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Zero Escape series review - Plus piano/ocarina cover


The Zero Escape series is comprised of two games (soon to be a trilogy) that somewhat fit into the “Puzzle”, “Adventure”, and “Visual Novel” genres, usually seen more on handheld and PC platforms. I finished both games earlier this year and have had more than enough time for impressions to sink in, especially after all the chaos in my mind had settled. The first game, 999: Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors, was released for the Nintendo DS in 2010. The sequel, Zero Escape: Virtue’s Last Reward, was released in 2012 for the 3DS and Vita. This review will cover both games one at a time, but I suggest not reading the section for the sequel if the first title hasn’t been completed (possible spoilers).

999 is an interesting story-focused DS title that utilizes 1st-person dialogue, 3rd-person narration, 2D environments/characters, and numerous puzzle rooms to break up the key events. I’d consider the story of the horror/mystery genre as a result of its basic premise and intentionally unsettling atmosphere. Half of the gameplay consists of reading and pressing the “A” button, but with a few “choose-your-path” instances that can determine where the player goes and how the story concludes. The other, busier half of the gameplay involves particular rooms designed to be solved by the characters. As a whole, there’s not much to the mechanics of the game other than reading text and whipping out the stylus for puzzles when “Seek a Way Out!” flashes on the top screen.

The story revolves around 9 supposed strangers being kidnapped by a person named Zero, and forced to play a dramatic game in order to escape from the giant ship they’re being held in. Zero calls it the “Nonary Game” while the rules are spelled out to the kidnapped victims through speakers in the lobby. The 9 victims are told to seek a door carrying a painted “9” in order to escape, the problem being that they only have 9 hours of the night to do so before the ship is to sink. Furthermore, there are several other specially painted doors throughout the halls, each carrying numbers 1-8 that branch out to different areas. Finally, there’s a bit of math involved with who can enter which doors, adding some extra limitations for the characters. Each character has a forced bracelet attached that effectively assigns them a number 1-9, an aspect that combines with door limitations to create interesting matchups between the victims. The player can choose these matchups when multiple doors are presented to the numerically-branded party. While the characters basically calculate the math for the player, I found the concept of “Digital Roots” easy but just unconventional enough so that I wasn’t constantly planning out my matchups ahead of time.

The narrative is the main reason to play 999 as it soon becomes apparent how much effort went into constructing the plot and its startling twists. The player acts as student protagonist Junpei from a 1st-person point of view on the top screen, while 3rd-person prose is detailed on the bottom screen during story sequences. Besides the interesting Saw-like premise and the mystique of the Nonary game itself, 999 also features some diverse and developed characters. The protagonist, Junpei, may be an ordinary college kid with an occasional blend of sarcasm and heroism, but his fellow kidnapped victims range from emotional teenager to a nervous wreck of few words. All of these characters are much more than they seem, but players will need much more than a single playthrough to open them up. That’s where replays come in.

Being a game built on multiple paths and doorways with no turning back, 999 doesn’t have to beg the player to come back for seconds again and again. I finished my first playthrough in a single day, but the 5 days afterward consisted of me staying up late at night to go down a different path and match Junpei with different character combinations. I say “late at night” because 999 works best as a horror/mystery tale and the moods can swing from sympathetic and sad to gruesome and terrifying. Players shouldn’t be surprised if one particular ending leaves them a bit scarred. I will say, however, that the payoff for replaying the game multiple times is an unconventional and completely mind-blowing element that stands as one of the most unique things I’ve seen in a videogame. It may make or break the game for different types of people, but rest assured 999’s mystery as a whole is definitely one worth delving into for fanatics of the genre and beyond.   

With that out of the way, 999’s actual gameplay levels occur when Junpei enters painted numbered doors that contain puzzle-laden rooms supposedly designed by Zero. While the plot urges the characters with the whole “9 hour time limit”, no pressure is placed on the player as time apparently freezes during these sequences. The puzzles typically involve some tapping around the 2D rooms to find or interact with an object. The player can combine or examine integral items on the touch screen menu, and even input numbers for puzzles requiring unorthodox math results (no calculus or algebra here, but I admit I’m still slow). The puzzles are of medium difficulty overall, with some neat usage of electronics and varied room types. At the end of the day, I’d say these segments don’t feel like filler simply because they are a great way for Junpei to warm up to the few other characters he’s confined with. Puzzles act as downtime for the most part and are the main reason I can’t see the iOS port measuring up to the DS original.

