I have a problem. The worst problem a child trapped in the body of man can have. My collection of video games has finally reached critical mass. About fifty too many steam sales, good deals on eBay and nice pre-owned prices at Game have left me with more games than I can possibly ever realistically get through unless I stop buying, right now, and actually get to playing them.
It's a cruel world
To facilitate this plan, and to control the buying impulses of my future self, I've resolved to set about finally playing all the games I've amassed, and to also write a review of them. Hopefully this will allow me to engage a bit more with the games themselves, and prevent me from having to file for bankruptcy.
9 HOURS, 9 PERSONS, 9 DOORS
WARNING- I'm trying not to do spoilers, but I highly recommend playing this game and getting every ending before reading. I'm not an experienced reviewer and may slip up or get overexcited in this regard.
This is one of those games I had heard of that had a "cult" following and supposedly had a very good plot and some nice puzzles, so when I saw it on eBay for a nice discounted price I decided to get it.
The game is of the "visual novel" genre, with the general premise that you have been trapped on a ship, and must solve a serious of devious puzzle rooms set up by an unknown mastermind to escape. The player takes on the role of Junpei (not to be confused with the Persona 3 character), a 21 year old college student, who has been abducted and finds himself in a third class cabin of a cruise liner, and immediately must solve a puzzle to escape the room before it floods. Spoilers, he escapes, and after doing so he meets up with another 8 people- making up the titular 9 persons- who have also been captured, and who have each been assigned a number from 1 to 9 designated by mysterious watch-like bracelets firmly fixed to their wrists. Their captor, zero, then tasks them with working their way through 9 puzzle rooms within a 9 hour time limit, or they will die as the ship sinks. Additionally, failing to adhere to some rules will result in a grisly death as a bomb inside the individual will explode.
I don't wish to spoil anything, so will simply say that the rest of the story is spent working your way through the puzzle rooms, and on the way finding out more about your fellow prisoners, and trying to work out why you've been captured, by whom, and figuring out what is going on all while trying to escape with your life. The story eventually culminates in a rather glorious, mind bending outcome that makes excellent use of the fact that the story is delivered as a game with multiple choices and possible endings. I can't say much more without ruining it, but once you've achieved 100% completion (your progress is measured by how many of the 6 endings you've seen) you'll know what I'm talking about.
My first theory involved a Metal Gear crossover. I'm still hopeful
The game itself is split roughly into two sections. The most game-like of these are the escape room sections, where the player navigates their way through the puzzles. The other is what the game calls "novel sections", where the main body of plot transpires, although occasionally some story pieces turn up in the puzzle sections.
The escape room sections put the player, usually alongside some of the other captives, in a locked of area of the ship comprising a few rooms. You can't go back out the way you came, so your only choice is to solve the puzzle in the rooms and thus move forward.
The rooms are presented as 2D artworks, and are presented with sufficient detail that it is very clear what everything is supposed to be, and this is often supplemented by text descriptions as well. The layouts are have sufficient coherency to mean that important items are delineated enough that you'll naturally notice and click on them during their investigations, without them feeling as though they've been modified so as to stick out to the player. This adds to the feeling that you're working out the solution rather than having it handed to you on a silver platter.
Control wise, the player uses the bottom touch screen on the DS to click on objects that might be of interest, resulting in a description from Junpei or his companions, and might result in the item being picked up and added to your inventory, where it can be examined further and sometimes combined with other objects to make a new tool. Diligent exploration of the rooms will quickly lead you so working out where the exit is, and is normally quite clear on what needs to be achieved to get out- your job is finding the necessary clues, items and sometimes codes and manipulating the right objects to make it happen. It is also worth nothing that each puzzle room is self contained, meaning you'll be using all the items you find in that area for that particular puzzle, eliminating the need to carry around items from the whole game, and allowing you to focus on each challenge as it presents itself, safe in the knowledge you won't break a future puzzle if you forge ahead.
A lot of the puzzles are math based. Fortunately, the game provides one of
these bad boys for the mathematically disinclined among us
I found the puzzles to generally strike a good balance between being actually achievable while still being difficult enough that you didn't feel like the game was pandering to you. That said, your companions can get a bit too enthusiastic with saying "good job, Junpei!" whenever you complete a simple task, and the rules of the game (by that I mean the game in the plot, not the game itself) are hammered in maybe a little too hard, but this is understandable as they underpin every puzzle, and are also important in the narrative and decisions you make there.
There are a couple of problems, however. The game features quite a nice ambient hint system, where your companions will give their thoughts on some of the puzzles before you, which is generally fine, and adds credibility to the idea that you are not the only one actively trying to work out an escape route. However, the threshold which prompts them to basically spell out the solution is arguably a bit low. I found myself triggering it a few times just by clicking on objects in the environment to hear what Junpei had to say about them, only for the game to figure I was having trouble and giving me the solution. Some kind of option to turn off the hints until you actually get stuck would have been nice.
