Abducted from their homes, nine individuals awaken on a sinking ship. Their abductor, the mysterious Zero, tells them that they have nine hours to escape, before they all drown. Can this group of strangers work together to solve the puzzles that keep them trapped – and will they be able to figure out Zero’s true identity and motivations along the way?
The first game in the Zero Escap trilogy, 999 blends a branching visual novel story with escape room puzzles, making for an intriguing and addictive combination. To be honest, I could just leave it at that, but for the sake of writing a more comprehensive review, let’s dig a little deeper.
Story and Gameplay
999’s story was penned by Kotaro Uchikoshi, whose work I had previously encountered in the form of Ever 17, a sci-fi visual novel from 2002. Both stories have a fair few elements in common – each features a small group of people trapped and in danger of imminent drowning, with heavy sci-fi elements and a branching story that only makes sense once you’ve explored the entire tree. Yes, the science is a bit ‘out there’ in each case, but if you like sci-fi, mystery and heavy plot twists, then you’re in good hands with Uchikoshi.
999 also adds an extra dimension to proceedings, however, as throughout the story you will have to solve escape room puzzles. Ever since I discovered Flash games such as The Yellow Room many years ago, I’ve been a big fan of escape room puzzles, and so getting an entire game of them is a real treat.
In terms of difficulty, the puzzles are pitched at a good level – involved enough to be engaging, but not so difficult as to be frustrating. On a couple of occasions I got stuck for a bit because I couldn’t find the right bit of screen to interact with to reveal my next clue, but nothing was ever outright difficult. In fact, in one of the rooms there is a switch puzzle where a different part of the room gives you the answer, but it’s perfectly possible to solve it without this extra help.
With nine characters to work with, it’s no surprise that 999 doesn’t have the time to give all of them much in the way of depth and complexity. Although each character is largely written to a basic stereotype, they are all decent enough – if anything, their simplicity makes them more easily memorable.
As with their personalities, character designs are pretty straightforward in terms of covering the usual stereotypes. All are clean, bright and well drawn, with the rare and welcome treat of animated rather than static sprites. Backgrounds and settings are functional, with a variety of rooms available for escapes.
The background music is atmospheric and complements the tone of the game nicely, although much of the time I was multitasking and so played with the sound set to a low volume.
DS versus PC
I started out by playing my DS copy of 999, but when I got one of the bad endings, I realised I was stuck solving the same puzzles repeatedly to get the other endings. At this point I switched to the PC port, which lets you jump around the story tree (a feature added in 999’s sequel, Virtue’s Last Reward), eliminating the need to repeat puzzles.
The PC version also comes with a few other changes:
- The story can now be experienced in “Novel mode” or “Adventure mode”. Novel mode is more text-heavy, and closely resembles the experience of the original DS version, albeit with an updated translation. Adventure mode is closer to the style of Virtue’s Last Reward, with the story being told entirely through more succinct dialogue boxes. Novel mode is more immersive and descriptive, and definitely worth experiencing at least once.
- The dual screen view is gone, replaced with a standard single screen view. This affects the story in a very subtle way, and means that the last puzzle in the True Ending has been changed.
- The port now has English and Japanese voice acting. The game didn’t really suffer without voice acting, but the Japanese vocals certainly didn’t seem tacked on or out of place. I can’t comment on the English dub as I didn’t try it.
- There’s some graphical upscaling and font changes – in fact, I prefer the less generic DS font.
A strong introduction to the Zero Escape series, 999 crafts a decent mystery around a set of fun escape room challenges. It’s definitely worth anyone’s while to look into this one.