Zero Escape: The Nonary Games Review
The Zero Escape series currently contains three games — Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors (more commonly known as 999), Virtue’s Last Reward, and Zero Time Dilemma. The Nonary Games collection brings both 999 and Virtue’s Last Reward onto a home console for the first time, with added features such as high definition art, English and Japanese dual audio, and heaps more. Whether you’ve been a fan of the games since 999 first launched on the Nintendo DS in 2010 or you’re a newcomer like myself, I won’t beat around the bush: this twofer is an excellent package.
Both games are broken into two main segments: Novels and Escapes. Novels are comprised of plot progression, usually with your main characters talking, and talking, and talking some more until the next Escape segment begins. Sometimes the Novels only last a couple minutes, while other occasions have you watching/reading as the story unfolds for a good 15 or 20 minutes, and anywhere in between. For a video game this might sound a bit off the mark, but these games are all in the ‘visual novel’ genre, and as such have deep stories to tell.
When you begin it feels a bit overwhelming, as in both games you are given essentially a tutorial puzzle followed by the introduction of all 9 main characters that serves as the games’ prologues. The slow burn is more than worth it, however, as the stories become deeper and more mysterious with each Novel segment you progress past, with many legitimately surprising and unexpected twists along the way. After a couple Novel chapters have finished, you’ll find yourself in a new Escape segment. At these moments you’ll find yourself in a room (or a series of connected rooms) that hold only one exit that is, of course, locked. You’ll need to solve numerous puzzles to find a password, a keycard, or any number of other means with which to unlock the door, thus allowing you to escape that room and proceed to your next novel.
Though both 999 and Virtue’s Last Reward feature 9 main characters (the number 9 is a central theme of the Nonary Games, as you find out early on), each main door you go through forces you to choose a specific party to join you; you can never travel as a full group. As it happens, there are also nearly always multiple doors you can go through, but once you’ve made your choice, there’s no going back. If you choose to go through door 4, you can’t come back and go through door 5. This means you can take multiple paths through the game, accompanied by different characters, thus allowing you to learn more about some, and less about others. Eventually you’ll make it to an ending, good or bad.
That’s right; don’t think you’ve beat the game just because you’ve seen the credits. Heck, some endings don’t even give you the satisfaction of rolling the credits, if they’re particularly bad endings (you’ll know them when you see them). Even the bad endings had a purpose, however, as each different route and ending provides some much-needed insight into different members of your party, as well as the overarching mystery that isn’t truly uncovered until you find the True Ending. With every ending I reached I found myself more and more entrenched in the story, slowly piecing everything together. Tying clues A and C together, and suddenly realizing how B fits in the middle in a sudden epiphany. It’s absolutely brilliant.
One specific feature that makes this particular version better than those that came before it is the addition of the FLOW Chart to both games. Viewing the FLOW Chart allows you to see what specific path you’ve taken throughout the game, in relation to all other optional routes you could have taken. Only Novel and Escape segments you have completed will show up as selectable tiles in the chart, and selecting one of those tiles allows you to return to that moment in the game to progress from there.
As these games encourage you to replay them multiple times to get the full stories, playing through the entire prologues any more than twice gets incredibly redundant and boring, so this mechanic that allows you to jump to any point you have previously completed is a major improvement upon the original releases. If you went through door 4 last time, now you can go through door 5 and play through the rest of the game from there, and see what’s different. Without this I’m not sure I would have had the patience to play through both games to completion; at least not in such rapid succession.
Even with the amazingly helpful FLOW Chart, some moments still manage to feel overly repetitive and monotonous thanks to your “helpful” teammates explaining how to do something several times over. For a rated-M-for-Mature series that features murder, gore, and sexual innuendo, and assumes its players are adults, all too often it beats you over the head with information like you’re a child, repeating it over and over until you’re sure you’ll never forget it as long as you live. I don’t mean they tell you the same thing at different points throughout the game; I mean three different people might explain to you how you’re supposed to open a door in the same conversation, one right after another. In a game with segments of talking so large they’re dubbed Novels, some of those moments could stand to remove a bit of that excess padding.
As mentioned before, the Novels almost always lead you to new Escape segments. These rooms are chock-full of clever puzzles that aren’t impossible, but always make you think. Sometimes you’ll work out the solutions immediately, and other times just as you think you’ve finally got the solution, a brand new challenge arises that throws a spanner in everything you’ve done so far. The puzzles include deciphering Morse code and using the hexadecimal numbering system (which are both detailed in-game, thankfully), assorted types of wordplay, mathematics, locked doors, locked drawers, breaking things, putting them back together, and so much more. It makes you think, then rewards your efforts with yet more puzzles. Splendid.
The visual novel genre itself isn’t for everyone; if you’re looking for some shoot-em-up, hack-and-slash, adventure RPG, this isn’t going to satisfy you at all. If you want mystery, intrigue, depth, clever puzzle solving, and genuine surprise, and you don’t mind sitting through heaps of plot like an interactive movie, go pick up The Nonary Games as soon as you can.