A series that started way back on the DS, it's fair to say that Zero Escape was criminally overlooked. With great stories and characters, it was a series that deserved way more attention than it got. The digital equivalent of a choose your own adventure book, swapping quick reactions and action for lots of reading, a great story, and some brain-bending puzzles, it was a gripping adventure, and one that developed a cult following - but seemingly, one that wasn't quite big enough, as the third entry in the trilogy very nearly didn't get made due to poor sales.
Of course, the fact that the first, and arguably most important game of the trilogy was never actually released in Europe can't have helped matters much either. But now, thanks to the nice guys at Aksys, players the world over can catch up on what they missed out on with Zero Escape: The Nonary Games - a collection of the first two games in the series, the visual novels 999: 9 Hours, 9 Persons, 9 Doors and Zero Escape: Virtue's Last Reward.
999: 9 Hours, 9 Persons, 9 Doors
Following a mysterious kidnapping by a masked man going by the name of Zero, nine seemingly disparate people wake up on a ship reminiscent of the Titanic. With an unremovable bracelet fastened to their wrists showing their designated number, they're forced into playing a sinister game in order to escape from the ship, before it sinks beneath the waves in just nine hours time (with so many 9s, you can see why it's called a nonary game). As if that wasn't already enough pressure, it turns out each bracelet also contains a remote detonator for a bomb - a bomb that's been placed inside you, which will activate should you break any of the game's rules. Having barely adjusted to your new reality, it's up to you and your companions to play along with Zero's game if they hope to survive the ordeal - although plenty of twists and turns along the way reveal that not everything is quite as it seems…
Throughout the ship are a number of locked doors emblazoned with numbers - nine of them to be precise, with the number nine door being your final goal - the exit off the sinking ship. Beyond each door are puzzle-filled rooms you'll need to figure out before you can continue, mixing traditional point and click style puzzles with Professor Layton-esque riddles and code-breaking.
As a quick example of what you'll be coming up against, after passing through one of the first doors, you and your group of folks will find yourselves in a kitchen. Off to side, there's a freezer - but no sooner have you stepped inside than you find yourself trapped, the door suddenly frozen shut. A quick sweep of the room reveals a chicken drumstick (frozen solid), a bag of dry ice, a water bottle and a rope - perhaps not what you'd initially think of as useful items for an escape attempt. But by combining your chicken drumstick with your dry ice, you can use the drumstick as a makeshift hammer, and smash the ice into small enough pieces that it'll fit in the water bottle. All that's left then is to tie the rope around the bottle of crushed dry ice, and you've made yourself a 'bomb' of sorts.
If you aren't too hot on your improvised explosive devices (and if you aren't, don't worry - your companions, nicknamed June and Santa, will enlighten you in-game regardless), dry ice is essentially frozen carbon dioxide, which 'melts' straight from a solid to a gas, accompanied by a rapid expansion. With the dry ice now in smaller pieces, the melting process has been drastically sped up, causing the bottle to already start swelling. By attaching it to the frozen door handle, all you'll need is a small impact - perhaps by chucking a random lump of ice at it - and BOOM! Ice blasted off the door handle, you're now free to explore the rest of the kitchen as you wish.
But in order to leave said kitchen, you'll need to open a safe, whose code requires a very different type of logic. This time, with a little help from a belly dancer named Lotus, you'll learn how to count in hexadecimal to figure out the combination. From a slip of paper secreted nearby, you'll get the hint C + 10 + F, a seemingly random selection of letters and numbers reminiscent of secondary school algebra lessons - but if you look at it from the perspective of hexadecimal, it becomes surprisingly straight forward. In the hexadecimal system, numbers 1 to 9 are the same as normal, but then it switches to the letters A to F for numbers from 10 to 15 - so A is 10, C is 12 and F is 15 - before returning to '10', which is actually 16. So, in counting from 1 to 16 you go 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, A, B, C, D, E, F, 10; initially confusing, but the game explains it all. Once you understand the logic, it's simply a matter of filling in the letters/numbers on the slip of paper to crack the code.
It's clever puzzles like this that make 999 more than just a good story - finally figuring out the answer to a hexadecimal puzzle after much head-scratching makes you feel pretty clever, as does finally managing to escape from a room. With its story steeped in a myriad of urban legends, thought experiments and science - from mummy's curses sinking the Titanic, and a "previously unknown" form of water named ice-9, to the conundrum of Locke's Socks (how many times can you mend a pair of socks before they're no longer the original socks?) and the fringes of evolutionary biology, the twisting and turning tale of 999 effectively amounts to one massive mind melt.
