Andy O’Flaherty reviews The Nonary Games…
Have you ever read one of those ‘choose your own adventure’ books that were very popular in the 80’s and 90’s? Each page ends with a choice of how the story progresses – “If you want to go through the left door, turn to page 6, if you want to go through the right door, turn to page 41”…. and so on. The beauty of these is it allows a book to have multiple endings based on the readers choices, and I remember them being really popular back when I was a kid. The Zero Escape games are basically video game versions of these books. Sort of.
But let’s rewind a bit. The Zero Escape series is a trilogy released across multiple platforms, beginning with 999: Nine Hours Nine Persons Nine Doors in 2010 (in the US) on the Nintendo DS. The second game, Virtue’s Last Reward followed in 2012 for the 3DS and PlayStation Vita, and the third and final entry, Zero Time Dilemma was released last year on the Vita, 3DS and Steam. The Nonary Games is a remastered collection of the first two games in the series (why Zero Time Dilemma isn’t included is anyone’s guess), and is actually a huge draw in Europe, as 999 was never officially released here. So let’s take a look at each game in turn…
999: Nine Hours Nine Persons Nine Doors
The first game in the series can best be described as a visual novel meets escape the room. The plot concerns itself with 9 seemingly random people who awake on a sinking cruise ship to find they have been kidnapped, and have 9 hours to get off the boat by working together in a deadly game set up by their mysterious kidnapper, Zero. The player takes the role of Junpei, who is one of the 9 characters and must somehow find out what’s going on and help him escape.
The game is split into two sections; the ‘Novel’ portions where the story is told and decisions are made that can affect said story, and the ‘Escape’ portions, where the player becomes trapped and must solve puzzles and find items to escape and progress. The novel and escape sections are linked together, with characters accompanying Junpei into certain escape rooms depending on choices made in the novel sections. The game is non-linear, with multiple ways through the game and several different possible endings, and only once all endings have been acquired does the story begin to tie together and the game’s true ending becomes available.
999 was an exceptional game for the DS (in fact it is my personal favourite game on the system) with its fantastic narrative, interesting characters, genuinely creepy horror overtones and satisfying puzzles. So what does this remastered version bring to the table? Well, unlike the DS original this edition contains full English voice acting, along with character animations that really bring the novel sections to life. The voice cast have done an excellent job, and I cannot stress enough what a massive difference this makes to an experience that occasionally felt like a text heavy chore in its original incarnation.
One of the biggest problems with the original DS game was the fact that subsequent playthroughs required the player to solve the escape room puzzles every time, which really began to grate by the 5th or 6th time. Thankfully this remaster contains a flowchart (like in the sequel) that allows the player to jump around the various possible timelines at will. This makes working toward the true ending much more enjoyable, as not only can you directly see which decisions you need to make to get a new ending, but no puzzle room needs to be completed more than once.
So far so good. However this remaster does have a few issues. Whereas the novel sections have been upgraded to take full advantage of the HD format (and boy does that hand drawn artwork look great), the same cannot be said of the escape rooms. Some of the puzzle items you collect seem to be in the exact same resolution as in the original DS iteration, and on the big screen look jarringly low-budget. Also, being originally designed for play on a touchscreen, playing this particular PS4 version feels a bit clunky and imprecise at times. Some of the dialogue has been changed (no doubt to better suit the voice acting), and one particular puzzle section is now completely different (for the worse, in my opinion at least).
However despite these minor flaws, 999: Nine Hours Nine Persons Nine Doors is still one of the best puzzle/adventure games money can buy, whose mind-bending story will stay with you long after the credits roll. This remaster is certainly the definitive version, and since the original Nintendo DS version was not released in Europe, cannot come recommended highly enough.
+ Phenomenal story
+ Enjoyable puzzles
+ Remaster is a vast improvement on original
– PS4 version feels a bit clunky
– Not all changes are for the better
– Inconsistent graphical improvements.
An excellent game and a worthy remaster that makes The Nonary Games worth picking up just for this title alone.
Score – 10/10
Virtue’s Last Reward
Much like its predecessor, Virtue’s Last Reward (VLR) once again follows 9 individuals who wake up in a confined area after being abducted by the mysterious Zero. However, this time they are forced to play what is referred to as the ‘Abmidex game’, which is inspired by the classic prisoner dilemma (look it up!). Will you choose to ally, or betray?
VLR plays in practically exactly the same way as 999 – as before the game is split into novel and escape sections, and multiple playthroughs are required to gradually piece together what exactly is going on. The main difference between this and 999 though is the fact that this game is fully rendered in 3D, as opposed to the hand drawn comic book style of the original. This extra dimension allows for much more elaborate escape rooms, and indeed the escape rooms on offer here are much more complex and difficult to solve than the ones found in 999.
This title was notable at the time for featuring full voice acting (although strangely, the original European version only had Japanese voices with English text) and a timeline flowchart, allowing the player to easily keep track of the choices they have made, the endings they have unlocked and also grants the ability to immediately jump to any part of the game. This makes unlocking the true ending much less of a chore than in 999, and was a welcome addition.
VLR was an excellent game when it was released back in 2012, with a crazy mind bending story that was perhaps even more elaborate than the one featured in 999. The puzzle rooms were also much more difficult this time round, and the addition of 3D rendered visuals and voice acting brought the characters to life and allowed them to express emotion far more convincingly than the text-heavy previous game. However, despite these improvements I did not enjoy VLR as much as 999. I found the characters to be less interesting this time round, and the move to 3D gives the facility this drab grey look that seems a million miles away from the lush and detailed artwork of the original game. The story, although brilliant, just doesn’t seem as tight as in the original title either, and some of the puzzle solutions and object interactions seem a bit….. counter-intuitive…
As far as this particular remaster is concerned, sadly it is much less impressive than the 999 remaster. In fact this seems to be a direct port of the PlayStation Vita version of the game, with hardly any upgrades at all. A few typographical errors have been fixed, but aside from that I struggled to see any differences between this and the original game, which is especially disappointing after seeing how much effort went into the remaster of 999. The fact that Junpei in 999 is fully voice-acted, but Sigma (the player character in VLR) is the only character here who isn’t feels really jarring, especially during any extended periods of conversation. Playing this title on the PS4 can feel cumbersome – (just try to write anything using the ‘memo’ function) the game was originally designed with a touchscreen in mind, and it shows.
Despite the shortcomings, Virtue’s Last Reward is an excellent game that has a sometimes dark, sometimes humorous, but always interesting plot, mysterious characters and some enjoyable and rewarding puzzles to solve. It’s just disappointing that it didn’t receive the same care and attention for this remastered set as the first game did.
+ Brilliant story
+ Challenging puzzles
+ English voice acting in Europe, finally….
– Barely any improvements over the original release
– Clunky to play on PS4
– Inferior to 999, especially the version in this collection
An excellent sequel that any fans of the first game should definitely play.
Score – 8/10
The Nonary Games
+ the 999 remaster is a massive upgrade
+ Some of the best stories you will ever experience
+ Genuinely enjoyable and taxing puzzles
– Virtue’s Last Reward is pretty much a direct port
– Where is the third game?
The Nonary Games is an essential purchase for anybody who enjoys narrative-focused games or ‘escape the room’ style puzzle solving. The collection feels incomplete without the third game though, but the remaster of 999 is worth the price of admission alone.
Score – 9/10
The Nonary Games is available now for the PlayStation 4 and Steam, with a Playstation Vita version due later in the year. PlayStation 4 version played for this review.
Andy O’Flaherty – follow me on Twitter @mambatabac