The graphics of this “visual novel” are distinctly 2D, with 3D models for puzzle items and not much else. The backgrounds are pre-rendered and the characters are drawn in manga-style sprites with a bit of animation to their emotions. Pre-rendered backgrounds are typically fine and detailed, but in some puzzle rooms it can be hard to find a crucial small item which can lead to frustration (pixel hunting has been far worse in other games though). There are a few instances of full-motion video, with special mention going to the Resident Evil door-opening clips that add to the atmosphere. Speaking of atmosphere, 999 excels at creating an intense one through music alone. The soundtrack is well-composed and, more importantly, extremely effective at the spectrum of tones the narrative falls into. I insist that this game should be played in a dark room with speakers up (or headphones), as the music is practically flawless in its mission.

But where 999 does have flaws is in its pacing and delivery of certain necessary elements to build the bigger picture. The most obvious turnoff would typically be the fact that one must replay the game several times in order to get the most out of the tale, forcing repetition. However, thanks to a convenient fast-forward-text command (on repeat playthroughs), repeated narration/dialogue is never much of an issue. Instead, 999’s biggest flaws can basically be outlined in the very first puzzle room that Junpei wakes up in. First of all, the narrative indicates a rush to escape the flooding room, but the player is casually asked to seek a way out with no timed penalty (Junpei even has time to stare in the mirror and try to recall his misfortune). This carries into the broader game as well, as characters will sometimes chat away strange stories or make jokes with a lacking incentive to run their asses to the next room. If I were in their situation, I’d waste no time exploring the ship with the 9 hours of time given. The chatter may consist of necessary plot developments, and the humor may be used to lift everyone’s spirits occasionally, but the way 999 visually presents these awkward moments left me wondering whether the characters were implied to be efficiently walking/scouting while talking or just wasting precious time. 

Secondly, the text can drag at times, especially when lines of directions are given during a puzzle segment that players can figure out how to operate in half the time. This is made worse by the act of replaying certain puzzle rooms (especially the mandatory first one) over and over again with the baggage that had already interfered the first time around. Outside of these annoying instances, players will also have to get used to the occasionally weird 3rd-person prose that can point out things already visually apparent or downright stated by the characters on the top screen. When I handed my friend the beginning of 999, the first thing he said was “Why is it telling me about this bunk bed while clearly showing it on the top screen anyways?” Apparently the developers thought it would be safe to show AND tell things rather than prioritize one over the other.

While the flaws do stick out and sometimes make the package feel amateurishly constructed, they aren’t enough to detract from the high strengths of 999. Any other gripes would probably be found in personal taste of writing style and/or genre. I recommend it to DS owners who have previously accepted or shown interest in story-driven adventure games with no action mechanics. 999 isn’t for everyone, and I doubt it’ll ever replace my favoritism for the original Phoenix Wright trilogy in the mystery/novel game sense, but anyone who enjoys suspense and subversive twists should give this tale a shot in the dark.

Virtue’s Last Reward, the sequel to 999, is another visual novel and puzzle-filled adventure with a heavy emphasis on narrative as the main draw. I played the game only on the 3DS (without encountering the save bug), but I assume the Vita version works just fine in its own way. While I’ve heard some consider VLR to be perfectly playable without finishing 999 first, I’d hesitate to recommend it in that fashion. Although VLR doesn’t sit within 999’s satisfyingly concluded tale, it’s no Legend of Zelda storyline either. I don’t think it would be easy to jump into this barely self-contained story and receive maximum impact. I can imagine a series newbie feeling decent suspense throughout the game, but I can’t imagine him/her getting the satisfaction of connecting the plots. VLR doesn’t show any mercy in leaving 999’s story in the dark either, so players with a DS system should sink a week into the 2010 adventure first to enhance the experience of the whole series.

