interesting SciFi and just an interesting story in general, and the way that it uses horror to control the mood and tension is one of the best out there. Everything it does fits in to make your experience with the story excellent, everything is done extremely well and the time spent playing this has completely changed who I am.
This is what started it all for me: the game that got me into what is now my favorite genre of gaming, the game that blew me away with it’s cumulation of mastery of writing and atmosphere. It’s an amazing experience, one that I don’t think can be topped any time soon.
To me, 999 is an absolute masterpiece in writing, a game I’ll adore to no end. It’s not perfect, but it’s damn near close to it and probably the closest I think I’ll ever see, unless Uchikoshi can pull it off again. It’s the game that controlled a beautiful narrative with amazing ideas and the best control of tension I’ve ever seen. The game with twists and a sense of mystery that will never be matched, the game that got me pulling all nighters because I was hooked that much. The game with the perfect atmosphere, the game that has shaped the way I’ve viewed a story. It’s everything I’ve ever wanted in a narrative, and since then has shaped my expectations of games. It’s the best game I’ve ever played and nothing will ever match up to it in my heart, as one of the few games I’ll ever give a 10/10. I plead you, pick this game up now. You will not regret it.
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