A visual-novel screenshot showing two anime-style characters, a young man and a young woman, standing in a walk-in freezer. The man is hugging himself against the cold. The woman looks pensive. A text box under them, labeled 'June', says: 'Have you heard the story about the crystallization of glycerin?'
Oh, you haven’t? Well, clear your schedule for the next half-hour, coz things are gonna get crystallized.

Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors began life as a Nintendo DS cartridge in the late aughts, but I played it only a couple of months ago on Playstation 4 as part of the downloadable collection titled The Nonary Games. If I understand correctly, this more recent edition adds full voice acting (in both Japanese and English) and several player-friendly interface improvements, responding to critiques on the original version. In both editions, Nine Hours presents a Japanese-style visual novel in the puzzle-horror sub-genre epitomized by movies like Cube. Notably, it mixes in frequent room-escape sequences, at a pace and style reminiscent of how song breaks appear in staged musicals. The braided puzzle-and-narrative paths, in sum, tell a completely bonkers fantasy-horror story drawing heavily from early-to-mid 20th century pseudoscience topics pulled straight from Mysteries of the Unknown. I loved it.

I found the writing such a refreshing surprise, along several axes. The characters, while a rather trope-heavy anime menagerie on the surface, are so delightfully written and voice-acted — particularly the player-character, Junpei, with English-language speech provided by Evan Smith. I liked the funny and lightly self-deprecating Junpei even before the prologue had ended, when he has nobody to talk to other than himself, and he remains likable once he does meet and start interacting with the eight other characters. Junpei seems like exactly the sort of chap you’d want by your side while picking through a mad supervillain’s death-maze, and I felt lucky to get paired up with him. (And I know I am not alone in this, finding a Junpei Twitter bot as soon as I thought to look.)

Once the game got going, the interpersonal chemistry of whole, messy ensemble really worked for me. I did have initial reservations when one character dies gorily only minutes after the prologue, as a demonstration of the dramatic stakes. But as the sole irredeemably selfish jerk in the group, once he definitively removes himself the remaining characters bind together to compose a perfectly charming story within its otherwise unsettling genre. On the best-ending track, not only do none of Junpei’s companions die, but everyone’s developed a genuine friendship with one another — even the inevitable traitor(s) — by the time that they literally ride together into the sunset. The subtly humor-driven group dynamics in the face of horrifying circumstances reminded me of Joss Whedon’s best work.

A couple of the characters do take a little more effort to enjoy, particularly the painfully unsubtle virgin/whore dichotomy offered by the women named June and Lotus, respectively. June, the love interest, adheres to an anime-style naive-little-girl-in-an-adult-body archetype. If Junpei’s everpresent likability prevents conversations with her from sounding outright creepy, they still elicit more than a little eyerolling. (This includes the game’s most wince-inducing scene: a long, long conversation where June describes a waterlogged elevator in such a roundabout way that whoops ha ha it sounds a bit naughty! And it might have been at least kinda funny were it contained in merely four lines, rather than forty-four.) The far more mature Lotus, meanwhile, provides the inevitable fan service, spending the whole game nearly naked from the hips up — but she is so well written and acted, including just the right amount of lampshading in her dialogue about how she has the right to dress however she damn well pleases, that I feel a little self-conscious about calling her out about it!

The room-escape sequences managed to surprise me repeatedly, not so much with the quality of their (all rather arbitrary) puzzles but with their very smooth flow, assisted by the shifting sub-groups of characters that accompany Junpei as he explores the deadly ship. In particular, if you examine some object repeatedly, Junpei’s companions will start piping up with their own observations. If the object at hand plays a role in a puzzle, then these will serve as hints, initially oblique (“Huh, those holes are weird”), but growing more explicit if you keep hitting the “examine” button (“Hey, Junpei, I bet you could fit those pegs you picked up earlier into it!”). If the object lacks puzzle-nature, then you’ll instead receive dialogue that either brings a little extra character development, or at the very least acknowledges your flailing with some amusing banter. In all cases, this felt great, building the illusion that this varying group of characters really did work together to solve the puzzles, even though Junpei and I remained the only ones actually hitting the buttons.

I know enough about making adventure-game sausage to realize how much creative effort this must have involved, both by the game’s original designers and its later localization team, and I marvel at the payoff. I never once felt stuck, nor did I feel like I was “buying hints”, or switching to a separate easy-mode, or anything like that. For an overblown visual novel, Nine Hours manages to quietly demonstrate a master-class in adaptive game difficulty that feels completely natural.

(My thinking back on the puzzles also reminds me of the game’s glorious and completely unexpected nod to a specific scene from the original Crowther and Woods Adventure, as a way of signaling — whether or not you catch the specific reference — your approach towards the endgame. Gosh, that was good.)

The game’s love for moon-eyed twentieth-century legends of “unexplained phenomena”, epitomized to my American generation by the Mysteries of the Unknown book series (and its ubiquitous TV ads), will forever seal its story in my memory. At least as often as the click-to-advance visual novel flips into room-escape mode, one character or another will set aside their being trapped on a sinking and hazard-laden cruise liner to engage with Junpei in a deep and learnéd dialogue about some unusual scientific experiment. All these stories, as far as I can tell, come from real life — I remembered at least a couple of them, from my hungry teenaged reading — and exist among the accounts that proponents of supernatural phenomena hold up as proof of telepathy, or crystal intelligence, or what have you. Every character in Nine Hours is totally into this stuff, to the point that the game occasionally illustrates their pseudoscientific discourses with original, animated illustration.

These deep dives — and the different characters’ obsession with the topic — do manage to connect to the plot, as much as they seem like madcap non-sequitur at first. So, unexpectedly, the Nonary Games edition of Nine Hours presented me with an utterly delightful and excellently voice-acted filmstrip series that invited me to re-visit the pseudoscientific weird tales I luxuriated in as a kid. I experienced a welcome echo of these stories’ fun and seemingly depthless intrigue, even as my weary grown-up eyes force me to see the logical fissures that shoot through them, separating them from real science. Of course, that latter quality is just a side-effect of my age and experience; the world of Nine Hours accepts all these stories with an eager 12-year-old’s credulousness, and its wholly charming presentation allowed me to play along with its celebratory embrace through every last narrative branch.

Because it came in the same Nonary Games collection, I started playing the followup game called Virtue’s Last Reward. So far, alas, I have found it disappointingly bland. It seems devoid of Nine Hours’ myriad little rewards for thorough exploration, and all the characters — including the player-character — feel rather flat. (At least one character makes frequent real-world popular-culture references, quoting Captain Planet and such, which makes me think sourly of how one of the Katamari Damacy sequels would reference Seinfeld; in both cases, divorcing themselves a bit from their original games’ world-unto-themselves charm.) But never mind that; I enjoyed Nine Hours so much that I would generally recommend it, however one might find it packaged.

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