VLR’s structure resembles 999 in more ways than one, but the changes made ensure that the sequel feels like a different beast from the beginning. The 3rd-person text from 999 is gone, as the creators smartly realized that they shouldn’t devalue 999’s dual-screen twist. The visuals are now almost entirely 3D, with a few neat exceptions that I won’t go into. And unlike the first game, the supporting characters have voice acting to round out the aesthetic changes. The gameplay still revolves around advancing text, debating the occasional “choice” event, and solving the designated puzzle rooms. Needless to say, VLR won’t win over anyone who didn’t enjoy its predecessor’s genre tropes.

9 victims are once again captured and forced to play a twisted game of exploration and puzzle-solving in order to escape their indoor purgatory. The new “Nonary Game: Ambidex Edition” that the kidnapped victims must play differs quite a bit from 999’s version. First of all, the location of choice seems to be a large facility with at least 2 floors, warehouse rooms, and confusing hallways leading to other spaces of interest. The “host” of the game is a mysterious CGI rabbit that instructs the players via a projection on the central warehouse area’s wall. Finally, the tension comes not from a 9-hour race to the exit but a race for points.

To understand the Ambidex portion of the new Nonary Game, one must be aware of the bracelets forced on the player’s arms. This time around, the bracelets represent 3 important game elements: points, color, and pairing. Points represent how close to victory each individual is. Everyone starts at 3 points, but achieving 9 or higher will allow one to open the steel “Number Nine Door” and escape. Color represents which “chromatic” doors each person can enter and who they can enter with, similar to the numbered doors in 999. Instead of calculating digital roots, the mixing of people’s assigned colors to match the doors is the limiting factor for matchups here. Finally, 3 people are designated solo while 6 others are placed in pairs of matching colors. Paired players must stick together while choosing a solo person to mix with in order to enter the chromatic doors.

If this sounds more complex than 999’s Nonary Game, it’s because it is. The characters are deliberately thrown off and under-informed about the rules, prohibiting their rational thinking until relationships have already turned sour. This is all in service of the Ambidex game, or AB game for short. This mini-game occurs after the characters match up, go through chromatic doors, solve puzzles, and obtain key cards to play the AB game. This process repeats until escape is achieved by someone. Once inside one of six idle voting rooms, each pair votes on the fate of the solo person they just solved puzzles with, and vice versa. “Ally” and “Betray” are, fittingly, the only options in the AB game, but they determine how players obtain or defend their bracelet points. Mutual allying benefits both pairs and solos, while mutually betraying neither helps nor hurts anyone. However, it’s when the votes differ that the heaviest drama goes down, since the betraying party gains more points while the allying party loses some. The prisoner’s dilemma comes to mind, but in VLR, a full loss of points results in lethal injection (courtesy of the automated bracelet).

More a game about unwarranted trust than about the number 9, Virtue’s Last Reward offers more interactivity in the “choose-your-path” fraction of gameplay than 999 ever did. Everyone wants to escape, but the kicker is that the exit door (presented in plain sight this time) only opens once…and shuts soon afterward. Only those with 9 points or higher can pass through, and asking strangers to wait for everybody to reach 9 is futile once the first “betray” is selected. Lethal injection is less frightening than stomach bombs, but this time automatic death activation isn’t just used for rule-breakers. Contestants can indirectly kill their “opponent” by betraying them, whether out of greed or self-defense. It’s a compelling system for a videogame, and offers a closer sense of agency than what players got in 999.

The protagonist, Sigma, is a college student (like Junpei in 999) that never feels too strongly about anything, yet also has a random humorous side. I found him to have a bit more personality than Junpei, and also interpreted his demeanor differently depending on my choice of “Ally” or “Betray” in each round of the Nonary/Ambidex Game. The supporting cast is just as colorful as the last game’s party, with familiar archetypes like sweet girl and old fart potentially misleading Sigma’s impression of them. However, special mention must go to Zero III, the AI rabbit that introduces the game elements to the participants. It steals the show in every scene it’s in with a freakish look and nonstop puns that mix to create an absurdly bunny yet menacing presence.