Another thing worth noting is that the plot emphasizes that time is of the essence, and yet there is not time restriction on these sections. Game play wise this is probably for the best, as the puzzles occasionally get quite devious and you might get stuck, but again perhaps some kind of option to enact a time limit would be good. That said, though, a time limit probably wouldn't make sense as it would just result in putting the player back to the start of the area and forcing them to go through the motions of doing the steps they had already worked out again, so this omission actually makes a lot of sense. Also, the soundtrack and quips of the characters also reinforce the idea of time ticking away, and the plot is so riveting I was motivated to get through these areas quickly to find out what was next. As such, the lack of time limit is justified even if it does result in a little cognitive dissonance.
This leads us to the novel sections of the game novel sections of the game, which is where the lion's share of the plot is delivered, and take the form of long sections of text, supplemented by similar background artwork to that featured in the puzzle rooms. Characters are represented by large cutouts with extremely limited animations. Their actions are conveyed almost entirely by descriptions, and they only have a few poses, but these are generally sufficient to allow them to emote.
Despite the limited art in these sections, the presentation is ultimately successful due to the rather strong writing and the distinct personalities of each of the characters. All of the cast quickly establish their mannerisms and temperaments, and the text is usually able to communicate via the words alone how the character is feeling and what their tone is, leaving the art to accentuate the story and characters, and act as shorthand to delineate who is speaking.
9 Doors.... I'm so sorry.
The only interactive element of the novel sections involve making decisions. This is actually very important as it can heavily change the outcome of the game, and lead you towards one of the game's six distinct endings (well, 5 in truth, one ending is just cuts off early for some reason). These decisions succeed in being quite nerve wracking due to the aforementioned engaging nature of the plot, as you'll be trying to make the best decision based on what you think you've gathered from the events so far, even though it really is impossible for the first couple of decisions to even be able to make such guesses as you haven't had enough plot information yet.
Together, the puzzles and novel sections add up to really reinforce the scenario, and compliment each other very well, and their interspersion helps a lot with the atmosphere- just like the characters, you'll be living in fear of the next big puzzle, and while doing that, worrying about the ramifications of the decisions you've made.
This gives the game a nice flow, which is underpinned by wanting to know what happens next in the story. The story is undoubtedly the best thing about this game, and it will compel you onward. Great care has also been taken to almost constantly give the player new information about the characters and plot, and throws out red herrings and has characters say enough things that could be construed by the player as suspicious to make the player really engage with the plot and want to play more so they can discover more. I was actively trying to work out what was going on at basically all times when playing, and was concocting theories about how certain people might be connected between play sessions.
The final aspect of the game is that it is really intended to be played multiple times to get all of these endings, and doing so is necessary to make sense of the whole thing as each ending offers unique information about the overall goings on and gets you a bit nearer the overall truth. This is good in that it makes the story a lot longer and multi-faceted than it first would seem, and also allows more time to flesh out the characters (even if some get more love than others). This intention for multiple playthroughs is also indicated by having your save file remember your previous choices by greying out the one's you've already taken, and allowing you to fast forward dialogue you've already read by holding right on the Dpad.
However, it also means repeating a lot of sections as there is no option to pick up where you left off, and repeating a bunch of puzzles. You'll be doing the intro puzzle by reflex after a few times. It does get rather old though. Additionally, the decisions for getting the "best" endings involves a fairly specific set of requirements that are not necessarily that obvious, and it is quite possible to get the same ending multiple times without getting any new information.
That said though, once it all comes together, working out how to get the best resolution was immensely rewarding, and really helps the game come together as it's own grand puzzle in itself, and is rather masterfully carried out.. It adds up to making a game that allowed me to become thoroughly absorbed by the story, even if, upon reflection, there were a couple of loose ends and things that didn't quite seem to add up (but I've yet to play the sequel and they'll maybe sort all of that out there).
9 Hours, 9 Personas, 9 Doors
. I'd buy it and eat the cartridge.
If you like a good story, I highly recommend you pick this game up, as it spins an absorbing yarn and makes such good use of the format that it would be a good pick for an exemplar of why games can be art and can achieve things other mediums could not. For a game featuring relatively little actual game play, the combination of interesting puzzles, strong plot, fascinating characters and intricate mystery, interspersed with player decision making, comes together to give this game a surprising forward momentum that makes it very difficult to put down until you've seen everything it has to offer. An excellent package overall.
(The image of Junpei and Junpei can be found at http://amm-fanworks.livejournal.com/5690.html)