NINE PERSONS, NINE HOURS, NINE DOORS / Aksys / Nintendo DS
"Visual Novels" have been huge in Japan ever since computers capable of handling them hit the market, but they've always struggled to find any kind of a foothold in the West. That's probably due to their almost total lack of gameplay, despite coming to you in the guise of a game -- most limit your interaction to the occasional menu choice, and often even that doesn't matter as the story merrily steamrolls along on its linear track regardless of what you choose.
They seem to have found at least a small cult market here with the mainstreaming of anime and Japanese pop culture over the last decade or so, though. Whereas playing a bootleg fan translation used to be about your only option if you were interested in these things, we're seeing more and more publishers take a chance on localizing them here and there in the apparent belief they can actually make a few bucks off of them.
The ones that are tending to make it over are the ones that actually attempt to evolve the genre beyond its repetitive, click-every-menu-choice-repeatedly sort of nature. You've got all sorts of hybrids with other genres like Corpse Party melding in JRPG elements, Symphonic Rain with rhythm games and Hotel Dusk with adventure game elements. 999 is another one of these efforts, but like most of its contemporaries stills struggles to divest itself of the more tedious aspects of its heritage.
The gameplay can basically be described as a visual novel interrupted here and there by those Flash "escape the room" games where you pretty much just figure out what order to click on items, but there's the occasional actual logic/math puzzle in the mix here too. The plot is kinda like Saw meets Cube, but actually weirder than any of those movies. You play as a college student named Junpei, who returns to his slovenly apartment one night only to be knocked out and kidnapped by a guy in a gas mask. He wakes up on board a ship locked in a room that soon begins filling with water, and has to Crimson Room his way out of there. He then finds eight others who were also knocked out and trapped in rooms. From there I'd be getting into spoilers and lord knows nothing ruffles the Nerds of the Interweb more than spoiling this game.
And oh goodness, those nerds. Did they ever put this game up on their shoulders and march it around the Town Square as some sort of breakthrough in interactive storytelling. Welp. No. But we'll get into the fine details bit by bit here as we go.
So the vast majority of the game is reading text -- stretches of text can last anywhere from 15 to 40 minutes before you get back to one of the "escape the room" bits. Aside from the gameplay, 999 rises above the usual visual novel morass in its use of branching paths and multiple endings, though this is chiefly restricted to what door you decide to go through at three points in the story. I'd like to say that the puzzle bits shine when they're around for one of their brief visits, but they weren't particularly good. Most of it is exploring the few screens available to you and clicking on everything not nailed down until you find your way to an actual puzzle, and the relative few of these that there are jag between being too easy or using such abstract math that you'll probably just go look up the codes on GameFAQs because you already feel the game is draining too much of your time.
999's big thing is that it has a complex plot that's only dribbled to you in bits along each of the game's unique routes, so you'll need to replay it a few times to actually see everything. In fact, there's only one "real" ending, and unbeknownst to you you're not allowed to see it on your first playthrough (if you stumble onto that path the game just goes "lol no" when you get to the final sequence and cuts straight to the credits). No, there's one OTHER specific path that you have to complete first before you can actually go down the "real ending" path. And all of this is pretty arbitrary, I mean once you're clued in to certain plot developments by a couple of playthroughs you get an idea of what you're "supposed" to do, but it's straight guessing the first game or two. To be fair, when you do a New Game+ the game lets you hold down the right d-pad button to skip any text you've already seen. But you don't get to skip the puzzles, which don't change between games.
Gigaaaantic ... a big big boat
With nothing else but weak tea Flash gameplay on offer, 999 is leaning wholly on story to carry the day. And people act like this game is some sort of religious experience, but really it's just a typical-ish animu horror story that's somewhat more well-written than usual, but still has to rely on pulling Magic out of its ass at the climax to make everything work. One thing I've seen frequently around forums and reviews is that the game is "brilliant" because it "ties everything up completely" and has this incredibly satisfying and mindblowing conclusion and etc. Well, only if you're willing to accept time travel, ghosts and telekinesis suddenly appearing in the very late stages of a story that heretofore seemed to actually be taking pride in making complete sense and covering its bases. Seriously, it's not very good writing when your core plot points sound like something from Ancient Assanaut Theory.
It's certainly not POORLY written, but the game wants to waste great gawping amounts of your time with it between the walls of text and expecting you to replay identical puzzles over and over, and in the end I feel it didn't offer enough in return for all that. The overarching mystery is clever and pretty well-executed, the characters are good, but the game is extremely heavy-handed at times, especially with puzzle instructions (which are repeated needlessly and at great length) and in some of its philosophical/Ancient Aliens exposition. Pacing is definitely a problem at points. Interestingly, corpses are very rarely actually shown on-screen, but they're accompanied by these over-long, over-detailed gory descriptions that sound like someone with a disturbing fetish was writing them with one hand down their pants.
Games like this and Corpse Party represent tenative steps to break the visual novel out of its tedious traditional mold, but are still too married to its traditional flaws of over-verboseness, repetition and lack of player agency.
* Gameplay Video