ZERO ESCAPE : 999 (Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors)

Updated Comments

This is interesting. I've learned something from playing a videogame with my girlfriend, Sarah. Specifically, I've learned a lesson. She'd say that she is (almost always) right about things like this, and I'd be inclined to agree. In particular though, I've learned that there is value in replaying Zero Escape, both in terms of properly exploring the games plot, but also just in playing it through with someone. My original comments are posted below and most of them still stand, with one caveat - to get the most out of this game you absolutely have to play it at least twice, preferably 3 or 4 times. 

When I completed the first run through of the game, Sarah picked up my save game and began playing. What started out as me receiving regular updates developed fully into us playing it together, albeit with her mostly doing the driving (i.e. poking the DS screen to her hearts content). This was primarily down to the fact that that the 2nd play through is fundamentally more interesting, longer and meaningful than the first. So much so, that the first play through is closer in sense and tone to a prologue where you learn the mechanics of the game and a bit about the characters. The second play through is where you properly understand and explore the game. The plot is expanded, you have many more meaningful interactions with the characters, you still make interesting choices and solve interesting (and mostly new) puzzles. The second play through took at least 9 hrs and this included an expanded ending section that was an absolute blast.

The really interesting thing is that the developers clearly structured the game in such a way that the additional play throughs are actually relevant and meaningful in terms of how the overall story plays out, rather than just being irrelevant speed runs. This is really bloody clever - Sarah and I are not playing again to get irrelevant collectibles, we're doing so to properly explore the story and characters which is genuinely awesome. 

This also leads me to another point - I didn't mention the characters so much in the initial review but really, playing through at least twice is best way to fully engage with them. They're so well written, genuinely funny (and often frustrating) and more fully realised in the additional games that I can honestly say i was far too hasty in dismissing the value in "replaying" the game. It is safe to say that you don't so much as "replay" as you do "fresh-play". 

The game is also excellent as as shared gaming experience. It is not a multiplayer game per se, but it really lends itself to being played alongside someone. This is because it is closer to watching a move than it is solo gaming. You discuss the characters together, solve puzzles together, suggest and debate theories about the plot together and tell each other off for poking the wrong DS screen with the stylus. I can honestly say that my experience with the game has been significantly enhanced by handing it over to my girlfriend to play and discuss with me, even if I am no longer actually playing it.. There really are not many games I can say that about at all. 

Finally, the plot. Oh, good ol' Junpei and his inner monologues, Lotus and her ridicculous breasts, June and her falling over in fear at various times and yes, even Clover and her daft hairstyle.... they're all wonderful and often very amusing characters. Their bad language, quirks and grumbles about their situation really do become more amusing as time goes on, rather than wearing on you (almost without exception) and the more time you spend with the game the more you get out of it. Sure, the plot is bat shit crazy, the characters bonkers mental and the writing often silly, but it is all infused with both a sense of fun and mystery that just makes playing and replaying the game so much fun. 

All of this just means that I really cannot recommend Zero Escape enough. It is very good as a standalone 6hr single player game, better as replayable and fully explored "save game plus" and superb as a game to share with someone else. 

Honestly - I am really glad I handed the game to Sarah and said "you may like this", as without her playing it, I'd not have properly got the full game experience. 

She was right. Again. 

Lee

***

Original Review

I “completed” 999 : 9 People, 9 Doors, 9 Hours (999) after approximately 5-6 hrs of play and was left somewhere between intrigued and confused at the way the game had panned out. The game itself is essentially a playable book similar in structure to the old “adventure books” where you could make various choices about where to go and what to do.

999  invites you to play as Junpei – a young chap havinga very bad day. There are two main components to the game – (i) puzzle solving and (ii) character interaction and decision making. The game is set up in such a way that you have Junpei, the player character and 8 other characters with varying motivations, histories and “ways” of doing things. With one exception, all of these characters are painted in various shades of grey – that is they tend to be murky, sometimes deceitful or just downright surprising in how they interact with you. The characters, including your own, provide the backbone of the games decision making and puzzle elements as well as the story.

To say anything meaningful about 999’s plot however would be to ruin its strongest and enjoyable element. There are twists and turns, characters surprise you in what they say and do and you will find yourself carefully considering sometimes seemingly insignificant decisions such as whether or not you believe in Astrology. Often your dialogue choices are not presented as “yes” or “no” – they too are shades of grey and more nuanced than simple binary decisions, It makes reading through the dialogue and making decisions interesting and even entertaining. 

You see, 999 isn’t really a game. I mean, it is a computer game per se, but it is really a digital novel. This is a text heavy but well written game (there is plenty of humour, drama and personality) where you spend the vast majority of your time reading and then painting a picture in your own head as to the story the game is telling you. It is superb and really succeeds as a digital novel. Even the occasional repetition of text and ropey translation are easily forgiven such is the wit and sense of humour that is stitched throughout the game. 

The puzzle solving element of the game is less successful, but still enjoyable. With 1 or two exceptions, none of the puzzles are particularly challenging and typically solved by a “click everywhere / try everything” approach. A couple do require a bit more thought, mental gymnastics and I even used a guide to solve the one really tough one. In fact, assuming there is only 1 solution to the 1 tough puzzle, solving it without a guide really would represent a massive difficulty spike out of tone with the rest of the game.

As you can tell, I really liked the game, it is fast paced, but with plenty of depth, interesting without being overly complicated or super long and intellectually stimulating, if not overly demanding. As a one of play through, I loved it. But there is a problem, the game is not meant to be played once, it is meant to be played at least twice.

See, the first time you play through the game, you get 1 ending. I am not sure if this is the same ending for everyone, but it is one ending with a very ambiguous final scene. I have my theories about what happened, but to know what happened, you have to play through the game a second time and make different decisions to get a subsequent ending, The problem with this is the main game itself – the puzzle solving in particular – doesn’t have enough replay value for me to warrant a full 2nd play through. In fact, I don’t think that you can get the proper ending without a full second play through. Sure, the game allows you to skip some text, but the puzzles are not skippable and to be honest, you will probably have to re-read much of the text to remember where you are in terms of the games progress.

This is all very bothersome and I cant help but feel the developers would have been better off extending the main game by an hour or so to close out some of the questions rather than making you play through the whole thin again.

It is a relatively minor quibble however – and actually, my girlfriend is havinga blast playing through the Save Game Plus instead of me and I get to watch / get the random updates on what is happening. This seems to be a good solution to the problem actually.

There you have it an interesting puzzle game laced with a super story and digitally told narrative. This game is well worth the £23 or so I I paid for it and even if I am not entirely sold on the replay value really recommend playing at least once for the interesting plot, well drawn (literally and metaphorically) characters and intriguing experience of playing, rather than just reading, a book.