EPIC MINORITY STATUS
Looking over 999, there really is a staggering amount of obstacles that, if applied to any other game, would guarantee that it would bomb. First, it is a new IP on the original DS developed by a relatively unknown Japanese developer (Chunsoft, known for Pokemon Mystery Dungeon) in the West and published by a niche publisher (Aksys Games, known for BlazBlue). 999 releases only last November; about five months before the system’s successor released. At the time of its release, it was only the eleventh Mature rated game on the DS ever. It’s also, for the most part, a visual novel where the player is required to read text and sometimes make dialogue choices that affect the story path. That’s a genre that’s only found success on the DS and only with a couple series (Ace Attorney and Professor Layton) . As a kicker, the game was also given a low print run.
Despite all of this, 999 has done pretty well, making it one of the best sleeper hits of 2010. It deserve it too: this game is flat out amazing. The story can be best described as “Saw on a ship, but with a better story”. It stars Junpei, a 21-year-old student who is mysteriously kidnapped and put on a sinking ship with eight other passengers. It turns out that they are playing something called the Nonary Game, in which the nine characters must solve puzzles found in specific rooms all across the ship to earn their freedom.
The characters are specifically looking for any doors labeled 1-9, the door with the number 9 being the door that leads to freedom. To get through these doors, they must use a numbered bracelet that’s been attached to each person’s arm. The bracelets are also numbered 1-9, and the way to open each door is to get the digital root of any 3-5 bracelets to match the number on the door (ie: 2 + 8 + 5 = 15; 1 + 5 = 6). This isn’t all they do. If a player is caught breaking the rules, their bracelet detonates a bomb implanted in their bodies, killing them instantly. The tension is placed upon the players instantly and the game does not let up until the game is finished, making it easy to get invested and addicted to the game just to get an ending and maybe an answer to those nagging questions.
A couple glances at how the game progresses across both screens during the novel segments
The game plays out through novel and puzzle segments. During novel segments, players read through the story with dialogue on the top screen, and prose on the bottom screen of the DS. What’s great about this is that it’s a story actually worth reading. The translation is great. Without it, the game wouldn’t have nearly as much pull, since the puzzles are separated by a lot of text. It’s pretty much required that the player commits to reading it, since the text cannot be skipped through; but that changes when replaying the game for other endings. Also, getting all six endings is recommended because certain ones contain important story details that aren’t available anywhere else.
The puzzle segments can be described as this: Junpei and 2-4 of the other eight people locked in one of the rooms have to open the exit, MacGyver style. Certain objects combine with other objects to complete the puzzle and all of the pieces are within the confines of the room. What’s cool though, is that many of the puzzles rely on logic and mathematical concepts, like the digital roots mentioned before. Things like turning a water bottle full of dry ice into a bomb of sorts and a certain form of telepathy are discussed. So, it’s entirely possible to learn some really cool scientific theories and interesting mathematical concepts along the way. These puzzles are fun, too.
The graphics really aren’t too important in a game like this. On-screen characters have a portrait that moves its mouth as he or she talks, and environments need to be searched to figure out the puzzles, but that’s it. Similarly, since there is no voice acting whatsoever, the sound in this game isn’t that important either. The difference here, though, is that the soundtrack is pretty good. It’s not iPod worthy but it adds an amazing amount of tension and is quite memorable.
Or, it could help solve the next puzzle…
Despite all the praise I’ve given the game, there are a couple flaws that need to be mentioned. The biggest one is that the player cannot skip through repeat puzzles like they can the text: they must be solved every time. This design choice, much like having to go through the same text every time just to get to one dialogue decision, makes sense mechanically, but just gets annoying after the third or fourth time doing it. Let alone six.
I don’t normally go into detail about a game’s plot or concepts. However, with 999, I was so enthralled by this game that I felt it was absolutely necessary to get readers to understand why this game is great. It takes the concept of Saw and out-does it. It’s a better visual novel than any one of the Ace Attorney or Professor Layton games, even if I love both of those series a lot. It is the best visual novel on the system and personally, it’s my favorite game on the DS. It’s perfect for showing off when people say “go read a book or do something productive instead of playing those games”. It pretty much is a book, only with sound, music, and a few gameplay segments here and there to keep it going.
It’s a game that fully earns its Mature rating. This goes even beyond the gore and f-bombs: the mathematical and scientific concepts alone would make a lot of the story go over kid’s heads. Don’t get me wrong, the text isn’t boring and dry, but it still requires a somewhat high reading level to understand what’s going on. 999 represents what the visual novel could become in America, even with so much against it: it’s another avenue for getting a reading fix with added enhancements that lets players get a better feel for how the author intended things to be pictured, while simultaneously stirring the imagination to fill out the new gaps just like in regular books. Even adult ones. Of all the attempts to capture the mainstream audience with video games this generation, I think using this genre of games is among the best of them. It holds a potential future that not many others could claim to have.
Even when the cast is small, I guess characters like Lotus (right) are thought up early on
The Good: The story is really amazing and gives a good twist on the concept of multiple endings. The characters are well fleshed out, and pretty much every other aspect of the game does their job the way they’re supposed to. The puzzles are also very well put together and surprising logical in their design. I honestly couldn’t get this game out of my mind until I had it completed.
The Bad: Having to repeat certain puzzles and text a bunch to get all of the endings, but it’s worth it.
The Ugly: Nothing at all.
“I’d like to play a game but… right now, I’m a burglar.”
This is an edited version of a review originally posted here.