You wake up in a cabin on a ship, clueless as to how you arrived. You soon remember a mysterious figure in a gas mask and an odd odour filling your apartment. Before you have time to put the pieces together, the window cracks and water begins to flood the small space. Either you find a way out of the locked room, or you drown. This is the beginning of 999: Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors.
Things really pick up, however, when you meet with the other eight passengers and learn of Zero, your kidnapper. You're all to play the Nonary Game – clad with numbered wristbands, you must only enter the Numbered Doors spread throughout the vessel in teams of three to five, your digital roots adding up to the gateway's requisite digit. For example, bracelets 5, 4 and 2 translate to 5 + 4 + 2, which comes out to 11; add the numerals in the tens and ones place and you've got 1 + 1 = 2. Therefore, as your character wears a watch marked with a 5, you could go through Numbered Door 2 with the bearers of bracelets 4 and 2. It sounds complicated, but it soon becomes second nature. It also sets you up to face the many math-based problems you'll face throughout, most of which sound frightfully complex but are, in fact, a lot more easy to grasp and entertaining than they seem. We thus commend the development team for accomplishing what so many have tried for decades: it's made maths fun.
But this is much more than a numbers game. 999 fits into that rarely utilised genre of the interactive novel, so come ready to read. It wouldn't work if the story weren't interesting, and here it delivers in spades. In fact, the entire experience is so captivating and addictive that you really ought to check your schedule before picking it up, because until you see every ending and learn every secret, this game will dominate your spare time.
It's a story that encompasses philosophical quandaries, science fiction, bloody murder and mystery, as well as the general paranoia and mind games that come with not knowing who you can trust, the identity of your captor or why you and your companions were chosen. It's funny, exciting, sad, touching and even a bit frightening at times. And we've got to give major props to a title that fits in references to Kurt Vonnegut, The Dark Knight and the 1989 Legend of Zelda cartoon series.
But what makes 999 so enthralling more than anything else is its cast of characters. With impressively and realistically written dialog and emotions and personalities that seem true and honest, you will love getting to know this bunch and watching as they interact with one another. Rarely slipping into cliché, each could pass for a real person – though we expect that Lotus would have some serious back problems, given her gargantuan breasts. But even she isn't just a walking pair of mammary glands; like all characters, she's deeply developed, fleshed out and unique from everyone else. ChunSoft and Aksys clearly understand the importance of a compelling ensemble, and that's exactly what you'll find here.
This makes the dialogue sections a joy, but we wish we could say the same of the prose in between. It comes in a generally dull third-person that fails to find an interesting voice or style, proceeding at a slow rhythm and too often employing out-of-place or clichéd metaphors and similes. "Silence drifted over everything like a blanket of fresh snow," the game says at one point, ignoring the connotations of freshness, snow and blankets. Another section reads, "June followed Junpei as he threw open the door. They turned around, and saw that the door on the other side was open as well. Through the door was another person, his mouth agape. It was Santa." However, despite the wording, there's little surprising about Santa's presence – yes, there's a character named Santa, but it makes sense – and all in all it takes far too long from point A to point B, and with far too many instances of the word "door." Of course, it's not all like this, and at times it manages an interesting image or a touch of wit. All in all it won't ruin your experience, but in a game that's so narrative-heavy, more gripping prose could go a long way.
There's also the problem that sometimes what you're reading is already apparent on the top screen, or explains something you've already surmised for yourself. There's no way to speed through it unless you've completed that portion in a previous play-through, and though it's by no means sluggish, it definitely upsets the rhythm that you can't read faster than the game allows. This is especially true of puzzle instructions – reading these over and over when you have to back out to check a clue is especially frustrating, but that's only true of a few puzzles. One of these is the first you'll face, however, but try not to let that hold you back as it's a setback that, while quite obnoxious, shows up pretty rarely.
Between story sections, you'll find yourself escaping from various rooms largely by way of unconventional maths problems, logic puzzles and inventory-based adventure game-esque situations – find the screwdriver to open the picture frame to get the key, for instance. It's a good balance that feels satisfying overall, though every once in a while the puzzles are overly simple. It also helps that the more you fail, the more hints your companions will provide through their own conjectures.
999 is a game that you will complete multiple times, not simply to see every possible conclusion but because for each — save the final one — more questions and clues rise to the surface and remain unanswered. In fact, you'll have to play through at least twice to see the "true" ending. And while it's possible to play through just two times and see the lion's share only once, it's far more likely that you'll go through the same areas again and again, especially as the choices you make often have no seemingly right or wrong answer, instead having you take a chance on a certain door. You'll thus encounter the same areas you've been through before, and while you can just hold Right to skip the text, puzzles are a different story. It's a shame, then, that none of them change in subsequent ventures, and repeating these can become quite the tedious experience. Another unfortunate drawback is that in a game in which you'll want to mark certain "pages" to return to or share your cart with a friend, there's only one measly save file.
The presentation is awesome. It looks great and features a fantastic soundtrack, and while animations are relatively simple, the artwork stands on its own nonetheless.
999 is stunning. It sports a captivating plot driven by a fantastic cast of characters, a satisfying mix of puzzles and interesting mathematical, scientific and philosophical quandaries to ponder. Unfortunately the third person descriptive prose is generally quite lacking, there's only one save file and while it's practically too compelling not to play through multiple times to see the "true" ending and other variations, as well as learn all the facts of this fascinating mystery, solving the same unchanging escape sections repeatedly can become a bit of a bore. The game more than makes up for its imperfections, however, and in the end, it creates a truly gripping, great experience that you owe it to yourself to try.