Seek A Way Out: 9 Hours 9 Persons 9 Doors

It's the morning after my escape from death onboard the Gigantic. I'm tired, confused, but--more than anything--I'm blown away.

9 Hours 9 Persons 9 Doors is a game with two parts visual novel, one part suspense, and one part horror. The game places you in the role of Junpei, a college student who finds himself onboard a ship in a locked room.

Oh, and he's going to drown thanks to the water flowing through the busted window if he doesn't get out soon.

Junpei is one of nine people onboard a ship that is set to sink into the ocean in nine hours. Their kidnapper, a person in a gas mask identified only as Zero, tells them that they must find a door with a "9" on it to escape. But things go awry quickly. A group of people in danger of death will not remain calm. Some will blatantly refuse to go along with the kidnapper says. Others will insist on doing as told in order to reach freedom. Some are old, some are young, some are brutish, some are demure. Among these clash of personalities is Junpei. You decide which doors he goes through, as well as the actions he makes and the things he says. The smallest of things given to you, as well as the strangest conversations, are all important in the end. You won't know which doors will lead you to safety and you won't know which characters are controlling everything. If you don't play by the rules, your body's not going to remain in one piece.

 Talk about a strange cast of characters.

Think of this game as the choose your adventure books from elementary school, but there's gore, tragedy, telepathy, and conspiracies. 999 has six possible endings, three of them leading to your brutal murder. One abruptly ends because you didn't gather the necessary information to continue and another ends in tragedy and confusion. That particular ending gives you a lot of necessary information for the final "true" ending, but don't write off the other endings--they also help fill in the blanks of the story, as well as give answers to "What if I hadn't had that conversation with her?" "What if I hadn't accepted that from him?" And because of those six endings, this game has obvious replay value. The story doesn't make sense if you don't listen to all of the conversations with different characters. Granted, hearing the same things over and over gets old quickly, so the developers allow you to speed through dialogue you've already encountered and it automatically stops as soon as you come across new dialogue. (Unfortunately, you will have to redo puzzles several times, so keep a pencil and paper with you. You'll be able to memorize some of the puzzles after one or two times.)

999 is all about solving puzzles in life or death situations, putting forth the idea that your true potential emerges when you are in a true emergency. Some of the puzzles are difficult and close to impossible for those of us who weren't blessed with logical reasoning and mathematical skills. For some things, you just need to explore the environment and keep clicking on the screen until you find something. But other puzzles require you to input a series of numbers from clues. This game is obsessed with digital roots and base-10, so you'd best listen when they explain concepts you never came across in algebra class. If you're like me, you won't be able to solve some of the puzzles, much less figure out how to flush the toilets through one of the doors. Do your best to solve them on your own, but don't feel too defeated if you have to look up answers. After all, we're not the ones with our lives on the line.
Don't even joke about that, Snake.
Though, this game does make you feel like you're on the ship with them, especially when playing at night with the lights off and the headphones in. The music sets the mood and changes with the atmosphere of the situation. At times it will suddenly crescendo and at other times it will disappear completely. You can see the change in characters and after a playthrough or two, you can predict what's going to happen next--or who's going to kill you next. Because you are directly interacting with the environment through Junpei's eyes, it's almost as if you were there in his place. There's a great deal of suspension of belief the game can put you through. Add some mystery in there, and it's already more convincing than most horror movies. You try going to sleep right after dying. The flash of red on the screen and the sudden sound of a knife piercing flesh won't leave your mind.

 (I did mention that this game is rated M, right?)

My only real complaint with this game is the idea of the group having 9 hours. While they're chaotic at first and just talk for a while, you can understand why they can't figure out what to do at first. But by the time they only have 1 hour left, characters go off on long-winded stories instead of worrying about their time limit. If I were Junpei, I would have punched them all in the face and then forced them to help me solve puzzles instead of telling me their life stories. These are all important things to the overall plot, but I would have liked to see a greater sense of urgency in the characters' attitudes.

Um...don't you think we should be a little more concerned with living long enough to hear Elvis's songs again?

 This game is largely text-based. It reads like a novel--vivid imagery accompanying the stills on the top screen of the DS, and you see Junpei's innermost thoughts and feelings. Some of it is hard to read, but you can't simply stop. So you continue reading about the chunks of flesh that were once a body just 81 seconds ago. If you don't like reading and thinking, don't get this game. And if you don't like excellent point and click games (such as the Ace Attorney games, Professor Layton, Trace Memory, or Time Hollow), don't bother. But if you love chilling, tragic stories that make sense by the time you finish, you won't want to put this game down.

Take my word for it. Seek a door with a 9.

A Lesson in Macro-Management

(My apologies for the late post. Anime Boston had me very busy and then I had the delight of finals right after that and then moving back home.)

About a year ago I walked into Gamestop and started browsing. I have a natural bias for RPGs and anime-style graphics, so I tend to take those games off of the shelf to get a closer look. I found Atelier Annie for the Nintendo DS during this trip and--on a whim--I bought it. I had never heard of the Atelier games before and wasn't even sure what kind of alchemy I would be doing (Fullmetal Alchemist changed my perspective on alchemy).

And then fast forward a year to the present when my finals are over. I'm bored in my dorm room with most of my things packed and most of my games finished. I pulled out Atelier Annie and decided I'd give it a chance.

Annie is the lazy granddaughter of a skilled and famous alchemist. One night when her grandfather is sick of her shenanigans, he ships her off--in her sleep--to a remote island to learn alchemy from a fairy. Before long, she finds herself a contestant in a alchemy contest that will span three years. She has no interest until the king mentions that whoever wins the contest will marry his son or daughter. Cue Annie's love for handsome boys and an even greater love for rich, handsome boys. With her new motivation, she sets out to become the greatest alchemist of Sera Island.

