I had originally written this review as a reader review for IGN.com, but since the submission form for IGN is apparently broken, it will end up here.
Below, I'll go into why "999: Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors" is a good game, but also what makes it less than perfect. I'll give some suggestions as to what could have improved the game, or what would make be jump right on a sequel. So, without further ado, here's some ado:
It seems in recent times that the interactive drama genre has had a revival. Games like Heavy Rain made big waves, and storytelling has matured significantly in games since the good old "head right, find princess" days. This particular addition to the genre comes from a surprising angle though – the DS, and a survival horror text adventure at that? Unique to say the least, and a match for even platform champions like the Ace attorney series, this is bound to be worth the money. Right?
As a text adventure, it should come as no surprise that this game is all about the story, and boy is this a gem. The basic premise is this – you play as Junpei, a regular highschooler who just happens to wake up on a strange ship, and quickly finds himself facing all sorts of puzzling challenges, alongside 8 others.
Of particular brilliance is this: on the wrist of each person is an electronic bracelet, with a number from 1 to 9, and every so often, the 9 people will face numbered doors, also from 1 to 9. The catch is that it takes 3 to 5 people to get through a door, and their bracelet numbers must have a digital root matching that of the door.
The situations and match-ups that this system puts into the story are sublime. The whole thing is incredibly smooth, and even the smallest detail is thought out in the grand plot. ”If this guy died behind door 7, and his number was 2, then 1 and 4 must have done it right?” The whole experience is one of growing paranoia, danger and distrust.
Okay, the writing is not fantastic, but it's not horrible either. The main thing to take away here is how much a strong foundation for a story can do for a game. A particularly interesting aspect of this story is that the characters within it are playing a game themselves (albeit an extremely serious one). This really reduces the gap between reading a story and playing a game. No doubt there are other stories or mythologies out there that lend themselves well to gaming, without being a strict "game" as in 999... consider the life-or-death "game" of an OR, or the verbal battle of the court room - hey, doesn't that sound familiar?
A serious problem with the story - gameplay meshing is that it is pretty much impossible to make an educated guess of what will happen before choosing to go through a door. Without spoiling anything, I can reveal that the very first choice the player makes has a 50% chance of barring any chance to get the good ending, with no indication of this what-so-ever. This could have been seriously improved on in several ways.
One way would be to lead the player along the "right" course, given that the player has enough information to make their decision with. And since the game already carries information over between playthroughs, this seems like an obvious choice.
Another way would be to allow all paths to eventually lead to a / the good ending, again given that the player has sufficient information. With this approach the player can still be kept in the dark, but will not feel the frustration of a surprise bad ending suddenly bringing 4 hours of gameplay to a halt. This would still require multiple playthroughs though, and would probably feel more "on rails", which would completely remove any sense of choice for the game. Probably not what the designer wanted.
On to the core gameplay.
The gameplay is made up of puzzle rooms – you are usually locked inside a room with a few others, and must get out by solving puzzles. This is the usual point-and-click, combine items, objects into indentations style of puzzles that you are probably familiar with. While not mindblowing, the puzzles do strike a great balance between obscure and obvious, and you will hopefully not get stuck. This in itself is an achievement, but the puzzles also manage to have some relevance to the story, both metaphorically and more directly. Again, close attention to story is a hallmark of this title, and is to be commended.
Given how simple (or even simplistic) the gameplay is, it seems like an obvious area for improvement. It would have been nice with just a bit more complexity to the gameplay. Maybe moving the characters around manually on the hallways, to look for additional clues as you go, maybe a dating-sim like system where you get closer to characters you spend more time with and learn their secrets, maybe quicktime events alá Heavy Rain… just something. The point-and-click thing is good, but it feels a bit too simple – especially when you are solving the same puzzle on your fourth playthrough.
While the graphics are unremarkable, the audio is surprisingly refreshing – electronic and slightly glitchy sounds mix with more classical soundtrack elements like piano and soft strings. The music is perhaps not very memorable, but it sets a great atmosphere, and manages being a little innovative at the same time. Great going.
A minor annoyance is that some of the soundtracks are a bit hectic, which is not bad in itself, but it does get annoying when you’re trying to solve puzzles and the same 30 second drum-n-bass loop has been going for the last 20 minutes. This is a rare thing though, and the audio is definitely in the high end of the spectrum.
...and the conclusion
In conclusion, the gameplay is well-balanced, but not very engaging. The game is very short, but then the replay value is great for a story driven game. The plot will keep you wanting more and more, and you will without a doubt go through this game several times to unravel the many mysteries of 999.
Definitely a good game, but it left me with a slightly dry mouth, I felt that in this good game there was room for some GREAT. Any takes on what sauce this banana split needed?