999: Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors was one of my favorite games on the original DS. It was unlike anything I had ever played before it and one of my first exposures to a visual novel game. It seemed boring and strange at first but quickly became next to impossible to put down. The puzzle rooms were fun to solve, if not maybe a bit repetitive, and the story was fascinating, keeping me hooked until the final couple hours of mind-blowing reveals. The sequel, Zero Escape: Virtue’s Last Reward takes all the elements that made the first game great and strips out several of the hassles of the format to create a much more enjoyable experience overall. Unfortunately, the story beats don’t pack quite the same punch as the original’s, and this is what hurts the game overall.
The story of Zero Escape is very closely tied to the events of 999, however untrue that may seem at first. I can’t really go into any detail of how the two are tied together without massive spoilers for both games, so instead let’s just talk about the basic premise. You again play a person trapped in the Nonary Game (although not the same Nonary Game), where each of its nine members must solve puzzles and work together in order to open a certain door to escape. The biggest difference between 999 and Zero Escape is a new twist called the Ambidex Game. Players are often forced to face each other and vote to either ally or betray the other. Depending on who votes which way, the points you accumulate for yourself go up or down, with betrayals having the potential to net bigger point gains at the risk of pissing the others off. If someone reaches nine points, he or she can leave at any time–and leave everyone else behind if they so choose.
These events unfold in much the same way that they did in 999. Through talking to the other players in the Nonary Game and reading various pieces of literature you find as you solve puzzle rooms, you learn information that may seem irrelevant at the time but becomes more important as the pieces fall into place. The way this worked in 999 was genius and allowed for some particularly jaw-dropping reveals. The “oh, shit” moments still occur in Zero Escape, but these reveals didn’t feel as revelatory as they did in the original. Maybe it’s because the first game set up so many expectations for the craziness of this game’s world but very few of the reveals surprised me or felt exciting. Zero Escape also ends in such a way that it sets up a sequel very directly, making it feel less complete than 999, which ended in much more complete way. This doesn’t mean that the story isn’t exciting and fun to watch play out—it just means that it doesn’t quite live up to the expectations, at least the ones that I had, from 999.
Easily the biggest, and best, change from 999 to Zero Escape is the structure of the various paths you can take. The first game required players to play through the entire game again from the beginning to in order to get the different endings by picking different choices throughout the game. Zero Escape instead has a very useful flowchart that demonstrates exactly what you’ve seen and what you haven’t, filling out as you see events unfold. Even better is that you can jump to any past point on the flowchart at any time. This makes it extremely easy to go down the various paths to see the different endings. This is a good thing, since there are many more endings this time around (18 paths in all). The only way you can understand the whole story is to see all of these endings, good or bad, and progress to the endgame where the final bits come into focus.
The puzzle rooms also return from 999, and they are much better overall in Zero Escape. They are also much more complicated than before. The puzzle variety is pretty diverse, with some based on solving simple logic puzzles and others based on moving pieces or blocks around in particular ways. There is such a great variety that I’ll guarantee you will find a puzzle that stumps you in particular. For me, it was any of the sliding block puzzles, as I’m terrible at those. I had a great time puzzling out the various rooms, spending about thirty minutes to an hour in each to fit all the pieces together and escape. Each room also features a bonus puzzle to solve that gives additional files containing extra information about the story of the game. Be warned that some of these files could slightly spoil certain story elements (although I found and read them all immediately and never thought it impacted my enjoyment in any way), so it may be best to wait until finishing the game to read them.
I played Zero Escape on the Vita, which unfortunately made the whole touch thing a bit strange at times. Using the Vita for a predominantly touch-based game like this works okay most of the time (you can also use the buttons and stick, although they don’t work as quickly as the touch controls), but it felt a little strange when compared to using the DS’s stylus for 999. Sometimes my finger wasn’t precise enough to hit what I was aiming for, which made some parts frustrating. There is also a note-taking function now built into the game itself that never worked well with my finger; written words or passwords often looked so illegible that I just used a pen and paper instead, negating the use of the feature entirely. These issues aren’t enough of a problem to not play the game on a Vita, particularly because the game never requires you to anything with great speed, but it can get a little irritating.
The visuals have gotten a pretty substantial overhaul, thanks to the jump in handheld generation. On the Vita, everything looks absolutely sharp and well-defined, even though it didn’t really need to be. I really like the variety in the character design, although there are again some questionable outfits choices such as Alice’s (how does that top even work?) and Clover’s (what is she, a cavegirl?). The music is very reminiscent of the original game; so much so that I could easily believe that they were the same soundtracks if I didn’t know any better. It works well when playing the game but isn’t really something I would bother to listen to outside of the game.
Zero Escape: Virtue’s Last Reward was a very enjoyable 30-hour experience (yes, it took that long!). Its biggest issue was that I had all these expectations for the story from 999: Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors, and, while it managed to meet some of them, it just introduced more questions than answers by the end. The ending makes me excited for another game in one of my new favorite series, but I really would have liked a few more answers right now and an ending that didn’t feel so much like a sequel cop-out. Still, if you enjoyed the first game as much as I did, Zero Escape is more of that unique experience. For those of you who haven’t played either, I urge you to give this one a try (I do recommend playing the first one before this though). I won’t lie–there’s a LOT of reading to be done, more so than any amount of gameplay. The experience that you get out of it by the end is quite unique, however, and worth seeing for fans of interesting stories and settings.