Being a massive fan of Spike Chunsoft’s Danganronpa series (which you can tell by reading my review of Danganronpa 1.2 Reload), one would assume I would also be a fan of the developer’s other, very similar visual novel series, Zero Escape. Truth is, the Zero Escape series has always been on my list but never really been a priority. This is because the first entry in the series, 999: 9 Hours, 9 Persons, 9 Doors, has never seen a European release, making the entire series nearly impossible to play (at least legally) outside of the U.S. and Japan without paying more than I was personally willing to pay to have it imported. Despite this, its sequels, Virtue’s Last Reward and Zero Time Dilemma, still managed to make their way over here. Thankfully, Zero Escape: The Nonary Games is here to bring the first two entries to the PlayStation 4 and PC, while also bringing 999 to the PS Vita for the first time. After finally getting my hands on 999: 9 Hours, 9 Persons, 9 Doors and Virtue’s Last Reward, was the wait to enter the Zero Escape series a worthwhile one? In short, yes.
999: 9 Hours, 9 Persons, 9 Doors opens with its protagonist, Junpei, awakening in a large cruise ship, isolated upon the ocean. He notices he is wearing a watch that he cannot remove with the number ‘5’ on it, and this is shortly before the room he is in is almost flooded and he is forced to make a quick escape. After doing so, he meets with 8 other people and learns that he has been kidnapped by a mysterious person named Zero, who has forced him and the others to participate in a Nonary Game. The Nonary Games include a group of 9 participants being stranded on a sinking ship with 9 hours until it sinks, and the only way to escape is to travel through numbered doors until they reach door number 9. To progress, each of the participants, all of which are wearing a watch with a designated number on it, must enter all the numbered doors by finding the digital root of the number on each door. Only 3-4 people can enter a door at once after scanning their watch on a sensor, and once entered, each participant must scan their watch once more to deactivate a bomb in their stomach. Virtue’s Last Reward follows a rather similar story that to avoid spoiling pieces of 999‘s story, I’ll keep vague. Basically, there are new characters, a new setting, and Zero is a CGI rabbit now called Zero III. Quite a change from the gas mask wearing figure of the first game.
999 and Virtue’s Last Reward offer incredibly tense stories with some pretty interesting characters. The cast aren’t as individually captivating as Spike Chunsoft’s Danganronpa series, but as a group of mysterious characters that we learn more about throughout the games, they serve well to keep the player hooked the entire time. Zero Escape‘s characters are very well written when compared to Danganronpa‘s though, because the game takes itself a lot more seriously. While the writing does have moments of quirkiness, these are nothing more than small moments, as the characters show little to no trust in one-another, which not only makes the mood more tense, but also more compelling. Couple this with the fact that the choices made within the game, be it deciding which numbered door to enter or which dialogue options to choose, can result in the player receiving one of many endings throughout both games. You need to constantly be thinking ahead during both games. That said, the writing falls short by being a bit too overly complex sometimes, which could be a result of their localisations. The way the rules of the Nonary Games are explained can sometimes be very incoherent, which can leave the player feeling confused when they’re to take the rules into account in later sequences.
The main gameplay for both games comes in the form of escape rooms, as the player must frantically observe their surroundings and scan through the environments to find a way out, obtaining items as they go. These items can then be used with certain items in the room or combined in order to progress. 999, coming from a DS game, has a more limited view of the rooms than Virtue’s Last Reward, being more similar to the investigations of Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney by having single screens that have multiple camera angles, making a pseudo-3D environment. Virtue’s Last Reward instead goes all out by having full 3D environments to investigate, creating a more seamless experience. The player will find that most of their time in the game won’t actually be spent in these escape room scenarios though, as these games are proud visual novels. The main focus of the games are their stories, so of course, the player will be reading a lot of text boxes (thankfully, most of the dialogue is voice acted in both games). 999 introduces Adventure and Novel modes for its dialogue sequences in The Nonary Games. The Adventure mode portrays the game as a common visual novel game, just showing the dialogue, character portraits and imagery, while the Novel mode is more akin to the original version, showing text overlaying the character portraits and imagery that is both consistent of dialogue and a third-person narrative, as if it was an actual novel. One would imagine that for the sake of context the Novel mode would be the best way to play the game, but I actually found the Adventure mode preferable. The pacing can already be quite sluggish, so using the Novel mode only made it more so for me personally, but I was quite surprised at how well the game converted to a standard visual novel.
Both games have been fully remastered for PS4 and PC, but in the PlayStation Vita’s case, the only game that has been remastered is 999, as Virtue’s Last Reward was already released on the Vita, so it remains exactly the same. That said, the only upgrades on PS4 and PC to Virtue’s Last Reward are bumps to 1080p resolution and 60 frames-per-second frame-rate. 999‘s remaster is vast though, as this is the first time the game has been released on a system other than the DS, meaning a lot of changes have bee made. The game originally used pixel art for its character portraits, and while they remain mostly intact, they have been cleaned up and polished to make them look more distinguishable as anime character designs. Everything in the game gets a bump to 1080p, including the very limited 3D models found in the original game, which definitely don’t take the transition all that well. Overall though, I would say that this is the best way to experience 999, unless you must have the pixel art of the DS version.
Zero Escape: The Nonary Games opens up this thriller visual novel series to an incredibly wider audience in bringing the first two entries to the PlayStation 4, PlayStation Vita and PC. With suspense-filled storytelling and escape room puzzle gameplay, these are two games definitely worth a try now. The additions to 999: 9 Hours, 9 Persons, 9 Doors are great, making the game more of a seamless visual novel, which was done by optimising it for newer hardware while also introducing voice acting, though Virtue’s Last Reward‘s changes are underwhelming by comparison. Both games also frequently run into some pacing issues and aren’t the best at explaining their plot devices, but they easily make up for it in their intriguing characters and gripping stories. If you’re a fan of visual novel games and you want a new series to sink your teeth into, look no further than Zero Escape: The Nonary Games.
Developer: Spike Chunsoft
Publisher: Aksys Games, Spike Chunsoft
Platforms: PS4, PSVita, PC
Release Date: 24th March 2017