What with Zero Escape: Virtue’s Last Reward being my favourite game and wanting to share something I love, it has always been a bit tricky coaxing people to give the series a try. Not only due to the problem that not everyone wants to pick up a handheld console, but the original 999 title is on DS only (if you exclude the iOS one that gutted the puzzles and carelessly stuffed into the empty crevice a pretty bad new ending). This is a problem that is made worse as Virtue’s Last Reward does somewhat follow on from 999. So it is exciting to see Zero Escape: The Nonary Games not only bring 999 to the Vita, but also bring both 999 and Virtue’s Last Reward to PS4 and PC. Hopefully, the release will give people with a love for carefully crafted narratives a chance to visit an absolute gem.
Zero Escape: The Nonary Games is a two-game collection of 999: Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors and its sequel Zero Escape: Virtue’s Last Reward. Both titles, developed by Spike Chunsoft, are visual novels with puzzle rooms tasking you to escape by finding the key.
These escape room puzzles will often come in the form of logic puzzles, mathematical manipulation or general problem solving, sometimes even including mini-games like sliding block puzzles. Although even at their most challenging, Zero Escape: The Nonary Games avoids the hideous problem a lot of puzzle-based titles can fall into: Absurdist solutions. What? You thought I forgot about Broken Age‘s knot puzzle? Even at their most nonsense, it fortunately still feels like a conundrum you can solve if you think about it or, just, trial-n-error it. This is especially as often characters will throw you hints of how to solve the particular puzzle through examination or via multiple attempts. You never end up trapped in a moment of trying to decipher what manic solution the puzzle designer wrote down while high off two days of sleep deprivation. Instead, the puzzles have a nice gradual difficulty increase with an enjoyable amount of variation and solutions that make sense.
Although speaking of puzzles, we need to talk about 999‘s final puzzle. No no no, I wouldn’t spoil it. Just, well, let’s just say it had a notorious reputation due to its anti-climatic nature layered upon a narrative moment that relied on duel screens. The good news? They’ve changed it and factored in how PS4/Vita/PC have single screens into the narrative reveal! Huzzah! It now even somewhat addresses the awkward “final door twist” that felt oh so empty when I experienced it the first time around on DS, dressing it up a palatable form.
That said, those looking to be tripped up will find themselves wanting. Even at the best of times, hand me a puzzle book and I’ll be quickly checking the back with furrowed brows. Considering this puzzle was the only one without a walkthrough when I got to it, I did expect to have to ping the developers an e-mail along the lines of “I don’t have two brain-cells to rub together, and I need an adult to help solve this puzzle”. Oddly, though, I solved it quick without much of a struggle. So those who are more intellectually gifted than knuckle-dragging me may still find it passes by without a befuddling-induced bead of sweat.
So, is the final puzzle better than before? Definitely, without a shadow of a doubt, but honestly I don’t think it would have required much to do so. It also now has a bit of a low-difficulty problem.
Oh, speaking of 999, there’s been some other changes afoot.
Considering Zero Escape: The Nonary Games gives access to wonderful 1920×1080 resolution, the aesthetic was going to need a bit of a spruce up. That said, the character art seems to have changed from the gorgeous semi-pixel art from before to something that looks more drawn. While this would have been an acceptable step-down, trading aesthetic appearance for high resolution, some of the art looks odd. Santa is a particularly bad example with regards to his hair and facial expressions. Maybe in a smaller form, those details would been less noticeable, but blown up to 1920×1080 it looks like he’s gained two random black curves in his hair and a single drooping eyelid.
There is also art that went unaltered. While most parts of puzzle rooms are glorious redrawn 1920×1080 images, on a somewhat regular basis I kept coming across items that were blurry. Fortunately, I don’t recall any images where I had to get another character to read for me due to the blur, but it just looked strange considering everything else was transferred to the higher resolution setting. Virtue’s Last Reward‘s aesthetic has made the transition to 1920×1080 resolution perfectly, although retaining what are somewhat ugly 3D models and animations from the original release.