Like its predecessor, VLR is a replay-heavy game that subverts the concept of multiple playthroughs and integrates the mechanic into the narrative. There are a few major differences in the sequel, not the least of which is the appearance of the pathways. VLR is completely upfront about the importance of its multiple endings right from the start. There is an easily viewable “Flow” icon that players can select at any time in order to see a flowchart of the branching storyline, almost like flipping to the Table of Contents in a book. It should come as no surprise for players of 999 that this flowchart is not the typical replay mechanic it may appear to be in other games. It’s immediately obvious once one playthrough ends that a lot more information is going to be needed to unravel the mystery of the Nonary Game: Ambidex Edition...a LOT more.

Virtue’s Last Reward exists on a scale much bigger than 999’s, with a more complex story and quite a few more possibilities to explore. Instead of just having 6 endings, this time there are over 20 with a wider variety of fates and discoveries. VLR also expands on the “Coffin” ending logic of 999, causing some paths to lock up with “To be continued” if not enough information is known. Only by traveling down a different route can more information be obtained to possibly solve a stump in the story. This sentiment actually encompasses all of VLR’s general ambitions, as the game expects players to treat the narrative like a complex Zelda dungeon. In place of keys are pieces of verbal/physical evidence and instead of weapons there are manipulations. It’s a prime example of using story AS gameplay, and in one of the most unusual ways ever pulled off.

The replay system in 999 was a marvelous concept hindered by a few necessary evils in having to replay the puzzle rooms while sitting through fast-forwarded story sequences. The flowchart screen in VLR fixes this controversial aspect by allowing players to jump back to any major junction in the story (e.g. chromatic door matchups) and select another choice. This alters the fragile relationships between characters, thereby forging a new timeline in which different secrets may be disclosed. In the case where one pathway bears identical dialogue that players have read before, a convenient icon allows players to fast-forward the familiar text while automatically stopping for any brand new words. 

Even with all this convenience however, I felt that the flowchart’s friendliness took off some of the potential weight of my decisions within the game. The consequences of my AB game choices could all-too-easily be undone if the results turned sour for Sigma. In my quest to see all possible endings for VLR, flipping through the “choose-your-path” scenes eventually felt more like routine than something methodical. However, it’s worth remembering that being a buddy can be just as beneficial as being a backstabber in hopes of sparking revealing conversations. The flowchart is undoubtedly a nice addition to the Zero Escape interface, but such mechanical convenience is countered by emotional hindrance. I think that after about 2 endings, the game expects players to realize the importance of the bigger picture rather than trying to seal a permanent friendship with another character. So while VLR doesn’t provide the Mass Effect sensations of weighty moral choices on a role-playing thread, the peculiar disconnect one feels from surfing through various versions of events definitely yields a rarer feeling.

In terms of overall power, this feeling amounts to a gradual change in connectedness with the characters over the course of many hours. In a normal storytelling line, I would expect to gain a greater sense of affection, hatred, or both the longer I go on with the characters. But in VLR, this viewpoint generally only lasted for the first or second playthrough. As I scrubbed through the nonlinear diagram of plot threads, twists, and turns, I became more of an objective detective than a subjective Nonary Game participant. That’s not to say there aren’t exceptions, since particular scenes of dialogue/exposition can feel shocking or moving regardless of perceived permanence. One of the “normal” endings may even come across as more powerful than the true closing of the game, though that’s in part to VLR’s deliberate setup for a sequel. 999 ended with a grand feeling of satisfaction, but VLR chooses to leave players knowing that not everything is finished. Time will tell if the third Zero Escape game brings proper closure to the factors found in the second. Like the game itself, VLR’s climax is much more complicated than 999’s, and with every sensible revelation there’s also an awkward twist that players may not approve of. I did appreciate that the script took the time to ruminate on the various happenings and consequences of potentially confusing plot points, rather than simply exist to bewilder players.

