9-nine-:Episode 1 is the first in a series of mystery-romance visual novels and unfortunately it shows. Not only is half the game used to setup the rest, but it does so with some incredibly erratic pacing and inconsistent story quality.
Voiced protagonist. These days, it is customary for a voiced visual novel to release without a voiced protagonist. This is usually done in an attempt to garner further immersion from the player, but as someone that does not care for self-inserting, it usually comes as a disappointment. As such, 9-nine-:Episode 1‘s voiced protagonist was quite the welcome change of pace. The voice acting was not only pretty nice, but even offered the option to toggle it on or off depending on player preference. As such, it accommodates for both crowds and is definitely a feature worth praising.
Language options. I am definitely liking this new trend of VNs including multiple languages. Not only does 9-nine-:Episode 1 allow switching between English, Japanese, and Chinese at any time, but it also allows any of those two to be displayed simultaneously. As someone learning Japanese, this is a tremendous help, as it makes it far easier to see how lines compare across the two languages. This is the second visual novel now that I have seen with this feature and I hope to see it again in future releases.
Free 18+ patch. This VN is actually quite the departure for Sekai Project. Usually, Sekai Project VNs have the all-ages version and the 18+ patch sold separately, so I was glad to see the patch made free here for 9-nine-:Episode 1. Granted, they usually justify the paywall for the patch by lowering the price of the main game, but this poses problems for those that want the full experience and are unable to purchase the patch on its own outside of Steam. Hopefully Sekai Project keeps this up with their future releases, it makes them much more consumer-friendly.
Inconsistent story quality. 9-nine-:Episode 1 has quite the identity crisis. On one hand, it tries to be this supernatural mystery story, but on the other it tries to be your everyday high school romance story. The result is that neither are done well, with the game constantly swapping between its mystery and romance elements. This constant switching did not feel natural and really the entire romance element felt forced and rushed. In fact, I would compare the romance progression to that of The Sims — it was that bad.
It felt like the romance element was there only to serve up some H-scenes in order to sell the game, compromising the quality of the game’s mystery side. I definitely do not mind romance in a visual novel (in fact, it is what I primarily play), but when it is shoehorned in like this, it just feels cheap. Of course, all of this is only made worse by the game’s runtime. It took me just under five hours to 100% the game, which is really short for a visual novel. Given that short runtime, you would think that the story would have a clear focus, but it just does not here.
Erratic pacing. Yet again I am reviewing another visual novel with poor pacing, but this time it is made much worse by the game’s identity crisis. For the first two hours, the story dragged on and was incredibly slow at setting up its major plot points. In a longer visual novel, this would be fine because the pacing could be balanced out later, but when half of the runtime is spent setting up the story, it really does not provide for an engaging read. After the midway point, the pacing just completely dropped the ball, jumping all over the place and being so wildly different from the first half of the story that I was honestly caught off guard. In fact, I was so inspired by the game’s pacing that I tried to draw a graph to represent it in Paint, it looked something like this. I understand that this is just episode 1 in a series of visual novels and was definitely used to setup the world for the rest, but it does not make for a good read on its own.
While I like the idea that 9-nine-:Episode 1 was going for, it unfortunately just does not execute it properly. The majority of the game is used to setup the rest of the series, resulting in a rather boring read on its own. On top of that, the story that is told is done so erratically, with some really poor pacing and inconsistent story quality. On the technical side, the game does fare a bit better, with some nice language options and a voiced protagonist with toggle. However, the story is where the heart of a VN is and 9-nine-:Episode 1 is unfortunately dead on arrival.
You can buy 9-nine-:Episode 1 on Steam here.
I was provided a review copy of the game in order to write this review. Read more about how I do my game reviews here.