Oh, and the story massively branches too. Depending on the doors you choose to go through, and the conversation options you pick, you'll find yourself heading for one of the half a dozen or so different endings, each of which slowly weaves in more aspects of the story, before you can finally uncover the true ending - and the real reason why nine seemingly disparate folks were gathered together and forced to play a sadistic game in the first place. With a tense atmosphere, a gripping story and some brain-bending puzzles, 999 is still one of our favourite visual novels, to this day.
Zero Escape: Virtue's Last Reward
The second game of the collection, Virtue's Last Reward sees another nine folks kidnapped and imprisoned in an underground facility, before being forced to play a death game at the behest of the Zero the rabbit (stop me if you've heard this one before...). Seeing as this is a sequel to the last nonary game, though, the rules have been kicked up a notch.
The aim is still to escape through the number 9 door - but how you get to open it is a little bit different. Rather than a bomb being implanted inside them, this time, each player is wearing a bracelet that will inject them with a deadly toxin if they break the rules. This time, rather than a number, players are split into coloured groups, either as a pair who work together, or a solo player on their lonesome. Littered around the facility are various coloured doors, and by teaming up with other players so that the combination of your colours matches said door - for example, the red and blue players teaming up to access the magenta door, or passing through the cyan door by mixing green and blue - you can pass through and onto the puzzle rooms waiting beyond.
Similar to the puzzle rooms in 999, your only means of escape is to figure your way out, paying close attention to your surroundings, solving riddles, and making good use of the things that you find, Womble-style. For example, one of the earliest (and simplest) puzzles you'll come across in Virtue's Last Reward requires you to remove a maintenance panel in a lift. In order to get access, you'll need to remove four screws - but where could you find a screwdriver inside a lift? Examining the handrails going around the inside of the lift reveals that the brightly-coloured end of each is actually a screwdriver handle - but without the vital head part, you won't be able to do much screwing. A further sweep of the room reveals a little cupboard for a fire extinguisher, which has a set of screwdriver heads inside - simply reunite the handles with the heads, and hey presto, the panel is now off. But there's one more step you'll need to complete before you can leave. Inside the panel sits a box, a slide puzzle of sorts, where you need to tilt a green square through a maze, and get from one end to the other without getting too caught up with the pink squares, which are determined to get in your way.
So far, so similar. But as we mentioned before, Virtue's Last Reward has a few all new ways of ramping the stakes of the nonary game up even higher - and once you've escaped from one of the puzzle rooms, you'll discover another addition to the nonary game: the Ambidex Game.
Here, the groups that have only just worked together to solve their way out of a puzzle room will have to face off against each other in a deadly game of trust, as you enter into a private booth, and decide whether you want to "ally" or "betray" them. In order to escape through the number nine door, you'll need to amass enough 'Bracelet Points' (at least 9) to open it - and it's through Zero's Ambidex Game that you'll gain, or lose, said points. If both players choose to ally, everyone gains two points. If both choose to betray, both get no points - but when one chooses to ally and the other to betray, things get a little more interesting. Here, the betrayer will gain three points, edging them closer to escaping, while the poor ally loses two. And should your Bracelet Points hit zero, you die.
In this situation, known as the Prisoner's Dilemma, tempers quickly start to fray as the players struggle to trust each other, made all the worse by the discovery of a body soon into the game. With threats, murders, quarrels and a mysterious illness all starting to take their toll, it's fair to say not everything is quite how it seems in the beginning, and this is a story that doesn't let up. With even more potential endings, branches and twists, all of which entwine and often raise more questions than they answer, Virtue's Last Reward keeps you guessing right to the very end, as you find yourself trying to escape Zero's twisted game once more.
Whether you've played 999 and Virtue's Last Reward before, or you're totally new to the series, Zero Escape: The Nonary Games is either a great place to start, or a fantastic opportunity to revisit two of your favourite games in one. 999 in particular has been noticeably improved for the collection, both in terms of animations and usability - now, instead of leaving you to largely guess where the branches for different endings are, you can pull up a flowchart of all the different paths, as with Virtue's Last Reward, letting you jump between important sections with ease, and explore all the different routes.
In fact, perhaps the only disappointment is that Zero Escape: The Nonary Games contains only the first two games in the trilogy - if you want to complete the story, you'll have to shell out for the three-quel separately, which seems a little cheapskate-y. Regardless, the collection is still a point to jump into a pair of games that are up there with some of the best visual novel-style games of all time, now with English voice acting for the first time. If you're after a story-driven game you can just kick back and relax with, then Zero Escape: The Nonary Games is definitely for you.