Then there’s the added voice acting. Both Virtue’s Last Reward and 999 offer both Japanese and English voice acting in the option screen that is sadly only on the main menu. “But… 999 didn’t have voice acting, assuming you’re seriously not counting the chirping of text spilling onto the screen”. That is true. So it was surprising to see they’ve introduced it.
Overall, it is simply inoffensive. While I tried both Japanese and English options, partially as someone who preferred the Japanese voice acting of Virtue’s Last Reward to the English dub, only English presented some enjoyable voice delivery in 999. Evan Smith and Rena Strober return as Junpei and Akane (previously voicing the roles in the third entry of the series, Zero Time Dilemma), providing great performances that humanizes, brings depth and has a clear vocal range depending on the scene. In comparison, the other voice actors are just “there”. They provide a delivery that functions (besides the occasional “who said that?” as sometimes two voice actors can sound alike, e.g. Snake’s and Santa’s) but never seems to go beyond it and is often out-shined by Smith and Strober.
There is also one more change, and it’s one I’ve been dying to get to. 999 has always been frustrating in terms of endings, due to how you’d have to play “guess the path” to get each one, and then have to either reload saves or play from beginning again to get a new ending. This is a standard problem in visual novels sadly, made worse that one ending will cut you off if you didn’t hit all the qualifiers including completing another specific ending. That said, it is an issue Virtue’s Last Reward fixed with a flow-chart system allowing you to jump to any scene you’ve already done while also seeing roughly how the choices you make branches out while keeping secret what it branches to. Even as you’ll hit locks in the plot, kicking you out if your character has come across a mystery solved in another timeline, you can then just jump back into the point you got kicked out on when you’ve found the necessary information.
Fortunately, 999 has ushered in a new flow chart system akin to Virtue’s Last Reward, where each choice of rooms leads you down a path to particular endings. “Whoah whoah whoah, wait”, some savvy folks may be saying, “999 required you to make particular choices in particular places to get the True ending”. 999 has your back still! You can jump to each individual choice that determines getting that ending, as well as symbols indicating where you need to do it if you play through while over-looking something.
While it does create a small dab of ludo narrative dissonance that some of the more hardcore audience may be raising an eyebrow at, the new flow chart system is both easy to use and solves perhaps one of the most frustrating things about visual novels as a whole. It also fortunately, allows you to know which choices affect your ending (which in Virtue’s Last Reward is every room and AB game choice, leading to its diverse large collection of endings).
That said, Zero Escape: The Nonary Games should be most measured by its narrative capabilities. After all, a visual novel makes or breaks based on it. Both plots revolve around being kidnapped and trapped in a place, where you must solve puzzles to find a way out while discovering why you’ve been made to play a game.
Sadly, this is where reviewing Zero Escape: The Nonary Games is incredibly hard. The strength lies in all the layers you must peel back with white-knuckled hands, digging your nails desperately in to do. There are many mysteries you must unravel in both games. Why are you there? Why are you trapped with the people you are with? What is the purpose of the game? What is even this place? WHO THE HELL IS ZERO?!
Fortunately, rather than bursting suddenly out the cake with all the answers once you hit the true ending, both 999 and Virtue’s Last Reward slowly unveils the logic underpinning the bizarre and dark situation you find yourself in. As you make choices of where to go and what to do, different information is offered of different uses. In Virtue’s Last Reward‘s case especially, you’ll need to leap to different histories with the knowledge you have. While usually, the game will automatically transfer the knowledge over, indicating on the flowchart you can progress deeper down a path where it was once locked off, occasionally they’ll ask you to jot something down for later. Something that while sounds like a hassle, is often so telegraphed if you need to jot something down or not as to not be a mind-numbing inconvenience, and even if you do miss something you can just revisit the ending it appeared in at a moment’s notice while skipping over read dialogue.