Not much has changed in the puzzle-solving department, as these sequences are still kept in confined rooms that must be solved in order to be escaped. The rooms range from a science lab to a recreational lounge and players must experiment with dice, memory cards, ice, darts, books, electronic programs and more in order to succeed. The interface on the 3DS seems a bit cleaner than VLR’s DS predecessor, especially now that almost everything is in 3D so exploring the environment feels streamlined. The difficulty of the puzzles has been ramped up, but players can opt for an “easy” mode if they feel stumped for too long (in which Sigma’s companions give more hints). Each room’s main goal is to learn the password for a safe that contains the exit key in addition to a few notes or key cards for the AB game. There is also a secondary goal in every room to obtain a “Gold File” that details elements of the plot further, not available through “easy” mode. More importantly, collecting every Gold File unlocks an epilogue of sorts, which I consider somewhat mandatory to view for a story-centric game like this. By and large, I felt that the puzzles in VLR were much more substantial and fulfilling than those found in 999, and the best part is that the game’s structure rids of the need to repeat puzzle rooms.

Graphically, VLR chooses to embrace polygons over its predecessor’s 2D artwork. The characters have too few animations but still get the job done regardless. I personally don’t have a preference for the polygonal models or 999’s 2D sprites, but it isn’t something fans of 999’s art can’t warm up to. The real benefit to the graphical change is the environments, with a nice sense of depth and smooth camera panning during the puzzle rooms. Once again, there are FMV sequences for certain startling actions, but they are used sparingly and never last for more than a few seconds. The least visually appealing moments of VLR are occasional sequences that show a dot (representing Sigma) traversing a map of the facility as he moves through the halls. Speaking of the facility, one thing I noticed about VLR is a general lack of creepiness in the atmosphere. While the ship in 999 contained a few eerie 20th century rundown environments and a looming time limit, the setting for VLR features higher tech and isn’t assumed to be in the middle of the ocean. While there is sufficient tension in VLR, there’s little primal fear of death and I can’t help but attribute this to the flowchart system. This is why I categorize 999 in the horror/mystery field with bits of sci-fi, and VLR in the sci-fi/mystery field with bits of horror. This isn’t necessarily a worse focus, since I’m glad that the developers didn’t try to scare me again with the same setup.

The audio can still tingle the spine, though, with haunting tracks that exacerbate the game’s unnerving events. Although some songs are reused from 999, they remain some of the most effective tracks at doing their job that I’ve ever heard. Besides the music reserved for story sequences, I found the puzzle room tunes catchy and cool, perfect for VLR’s general downtime. The biggest change, aurally, is voice acting for all supporting characters. Every character is fully voiced in the story sequences except Sigma himself, which takes some getting used to (but melds well with his occasional silent thoughts). The puzzle sequences don’t feature voice acting when characters decide to speak, but it doesn’t affect the presentation’s consistency too much. The big thing to note here is that the voice actors (at least in English) perform excellently and really carry the tone of each line, made more impressive when considering that VLR is full of dialogue paced by the player’s text-advancing speed. Zero III perfectly encapsulates what I originally imagined Final Fantasy VI’s Kefka to sound like, with a gleefully hoppy attitude that dips and rises between sentences. In case one isn't pleased with the English voices, there's the generous option to switch to Japanese instead. 

Barring a few typos (which are kind of unforgivable in a visual novel), Virtue’s Last Reward is the slicker and buffer of the two Zero Escape games currently out. The sequel is longer (I clocked 50 hours), deeper, and expands upon the concept of multiple playthroughs. But while the creators appear to have greater awareness of what they were doing with the replay system, so does the player. This transforms the life-or-death dramatic impact of 999’s endings into something more about judgment and possibilities. I ended up using the game’s handy notepad to remember crucial codes and couldn’t stop thinking about the story until one of the many room puzzles distracted me from it. Virtue’s Last Reward is a terrific and maddening sequel that challenges players both mentally and philosophically. Its setup may resemble its predecessor, but its focus is different enough to maintain a unique identity of its own. In an odd way, it provides significant ludonarrative harmony while also managing to fit a few easter eggs and inside jokes into its text. 

Virtue’s Last Reward is a riveting, tense, and introspective puzzle/adventure title that should be played by fans of the series’ first entry willing to jump down the rabbit hole for a second time.

As a bonus, I've decided to share the latest video I've uploaded: a piano + ocarina cover of one of the franchise's signature tunes. Anyone who has played 999 should definitely remember this song. Thanks for reading and/or listening.
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About kingsharkboione of us since 3:29 AM on 07.06.2011

I like action-adventures, RPGs, fighters, and platformers most of all. All genres are open to me as long as the game is good.