Fans of text-based adventures are spoiled for choice on DS. If they enjoy tales that explore the dark or macabre, however, they aren’t so lucky.
Hotel Dusk has a moody protagonist and Phoenix Wright’s day job may involve poking around murder scenes, but those games always possess a lightness of touch that stops them from getting too sinister.
9 Hours, 9 Persons, 9 Doors has no such qualms about delving into darker territory. Exploding stomach bombs, heartless murderers, and shock endings are all present here – it's definitely not your average knockabout point-and-clicker.
You play as Junpei, who awakens to realise he’s been kidnapped and bundled into a sinking ship with eight other people. Each person has an individual numbered bracelet, from 1 to 9, with yours a 5.
Given instructions by mysterious host Zero over a loudspeaker, you learn you have nine hours to escape before the ship goes under. Numbered doors (labelled from '1' to, yes, '9') are scattered throughout the ship, opened by combining numbered bracelets to find the digital roots.
For example, a door labelled with a '6' could use 5+6+3+1 to equal 15. You then add the 1+5 from fifteen to make the necessary single digit of 6. It may sound complex, but it’s a system you’ll get used to fairly quickly.
There are several branching paths in the ship, with even the seemingly most minor route and character interaction resulting in you seeing a completely different ending (of which there are six).
There’s only one ‘proper’ ending, however, and it’s certainly worth seeing, masterfully tying up all of the stories into a satisfying conclusion.
The game is a little like the ‘choose your own adventure’ books that were popular throughout the '80s and '90s in this regard.
Murder she boat
Added threat comes about from the rule that only groups of three to five people can go through each numbered door. If someone disobeys this rule the bomb that has been placed inside their stomach is detonated. It’s not a great spoiler to say that not everyone escapes the ship alive.
This plot point helps the game to really ratchet up the already tangible sense of dread. The mood is also aided by the drawn-out descriptions of the unfortunate victims you find in the game. You don’t see their dishevelled bodies at all, and this understated tactic works superbly.
Factor in the bubbling distrust amongst your fellow captives and the fact you’re up against the clock to escape and you have a tense horror/thriller setup that is as compulsive and gripping as they come.
Putting the pieces together
You thankfully don’t just sit through dialogue for the entire game. At least one puzzle waits to be solved behind every numbered door you dare to step through.
These aren’t brief distractions, either, but large, self-contained areas, which you’re free to roam and investigate, uncovering items and combining them with the environment to escape.
You’re rarely confused about what to do – items are largely used in a highly logical and straightforward way, and your companions are constantly giving you hints. Professor Layton this is not.
The tempo of the game does noticeably slow down when you enter these sections (there’s no time limit in which to solve them), but the main frustration comes about through the slightly awkward touchscreen navigation.
In most cases you’ll just be eager to solve the puzzles as quickly as possible and get back to pushing the story along.
It is possible, however, that on your first play-through you may end up feeling a little underwhelmed by the plot.
Only managing to catch glimpses of understanding to the multi-stranded storyline, you can end up feeling frustrated and uninformed rather than engaged. Especially as you’re more than likely to arrive at a bad ending.
Repeat play-throughs are a must in order to understand each character's place in the plot, and this facet of the game will ultimately attract as many people as it will repel. It’s a necessary evil, but for those not fully engaged with the plot the inevitable repetition may be too much to bear.
The ability to skip through dialogue you’ve already read, as well as having options you’ve already taken greyed-out, do help to minimise annoyance. Sadly, you’ll be forced to repeat the puzzle sections, but once you know their solutions they can be swept through fairly quickly.
Not heading for European shores?
It’s a real shame, then, that a UK release doesn’t seem to be on the cards. Considering the effort that has been put into translating the games’s labyrinthine plot-line from the Japanese release, it seems a real waste.
Importing is highly recommended for UK adventure nuts, especially those who enjoyed games such as Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney, Ghost Trick, and Hotel Dusk: Room 215. Do bear in mind that this is a much darker tale than any of those, however – labelled with a ‘Mature/17+’ rating in the US, it definitely isn’t for kids.
Despite its sometimes fiddly controls and low-rent presentation, 9 Hours, 9 Persons, 9 Doors is a real breath of fresh air. With its twisting plot and engaging characters it proves that you don’t need overly complex gameplay or flashy gimmicks in order to be a success.