 Ladies and gentleman, our protagonist.

This game may span three years of Annie's life, but time passes quickly. It unfortunately does not take very long to finish, but the quick passing of days keeps you on your toes as you have several deadlines to meet. Your ultimate goal in addition to creating items for the competition is to create a fabulous resort for the island, including building and improving attractions such as a park, bakery, or beach. You also have your own shop's reputation to keep in mind. By taking on requests and jobs, you increase your alchemy skill and can improve your fame.

Fighting is also a feature in Atelier Annie. Two more people can join your party to protect you from monsters as you go out to places to gather materials for synthesis. The fighting is simple and straightforward, but could use a few tweaks to make it more challenging.

You'll also be fighting monsters that resemble a colorful Japanese dessert.

This game is more about management than leveling up and fighting monsters--and that's a good thing. You can blindly pick up a game from the shelf and chances are that you'll be spending a great amount of time focusing on fighting. And then several other games that stray away from fighting monsters are either childish or have a different aim entirely (Animal Crossing, Nintendogs, puzzle games, etc.). Atelier Annie challenges you to multi-task: collecting materials for several tasks at once, planning your travels so that you don't waste time, knowing which requests to ignore and which ones to take. Everything you do is an element of both time and money, both of which do not grow on trees.

The dialogue is all in the original Japanese, but it was translated for the localization. You meet several characters who just make Annie's life more frustrating, but they're definitely...characters. Love them or hate them, they make Atelier Annie funny. Sometimes their dialogue becomes pointless and only made me forget what I was about to do, but you can skip the unnecessary parts by pressing the Y button.

Atelier Annie isn't a fantastic game, but it's better than you would expect. If you like games that force you to think--and if you're into economics and management--you should give it or the other Atelier games a try.

The Freshness of Pokemon Black and White

It looks just like all the others--a choice of a starter Fire, Water, or Grass-type Pokemon. A team of bad guys. Rivals. The same 8 gym structure. Similar Pokemon with different names lying in the grass.

But that little comparison does not give the game the justice it deserves. It's true Pokemon seems to have a very distinct formula that never changes in any generation, but if this fifth generation has to have one thing working in its favor, it's the plot.

Remember when we all joked about the rampant animal abuse in Pokemon?

Well, these moral issues of enslaving animals to make them fight each other have finally been addressed--by the "evil" guys of Black and White. They are Team Plasma and they're a fresh change from the evildoers like Team Rocket, Team Magma/Aqua, and Team Galactic. While Plasma does steal Pokemon, they're instead a radical group crusading for Pokemon's rights. They believe that only by releasing Pokemon and separating from their trainers, the Pokemon will be free. The leader of this organization, known only as N, blocks your path with philosophy.

He ain't too bad on the eyes, either.

You have to step back and really consider whether you're treating your Pokemon right. Do they deserve to be trapped only for us to use when we choose? Or do trainers bond with their Pokemon? Will a separation actually change anything? Every trainer has to consider why they have Pokemon and even N falters. He's a welcome addition to the Pokemon universe because he is actually interesting and has layers unlike most Pokemon characters.

Your rivals unfortunately are not as developed. Cheren runs after you only to fight. Winning is an evaluation of his self-worth and because you keep beating him--if you want to move on, that is--he spouts out angsty teenage crap. (And not the attractive kind that we enjoy in anime and games--just the annoying kind.) He might as well fall to his knees and curse himself for ever being born. He is that upset after each battle. He changes that attitude by the end, but it happens off screen. From one scene he's angsty over his loss and the next he's vowed to capture Team Plasma and help you.

Bianca has the potential to be a strong female character, but falls short. She admits that she's not very good at Pokemon battles, realizing that she can instead help Pokemon in her own way. Unfortunately, she ends up needing your help most of the time. She's essentially a dumb blonde and I only forgive Nintendo for this because they gave us such a cool-looking female main character.

She's bringing '80s hair back.

This game, while seeming quick to me after finishing it in a week, had a harder difficulty. I found myself actually stocking up on potions and needing to use strategy. Your opponents have some level of intelligence; they make informed decisions. If you send out an electric type against whatever Pokemon they have, if it knows a ground move, they will use it. And you will curse under your breath. Not every battle is difficult, but the ones that matter are.

Gracing the Pokemon stage are also new battles. Triple battles are just like double battles except the Pokemon on the far left cannot hit the one of the far right and vice versa. Unfortunately, there are few occurrences of this in the game. There are also rotation battles, which are also three-on-three. Instead, one Pokemon at a time fight and you're able to rotate one of the other two in at any time to fight. Unfortunately, these battles don't seem much different from regular battles.

If I had to take one thing out of Pokemon Black/White, I'd rip out the musicals. As a girl who loves a good song and beautiful people singing it, the idea of Pokemon on a stage dancing around and singing sounded fantastic. I wondered how Pokemon moves would be incorporated into it, just like the contests. However, the musicals are a useless gimmick. There's no competition involved, no rankings, and no singing. One of your Pokemon dances on a stage with props that you have and you're able to use those props to appeal to the audience. When the show ends, that's it. You receive a few compliments from the audience and the occasional prop to keep for future musicals.

And then you run far away and tell yourself that you'll never do that again.

The musicals had wasted potential. Had they had some form of competition like the contests from the earlier games, I'd still be running to Nimbasa city to make my Pokemon dance around in funny outfits.

Overall, Pokemon Black/White is fresh material. While some things still need to be improved, this generation brought us the first story in fifteen years that made me think. Pokemon is about engaging the audience and letting them choose how they want to play, whether it be to fight and be the best or to catch 'em all, and for the first time we had to consider ethics in a fictional world.

Maybe next time we'll see Officer Jenny arresting trainers for dog fights.