I wanted to review these dearly beloved games, but to be honest the first game is rather short and I don’t have a ton to say about the third game. These games are also one long story (you can’t jump in just anywhere) so I’ve condensed it here into a single, glorious review. I will keep it spoiler free!
Zero Escape has a complicated release history. The first game, perhaps unfortunately titled 999 (Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors), released on Nintendo DS, PSP, and iOS. The sequel, Zero Escape: Virtue’s Last Reward released for 3DS and Vita. After much badgering from fans and a huge campaign (that yours truly was an active member of), the final installment of the trilogy, Zero Time Dilemma, finally released for 3DS, Vita, and PC in 2016. The following year, 999 and Virtue’s Last Reward were remastered and repackaged on PC and PS4 as Zero Escape: The Nonary Games. TLDR; if you want to play this trilogy today buy Zero Escape: The Nonary Games and Zero Escape: Zero Time Dilemma from the Steam Store.
999 (Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors)
Nine strangers awake to find themselves in an abandoned luxury cruise liner. Each of them has a watch strapped to their wrist with a number on it, 1–9. There are a variety of paths to access, but each of them is numbered 1–9. Each door can be opened only be a combination of people whose digital root numbers add up to that door number. For instance, door 5 can be opened by person 1, 6, and 7 because 1+6+7=14 and 1+4=5, leading to the digital root 5. The decisions you make as to who goes through which door at what stage of the game influences the story and the ending, of which there are several. A mysterious man named Zero taunts them over the loudspeakers, asking archaic and inscrutable questions, laughing maniacally, and then disappearing. What’s his game???
This cast of characters, anime as they may be, is actually great. Each one of them, even your own player character Junpei, has well thought out backstories that are fed to you slowly over the course of the game. Each of them has distinct and visible motivations and goals and their decisions in the game reflect those goals. Seems like simple praise, but you’d be amazed how many ensemble casts lose the thread of what each character wants halfway through. Plus, each character is filled with inane and useless pseudo science facts that are fascinating. One of the key elements of this trilogy is that each character is weirdly knowledgeable about various pseudoscience fields and will launch into a lecture without warning.
It’s mostly a visual novel, but there is quite a lot of game in it as you solve the room puzzles and make difficult decisions on which door to take. The true ending is unexpected and twisty in the best ways and leads right into Virtue’s Last Reward. The whole thing takes maybe 8 hours max if you do all the endings, which you really don’t need to do. Alternatively, watch a YouTube video of the plot summary and skip straight to Virtue’s Last Reward because it is sooo good.
Zero Escape: Virtue’s Last Reward
I need you to look very carefully at the image of the game’s timeline below and not freak out.
I really cannot sell this game hard enough. It is so good. It is so good I want to scream. We have full motion characters and voice acting now for the visual novel parts. The music is out of a slasher movie. We have 9 more anime friends to meet, each more knowledgeable about stupid pseudoscience than the last. We have way better fully 3D puzzles now and each of them are designed around escaping. The theme of escape is packed tightly into every facet of this game. Get out!
The pitch for this one is similar: 9 strangers wake up in a futuristic facility full of robots, laboratories, and other crazy technology. Each one has a watch strapped to their wrist, but this time with a color: red, blue, and green. Combining these colors and their respective people in different ways results in the three Chromatic Door colors, Cyan, Yellow, and Magenta. So this time, if you want a team to go through the magenta door, you’ll need to send a blue and a red person. And it’s all being orchestrated by an AI rabbit called Zero Jr. He’s much more like Monokuma from the Danganronpa games, but less fun and more murdery.
The real kicker is the AB game. You will choose to either ally or betray other teams in isolated chambers in a crazy situation based on the Prisoner’s Dilemma. Every time you cross through doors and team up, your team has to rely on the other teams to not Betray them. Betraying a team that allied with you loses them life points (BP) and gains you a hefty few, getting you just a bit closer to having enough to escape. With all these choices (who you ally/betray and who you team up with when), there’s a lot of different paths, right?
Don’t get too comfortable allying with everyone, because you will play through over 30 instances of this game before you are done, each one of them drastically different from the others. You will experience every single outcome that could happen. Don’t worry though, you can skip around timelines and through conversations with the press of a button. You will see every character you love ripped to pieces in one timeline, become a bloodthirsty killer in another, and sacrifice their life for someone they barely know in yet another. It’s absolute madness that destroys all sense of the linear value of time. And it is sheer brilliance.
One last thing is that many paths of the game are blocked until you learn something from another timeline, like a code or password, that lets you move forward. Timeline A stops at scene 12 and the scene ends with a pass code lock. Luckily, timeline F scene 4 has a pass code that you can use to unlock it. This opens you up to Timeline A Scene 13 which gives you access to the pattern needed to solve the sun puzzle in Timeline X scene 9. Etc, etc. It’s so good, man. Play it. It is a literal masterpiece that I truly think could not be any better.
Zero Escape: Zero Time Dilemma
Zero Time Dilemma, the final piece of the trilogy, is a good game. It is not great, but it is good. If you have played the first 2 games I don’t need to tell you that you need to finish the story out. The puzzles are better than the last game yet again, but this time the story and time jumping mechanics are a little too esoteric for their own good. And good news: this time, all the characters are hot anime teens (and one child).
The “gimmick” of this game is that it is played entirely out of chronological order. This time there are three set teams, C, D, and Q, and they last all the way to the end of the game. Each team can only navigate the underground bunker by relying on the other teams to take certain actions in isolated situations, so again there’s a lot of guesswork on what others will do. You will play “scenes” from the game’s many timelines seemingly at random, slowly learning more about the narrative. Eventually it will click, but the journey to get there is barely worth it. Some closure is needed at the end of this trilogy tho, and you’ll get enough to be satisfied.
999 (9 Persons, 9 Hours, 9 Doors): 7/10
Zero Escape: Virtue’s Last Reward: 10/10
Zero Escape: Zero Time Dilemma: 8/10
Virtue’s Last Reward is a masterwork, and anyone who wants to write a non-traditional narrative needs to study it. 999 and Zero Time Dilemma are both great puzzle/visual novels that support this middle entry well. Not only has Kotaro Uchikoshi crafted dozens of different stories taking place at the same time to the same characters, but he’s made them all interesting enough for you to want to see every instance of what could happen to your precious anime teens. You will need to find out what would have happened if you had Allied here, or chosen the 7 door there. And you will, because it is all part of the game. The true ending is seeing every possible ending. Your choices do matter in this game, maybe more than you want them to. The more choices you make, the more you feel control slipping from your hands. Does it matter what you do if everything that could happen will happen? It matters more than it ever has before.