Friday, May 6, 2011

What I'm Playing: 9 Hours 9 Persons 9 Doors

I am currently playing three puzzle games on the Nintendo DS. They are all different, but playing them together helps clarify what works — and what doesn't work — in each.

The first game I started was 9 Hours 9 Persons 9 Doors (affectionately referred to as 999). This is a puzzle/story game, where to progress through the story you need to solve puzzles. It is a pretty well-established genre, similar in nature to the Nancy Drew games, Professor Layton, Myst, etc.

999 is what might be described as a survival-horror puzzler, because the story involves your character, Junpei, being kidnapped and trapped on a sinking ship with eight other people. They must work together to escape before time runs out (the eponymous 9 hours).

Let me just say I expected to like this game. It sounded unusual and got quite good reviews for both its puzzles and its ambiance. But I was seriously disappointed.

The puzzles are fine. In fact, the game starts off well with a locked room puzzle of moderate difficulty. No wasting half an hour on simplistic "training" levels. Unfortunately, the game takes a turn for the worst, in several respects, when story elements are introduced.

For a story-driven puzzler, the story line is grisly and unnecessarily so. Death and mutilation is intended to give you as the player a sense of suspense and tension. But since you have so little control over the action of the game (except tapping the screen to advance the story) the gruesome events are only uncomfortable.

And the discomfort is extenuated by the unrealistic story line. You are trapped with eight other people who look like they just came from a circus (literally) or a Village People tribute concert. Each a unique and comically stereotyped representation of.... something. A belly dancer, a heavy-set laborer, an effete aristocrat... you get the idea.

To make matters worse, the story is presented in a crude 2D pantomime. Static images, with flat images of the cartoony cast (literally, drawn as cartoons) floating in and out of view like shadow puppets. This is suspense? Even viewed as a retro "edgy" presentation style, the clumsy graphics become tedious.

Worse yet, the awkwardness of the presentation carries over to the game play. At one point, you are required to turn a ship's wheel. A relatively simple puzzle device, given you are shifted to a direct front view. And with touch control, you would think it a simple thing to allow the user to touch and drag the wheel to turn it, no?

No. The UI puts up arrows pointing left and right above the wheel which you are forced to click on to make the wheel turn. They almost had to go out of their way to make the interaction so... unnatural.

And finally, the game fails at its own goal of making you feel like it is something more than just a handful of meaningless puzzles. For all of the portents, unnecessary curse words, and grisliness, the game is constantly forcing you to respond to relatively meaningless or obtuse statements and suggestions from the other members of the party. But when it matters, when something is seriously wrong and you — even if you believed the story and wanted to "play" — you are given no control except clicking and clicking and clicking while line after line of text inches past until your bizarrely frozen in place persona is killed...

Yes, I played all the way through to one of the "bad" endings. I was then given the option of replaying the game, with the advantage that I could jump through text and scenes I was already familiar with. No thank you. Once was more than enough.

[To be continued....]

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