For those unfamiliar, the Zero Escape series is, in many ways, the blueprint to the revival of adventure novel-esque gaming in the modern era. 999: 9 Hours, 9 Persons, 9 Doors was a cult hit classic for the Nintendo DS that reinvigorated the genre, although its lack of strong sales and deluge of competition on a platform that produced quirky, niche hits by the handful made sure it remained relatively obscure. The follow-up title, Virtue’s Last Reward, performed even worse, but once again showcased a weird approach to video games that simply wasn’t being explored fully at the time.
Now that Zero Escape developer Spike-Chunsoft has found mainstream success with the Danganronpa series of games, however, perhaps the time is right for Zero Escape to finally get the recognition it deserves as a franchise. Enter Zero Escape: The Nonary Games, a PS Vita, PC, and PS4 remake of the series’ first two games. Publisher Aksys has lovingly localized the remake for Western audiences, making them more accessible and offering a number of significant upgrades along the way. The result is a collection that should be enough to entice a new group of fans toward the series, although fans who have previously played the games may be left wanting more.
The story of each Zero Escape game closely resembles the film Saw, although once the life-and-death stakes of the puzzle game are established comparisons between the two should cease. Both titles in The Nonary Games feature a cast of characters who have all been kidnapped and placed within the titular Nonary Games, a series of labyrinths and puzzles all designed to murder the entrants.
What follows is, predictably, the formation of alliances and execution of betrayals that are typical of this sort of adventure, although The Nonary Games certainly features twists that make it much more interesting than it first lets on. What begins as a rote sort of prisoner’s dilemma for both titles very quickly becomes an investigation that spans time travel, different universes, and superpowers like telepathy, and both 999 and Virtue’s Last Reward are much more engaging once they finally hit their stride.
Perhaps the most important thing about The Nonary Games is that its story, which is only occasionally interrupted by gameplay, is so strong. Without a compelling narrative, games like The Nonary Games often fall apart at the seams, and even though this reviewer had already played both titles before, the storylines are dynamic and complex enough that revisiting them is still the right mix of emotion and disbelief. That the series’ story is completely ridiculous doesn’t hinder it in the slightest – one need only look at the recent success of NieR: Automata to see how bizarre storytelling can still be some of the most intriguing as well.
The bulk of the changes made to the titles in The Nonary Games come in 999, the oldest title in the series and the one in the direst need of an upgrade. Of these additions, 999’s greatest achievement is the introduction of Novel and Adventure modes. The Novel mode presents the story as it was originally intended on the Nintendo DS, complete with a number of introspective scenes made up entirely of dialogue where protagonist Junpei struggles with the psychological trauma of the Nonary Game. Adventure Mode, however, removes all of the pomp and circumstance, presenting gamers only with voiced lines and modern dialogue boxes like the one’s found in Virtue’s Last Reward and the follow-up Zero Time Dilemma.
The ability to switch to Adventure Mode is a welcome one, and is especially useful for gamers who have already played through 999 before. Adventure Mode still gives players the most essential information to the story, meaning they won’t miss out on any clues or narrative happenings, but speeds along the process considerably. The game forces players into Novel Mode even when they have selected Adventure Mode at certain points, presumably so that nothing important is missed, so fans don’t even need to worry about managing the modes.
The other major addition to 999 is the Flowchart, a feature that was successful in both Virtue’s Last Reward and Zero Time Dilemma and is a welcome inclusion here. The Flowchart lets players jump back and forth between key moments in the game, and since the Zero Escape series features so many different endings, not having to loop back through the entire story to get to a new one is a huge boon to gamers who only have so much time to play the title.
That being said, 999 still looks pretty dated, and the voice acting ranges between reasonably good and egregiously bad, with some of the lines being so oddly performed that it can be a bit jarring during the gameplay experience. Of note, Junpei’s voice acting is extremely hit or miss, and his role as protagonist means he will be who gamers hear the most of while playing 999. Luckily, if gamers do find this distracting, The Nonary Games offers players the option to switch to Japanese audio instead.
If it seems like this review focuses very heavily on 999, that’s because Virtue’s Last Reward is, essentially, the exact same game it was when it was previously released. All of the major changes featured in this collection apply only to 999, and although Virtue’s Last Reward is the newer title and likely didn’t need much, it would have been interesting to have a number of new endings offered or other special features. Virtue’s Last Reward is also double or triple the length of 999, so some fresh inclusions would have certainly been appreciated.
Ultimately, however, Zero Escape: The Nonary Games is more of the same from Spike-Chunsoft, which is not a bad thing at all. The games are still engaging, fun, and in the case of Virtue’s Last Reward, have some of the most challenging puzzles in the visual novel genre. Zero Escape: The Nonary Games is an above-average compilation that offers just enough changes to make it a good purchase for both newcomers to the series and franchise veterans, although, as always with this genre, those looking for action had best look elsewhere.
Zero Escape: The Nonary Games is available now for PS4, PS Vita, and PC. Game Rant was provided a PS Vita code for this review.