Ah, Zero Escape. How do I love thee? Let me count the ways…
Each entry in Kotaro Uchikoshi’s trilogy of visual novel/adventure games has lodged itself in my brain with a whole host of fond memories from the experience. Though ostensibly designed as single player experiences, the twisting narratives and lovable casts of each project made them ideal for my husband and I to bond over during the early stages of our relationship. Thinking about either 999: Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors or Virtue’s Last Reward immediately brings to mind long, late-night play sessions in which our two faces hovered over the tiny 3DS screens, gasping at each bloody twist and laughing at the excellently-localized dialogue.
Now, that’s just my experience, and I’m sure there are plenty of people who have played the games alone. My larger point, though, is that Zero Escape is unforgettable as a franchise because of the memories it generates during your first playthrough of each game — and whether you’re left to debate each twist and turn internally, with a significant other or a group of friends, there’s nothing quite like the first time Uchikoshi takes you on a wild ride with his loopy stories. I say that with some envy for the people who will be setting off on their maiden voyage with Zero Escape: The Nonary Games, which offers the definitive versions of both aforementioned titles. That doesn’t have anything to do with any of the improvements to either game, which are fairly minor, all things considered… it’s just that both of these are so damn good the first time through!
For those who have yet to dip their toes into the magical pool that is Zero Escape, a warning: the vast majority of your time with 999 and VLR is spent reading text and/or listening to voice acting. If you’re not interested in that sort of thing, this almost certainly isn’t going to change your mind. If, on the other hand, you really enjoy being swept up in this sort of interactive novel, prepare yourself for what I personally consider the best series of its kind (Danganronpa and Steins;Gate are a pretty close second and third, for what it’s worth). Both games tell stories that I don’t dare spoil — let’s just say they involve nine apparent strangers captured and forced to play a deadly game. The centerpieces of both stories are the excellent characters and insanely winding plots, with a nice blend of psychological thriller and science fiction elements thrown into the mix.
That’s not to say there’s no gameplay, of course! Some of the most tense and fun parts of both games come in the form of the choices you’re forced to make, and the escape rooms in between each story segment. The former are, in some cases, some of the most nail-biting decisions I’ve ever made in a video game, while the latter are delightful point-and-click puzzles that force you to search a room for clues and objects in order to get out safely. Again, I don’t want to spoil anything, but let’s just say that having so many choices — in VLR in particular — really creates an incentive to play through the game again and again, and trust me when I say it’s not padding.
If you’re a returning player or just curious about the particular improvements of The Nonary Games, they’re pretty simple. The best and most obvious is the addition of voice acting to 999, which was previously text-only in its original DS incarnation and mobile ports. All of the actors perfectly embody the characters they’re playing, and I was particularly happy to see Rena Strober and Evan Smith reprising their roles from Zero Time Dilemma.
Other improvements include a complete UI overhaul for 999, making it basically identical to the one used in VLR. The first game also applies the same sort of story flow chart as VLR, meaning players no longer have to go through the entire game again if they want to achieve all the different endings. Overall, the changes are relatively minor, but they make for a much more enjoyable experience.
For anyone wondering what I think about the stories of these games — specifically, which one I think is better — well, I like different things about both. 999‘s narrative is by far the most cohesive in the series, a few dopey plot holes notwithstanding. That’s not an insult to VLR, but in retrospect, it feels like Uchikoshi may have overdone it a bit with the twists and cliffhangers in the sequel. In addition to being a massively compelling, self-contained story, 999 is just overall more tonally consistent and easy to follow.
On the other hand, the pure length of VLR means you get to spend way more time with the characters, which is a huge boon — and I feel like the twists and humor of the sequel, while sometimes so over-the-top that they’re actually jarring, are way too much of a goofy blast to not enjoy. Suffice it to say, I find it rather hard to choose between these two… but I will say both are stronger than the finale Zero Time Dilemma (a game I have a lot of affection for despite serious flaws).
Players who’ve already experienced all the twists and turns of Kotaro Uchikoshi’s first two Zero Escape games don’t have much reason to dip back into Zero Escape: The Nonary Games other than hearing the added voice acting for their favorite characters from 999 (though to be fair, that was enough for me to play it again). For those who haven’t gotten through this series yet, on the other hand, I can’t think of a visual novel/adventure series that’s more worth their time. I can only say I’m envious that they’ve got all the games’ delightful personalities and surprises ahead of them!
This review is based on the PlayStation 4 version of the game, which we were provided with.
Those who haven't yet experienced either 999 or VLR are in for a real treat. Both games were already excellent in their previous incarnations, but The Nonary Games bundles two definitive editions together in one simple, appealing package.