Visual novels are a tricky genre to evaluate. They are typically long on reading and short on action; how much you enjoy the experience is largely dependent on how much text you can tolerate. A good plot and interesting characters help, and fortunately 9 Hours, 9 Persons, 9 Doors (hereafter sanely abbreviated as 999) has both. Developer Chunsoft has a reputation for quality visual novels, and although this is the first to be translated and released outside of Japan it certainly lives up to that standard.
In the narrative of 999, you make the decisions for Junpei, a 21-year-old college student who has been abducted by a mysterious masked man. He wakes up in a strange, sparse bedroom that he later learns is on a Titanic-like ocean liner. Of course, since he learns this thanks to a porthole springing a leak and rapidly flooding the cabin he has other, more pressing issues — like getting the heck out of this locked room. The gameplay elements, outside of some minor “choose your own adventure” path branching, consist of this point-and-click escape sequence and others like it. Junpei will be confronted with strange puzzles and all manner of locked doors, but every solution makes logical sense and your companions often provide hints and suggestions if you need them — after all, they are literally in the same boat.
There are eight other characters, each one wearing a watch-like bracelet bearing a single digit (from one to nine; Junpei is number five). Their host/captor, called Zero, has assembled them all for reasons known only to himself (or herself?), placed them this boat that will sink in nine hours, and tasked them with finding the exit while following his insane rules. Part of the quirk of this deadly, Saw-like experiment is that there are certain doors bearing large numbers; only certain combinations of characters/numbers can pass through these doors, with the others needing to seek an alternate route (typically one of the other doors in the same area). If anyone “unauthorized” passes through such a door, his or her bracelet will detonate an explosive device that they were all force-fed while unconscious. This is demonstrated in no uncertain terms as soon as the nine are first assembled, in the first of many potential casualties.
While the game never actually shows the resulting carnage (other than an impressive splatter of blood), it does describe what is left of the corpse in grisly detail. 999 is rated M for all kinds of justified reasons, but it is easy to forget that until one of those reasons suddenly assaults your eyes. In addition to the violence and blood, there are also references to drug and alcohol use plus some strongly suggestive conversations (all characters are 18+) and profanity. This allows the story to progress naturally, without pulling any punches that similar games (like Hotel Dusk) might have to.
Of course, you might not like where and/or how that story progresses. 999 has multiple endings, and the nature of the plot dictates that you cannot achieve the “best/true” ending on your first playthrough. If you follow the correct path, you’ll receive a post-credits hint directing you to how you should next play to further advance the overall narrative. Needing to play through the game at least twice (if you are lucky) is made somewhat more palatable by a few neat features. The game allows you to fast-forward through any wall of text that you have already seen, although it has to be the exact passage, so minor variations will make you sit through some repetition from time to time; you will also have to repeat any escape sequence, although the solutions never change and you can actually shortcut a couple (especially Junpei’s initial escape) if you remember (or wrote down) what you need to know. Repeat playthroughs will also remember the choices you made in previous runs and gray them out to remind you what you have yet to try. Of course, since there are clearly multiple paths built into the game, you will not be able to experience all of the escape sequences in one go anyway, so the first two replays are essentially “free” if you want to try them all (it will take at least three to visit all of the rooms). Once you complete a run, all of the escapes that you’ve completed will be accessible directly from the menu should you want to replay them without the narrative for some reason; this also serves as a reminder as to which doors you have yet to try.
There are five potential endings in total; the sixth is a “to be continued” version of the true ending if you have yet to experience the correct lead-in ending (to which it will then point you). The actual plot of the game can be quite dense, and may not make complete sense once you discover it (one small aspect was literally lost in the translation, thanks to a Japanese-specific homophone), but 999 is a wild enough ride that the ending is worth the journey. Each path reveals something about the characters accompanying Junpei; I really wanted to uncover all of their secrets and tore through the game in the space of a single weekend, seeing all endings (in approximately “worst to best” order, through sheer accident). It might be difficult to find this game in retailers, but that at least is one puzzle that should not provide too much of an obstacle.
Pros: Intricate, mature storyline; forced repetition made tolerable by some design aspects
Cons: Much, much more text than actual gameplay