Few Americans play digital novels, let alone know exactly what one is. For all of our love of Japanese gaming (from Mario to Final Fantasy), several genres never took hold here in the states. Hell, it took us the better part of a decade to realize how much fun playing with a plastic guitar could really be! Digital novels are one of these lost genres. The name pretty much says it all; you essentially read a novel and have little if any real participation in the game. You may solve a puzzle here or there, or be asked to make a critical decision to guide the protagonist through the adventure. Digital novels can be equated to the popular "Choose Your Own Adventure" books of years past. I myself had never played such a game until I sat down to play 9 Hours, 9 Persons, 9 Doors. I'm glad I did, however, as I find it to be one of the most engaging and thought provoking games I've played this year.
The setup should be familiar to anyone who has visited a theater in the past seven years. Junpei, the main character of our tale, wakes up on a large ocean liner. His cabin is locked, a cryptic "5" etched in red paint (hopefully…) on the door. Suddenly, the porthole cracks and water begins to rush into the room. In order to escape from this deathtrap, Junpei must solve a puzzle that has been carefully crafted by the mysterious Zero, the person responsible for Junpei's abduction. The player takes over at this point, pointing and clicking around the room to solve the riddle. Later, Junpei runs into eight other captives, including someone closely related to his past. All nine characters have a well developed background story that fits in beautifully with the overall narrative. No one feels left out or easily discarded, and you learn more about the characters as you guide Junpei through the bowels of the ship.
A special commendation has to made to the translators for this project. The English script feels natural for the most part, and rarely are you ripped out of the experience because something feels off in the writing. Some people will no doubt have problems with some of the liberties that have obviously been taken (there's a Dark Knight joke thrown in, for example), but I personally feel that a translation job has to sound natural to the audience, and 999's transcends the language barrier to appeal to western gamers in a way few other titles today can.
I will stop describing the story at this point because I would be doing you a great disservice to spoil anything. 999 is best played with very little knowledge of the story. The game sucks you in like a big budget mystery, and forces you to make some tough choices along the way. These decisions carry weighty ramifications, as the game features multiple endings based on the paths you choose. Of course, I got the worst possible ending on my first try, but even then I was able to learn more about the overall plot and piece together more of the grand mystery. You'll want to fire up another game upon finishing your first run (which should take around 4 or 5 hours) just to see where the other paths would have sent you.
Being a digital novel, 999 naturally features very little in terms of graphics, especially regarding animation. The anime character designs are mostly static pictures with very little in the way of actual animation. The best the graphics have to offer are the pre-rendered backgrounds for puzzle sections, which help guide you along the path to the solution without beating you over the head with the answer. Key scenes are highlighted with still images and sound that help drive home the narrative. The music is fairly moody overall, and helps to heighten the sense of mystery and dread permeating throughout the ship.
The puzzles in 999 are awesome for the most part. I struggled with the first puzzle because the game has to teach you the logic necessary in each situation. Randomly clicking around the environment produces results, but it's up to you as the player to figure out exactly what should be done with each object. Perhaps you find a vase that can be filled with water, or maybe a solvent that can be used to reveal secret writing. You should be able to get through the game just by using your head and some basic ingenuity. The final puzzle along each path is a bit of a doozy. I scratched my head for a fair amount of time on one particularly grueling area, but at least the game gives you some basic hints if you struggle. It can seem odd to hear your companions giving you tips, and on more than one occasion I wanted to scream at them to solve the stupid puzzle laid out in front of us, but it works well in the confines of the game. With no timer or any palpable danger to raise your adrenaline, 999 works best as a game that you sit back and solve at your leisure.
While I was certainly engaged and immersed in 999's world, there are a few problems with the game. Revealing the true ending is impossible on a single play-through. You are required to attain one ending to finally reach the truth, which is quite aggravating because you could be wasting your time and not even realize it. The true ending also requires several key dialogue choices that will almost certainly require a FAQ for any given player. Additionally, puzzles that you have completed before must be solved again. A handy "skip" option would have cut down on some of the tedium associated with these sections. 999 does provide a useful feature to quickly fast-forward through dialogue you've already made (which is a Godsend during the game's opening information dump). And, don't worry, you won't miss any decisions or pieces of new dialogue while skipping past these sections.
9 Hours, 9 Persons, 9 Doors isn't for everyone. A digital novel requires a lot of reading and will seem like a passive experience to most. If you're the type of person who skips cutscenes or nods off during long bits of exposition between explosions then steer clear of 999. If you want to try something new, though, I would suggest giving the game a look. Aksys has taken a huge risk in bringing something like this to America, and it may just be the necessary ice-breaker to bring a whole new genre to our shores.