GBAtemp Recommends: Zero Escape Series

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For a genre that relies so much on a fear of the unknown, horror franchises can become quite formulaic. They’ll often use the same settings, the same killers, the same motivations. Zero Escape, Kotaro Uchikoshi’s puzzle-horror visual novel series, bucks this trend by reinventing itself with every entry. While each one has a totally new cast and setting, that’s standard for this sort of horror series. What makes Zero Escape stand out is that it changes the rules, the tone, the art style and the structure every time. It tells a cohesive story, but each game still feels totally unique and has its own identity.

The first game, Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors, is about nine people trapped on a boat in something called the “Nonary Game.” Each is wearing a bracelet with a number between one and nine, which are used to open a series of doors, also numbered between one and nine. A group of three to five can open any numbered door that corresponds to their digital root--found by adding their digits together, then adding the individual digits of that number and so on until you end up with a single digit answer. (i.e. 9 + 8 + 1 = 18. 1 + 8 = 9. The digital root of 981 is 9.) The players have to split into groups to cooperate through a series of puzzles and find the number nine door that leads to the exit. While the emotional stakes aren’t exactly unique—people in a deadly situation would do best to trust each other but are tempted to betray each other for short-term personal gain—the basic math angle really adds a lot.

Zero Escape is based around escape room puzzles, and the digital root is a simple enough concept that can be plugged in to a bunch of different puzzle setups. There are some rely on the standard puzzle game fare of going off contextual clues and messing with objects in the room, but a lot of them require you to flex your math muscles, and I got used to having a pen and paper with me when I played. One standout puzzle faced me with a 3x3 grid and nine pins, numbered 1 to 9, and I had to arrange the pins in an order where any set of three--horizontal, vertical, and diagonal--would have a digital root of 9. It's a deceptively simple premise that brings real challenge, and it's so fun to see a puzzle that could exist anywhere, unburdened by so many of the things that can drag down video game puzzles; obtuse logic, obscured information, or adherence to a convoluted plot line to find the answer.

That's not to say that the plot is bad. It stays grounded in the emotional reality of these characters, never discarding the horrible situation they're in, but also not dwelling on it and becoming overly morose. Every character is well-rounded, and the mystery of what's happening on this boat is naturally engaging. The basic math plays into this, as well. The rules of the Nonary Game are so simple that anyone can understand and strategize around them, and you can easily start planning things out well in advance. When faced with any branching path or sudden plot developments, I couldn’t stop myself from doing quick calculations to see how a decision might come back to bite me, or where the game might be headed. It gives you a leg up in anticipating the story, which gets you more actively involved. It's a pretty genius setup.

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Which is why I was so surprised to see the second installment, Virtue’s Last Reward, completely do away with it. Again nine people are kidnapped and forced to wear bracelets, but here the numbers on your bracelet represent your point total, and whoever gets to nine points first wins. Points are accumulated through a version of the Prisoner’s Dilemma, where betraying someone will get you a lot of points, but trust will get everybody out the quickest. That theme of distrust remains, but almost everything else feels fresh. There's a visual overhaul that makes the game much brighter, and replaces the hand-drawn sprites with 3D animated models. The more expressive characters and brighter look leads to a generally lighter tone. That's not to say it's a complete farce, of course, but there's certainly a stronger emphasis on the comedic banter between characters. There's also a new host; replacing the disembodied, droning voice that commanded players in 999, Virtue's Last Reward is hosted by Zero III, a high-energy, mascot-style rabbit that makes puns while doling out despair.

There's no core mechanic like the digital root, and while that absence is strongly felt, the core structure of VLR is a sprawling, borderline-convoluted meta-narrative puzzle. Without getting too specific, 999 is fairly linear--there's a branching path and you need to do two endings in a specific order to get the true end. It's not the most intuitive thing, but it's manageable (the flowchart added to modern versions of the game make it even easier to do). VLR, on the other hand, has a whopping 22 endings, nine of which are required to see the true ending. The endings can't be done in any order, however. You might need some information from one ending to complete another, and if you try to do an ending without that information you could end up getting an early game over. There's a comprehensive flowchart that makes it easy to jump from point to point and keep track of which endings you've seen, and which ones were bad endings and which ones need to be revisited to see the good ending for that timeline. It doesn't keep track of the actual information you garnered or where you need to use it, though, so you may want to keep some personal notes to make it easier. Still, it's an incredibly ambitious and unique design. It may require a level of investment that's off-putting to some players, but for those that were into 999, it's fantastic.

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Zero Escape is a chameleon of a series. Its transformations continued with the third game, Zero Time Dilemma, which adopts an even more serious tone than 999 and tells its story even less linearly than Virtue's Last Reward. Notably, it tells its story mostly through cutscenes and abandons the visual novel style of the previous two entries. For a game series made in a relatively short time, and retaining most of its core creative staff, it's astounding that they can experiment with the tone, gameplay and structure of each entry, but still create something that feels like a cohesive whole. It's one of the few series whose entries don't feel distinct because of the specific events that occur in them, or slight improvements to core mechanics, but because each game truly feels like it was created from the ground up as its own thing.


I hope you enjoyed this edition of GBAtemp Recommends. If you'd like to see more, leave your feedback in the thread below or check out our previous articles.





This issue of GBAtemp Recommends was written to coincide with the release of World's End Club, Kotaro Uchikoshi's new game made in collaboration with Danganronpa creator Kazutaka Kodaka. If you want to read our recommendation on his work--a series that, in direct opposition to Zero Escape, only reinvents its themes and keeps everything else the same--check out that article here.
 

anhminh

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Is the game complete? The ending of third game really doesn't answer anything and I leave with even more question.

Edit: Also did anyone play World End's Club? It twitchy story with option and branch really scratch my itch for mystery game.
 
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HelpTheWretched

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Only played the DS one, and couldn't really get into it. For some reason, I was more engrossed with Last Window the Hotel Dusk sequel for games of this genre.
I really enjoyed both of those series, and went into both of them blindly, having only heard vague recommendations. So I get what you mean, 999 seemed like nothing special at first. It didn't help that I kept getting the bad endings. :P

But as you replay it and take different paths, the storyline bits that you uncover and the better endings you get really build onto each other. There are some pretty crazy reveals and a great scene where Junpei totally mind-fucks one of the baddies. It might be tough to start over from the beginning if you wanted to experience more if it, but I'd recommend watching a no-commentary Lets Play.

The escape puzzles get more complex in each sequel, if that does anything for you. VLR has some of the best Holy Shit moments in the series, and ZTD, well, you can see what the other posters here are saying. Its story mostly fills in the blanks and ties up loose ends, with a bit more explicit gore.
 
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Zetman

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VLR on the 3ds had that save game issue. I don't know for other versions but It was a big problem
 

dragonblood9999

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I'm pretty sure I own all the games on multiple systems except pc. I have the ds, 3ds, vita and ps4 games. I don't own a Xbox if any of the games are on that.
 

Zetman

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They patched that in later runs of the 3DS version by...... not letting you save in those rooms.
Brilliant!
Better than nothing. That's the worst bug on a videogame.

Btw I enjoyed very much the franchise and I'd like to see something similar on switch. I've played A.I the somnium files from Spike chunsoft but I didn't like It.

Any suggestions?
 
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Charli

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thanks for the article, really enjoyed it :) I absolutely loved 999 but sadly never got around to playing the sequels. Someday I will.. :)
 
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