Bit by bit, as you dig deeper into the 6 endings (well, 5 excluding Coffin) in 999 and 9 endings in Virtue’s Last Reward (excluding the 11 “Game Over” endings you’ll need to get to visit some sweet post-story scenes), you’ll begin to see signs of the peculiar bleak truth hiding in the background. I admit that the first time I played Virtue’s Last Reward so many years ago I was flabbergasted how each twist was somehow simultaneously as nutty as peanut butter and yet was subtly hinted on previously. Even days after a twist I would burst out in the kitchen phrases like “OH GOD, THAT’S WHY X HAPPENED, BECAUSE Y DID Z IN THAT TIMELINE!”.
So you see how frustrating reviewing the plot is? I absolutely adore Virtue’s Last Reward‘s narrative. I fell in love with its twist-laden nature many years ago and still grin when playing it today. This is especially how it follows the spirit of Knox’s Ten Commandments, making all the twists solvable and able to be predicted before it happens while not being so forceful with evidence as to be guessed from miles away. The clues are often so sneaky that you’ll be laughing at how you overlooked it, but not so obscure as to feel unfair.
That said, I can comment that 999‘s hints and even general writing are often sadly forceful, convenient and coincidental. A particular conversation in a laboratory that luckily becomes handy shortly after springs to mind. While the mystery is still enjoyable, it is personally pale next to Virtue’s Last Reward.
I can also say the characterisation across both visual novels in Zero Escape: The Nonary Games is fantastic, each character having a purpose to the story they’re within. While there are stronger and weaker characters, they are all (fortunately) relevant enough and have enough substance as to not feel like filler. Even the main protagonists have their own personalities, ones that have substance without polarizing.
That said, there is one writing flaw that both titles in the Zero Escape: The Nonary Games collection have: Plot holes. Probably due to how absolutely delightfully bonkers the writing gets (while remaining coherent), there are pretty hefty plot holes along the way. These are fortunately not the type you’ll realize in the moment, but rather the sort that creep over your shoulder as you grab a drink in the night. As you stare into your fridge, you’ll mutter “wait a minute…”, unable to ignore a significant part or three. These only become a noticeable presence if you really dig into the narrative, though, twisting and turning it around your mind like chewing gum, so it may not bother you too much.
The final score of Zero Escape: The Nonary Games is a 10 out of 10, with a 10 not necessarily meaning perfection but rather as close as we’re going to get to it. Reviewing Zero Escape: The Nonary Games was always going to be a tricky beast because of one detail I touched upon before: Where it excels the best is in the areas I can’t talk about. I can’t tell you about the glorious twists because it is part of the fun. Fun that I admit I still have replaying it for, now, the 4th or 6th time. I can speak of foreshadowing, but I can’t give examples. I can’t even fully explain how the flow-chart lock system works and why it is so excellent at reinforcing the coherent madness within because to do so would again require examples. I also can’t tell you about a significant plothole of Virtue’s Last Reward because it relies on one of the last twists in the game.
What I can tell you is as someone who has a particular thrill for dark narratives in games, Zero Escape: Virtue’s Last Reward is my favorite game due to the writing contained within it. 999 is also an excellent-but-flawed piece. With the changes ushered in with the port, 999 has never been in a better state. Sure it has inoffensively bland voice acting by most of the cast and the aesthetic could have done with a bit more time, the flow-chart and new ending puzzle has greatly improved what once was. Meanwhile, Virtue’s Last Reward remains as a piece of writing excellence showing impressive guile in pulling off twists, agency, and characterisation.
So £29.99 for what is 30 to 50 hours worth of viciously delightful writing strikes me as a bargain. Zero Escape: The Nonary Games is an easy purchase for those who enjoy narratives. Sure it lacks substantial gameplay, the puzzles working the same way a nail on a stick works to jolt viewers awake, but it’s the writing that nails home something bonkers yet makes a horrid dark kind of sense. It is a narrative that also handles twists in a manner that I’d argue is both fantastically done while fair, and yet there are so many twists. So here you go Zero Escape: The Nonary Games, take my first 10 I’ve ever given in my 2 1/2 years of review work. Who knows? Maybe it’ll be another 2 1/2 years or so until the next one.
A Steam Review Key of Zero Escape: The Nonary Games was provided by Spike Chunsoft for the Purpose of this Review.
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