I'll be damned if the past month hasn't been the best time in recorded history for games we assumed would never happen.
E3 2015 brought us Shenmue III, The Last Guardian, and Final Fantasy VII's remake, and this weekend saw the news that Mega Man Legends would finally return via a spiritual sequel bearing the wink-wink, nudge-nudge name of Red Ash. And if that wasn't too much for your poor brain to handle, this year's Anime Expo hosted the announcement that Aksys' Zero Escape series would conclude in 2016, putting an end to years of uncertainty. Include the recent Bloodstained Kickstarter with this batch of suspiciously good news, and it can only be assumed the End Times are upon us.
Still, even though the return of Zero Escape is making lots of people out there—myself included—very happy, it's completely understandable if you saw the news and went, "Huh?" In terms of appeal, the Zero Escape games barely rise above cult status, which thankfully isn't much of an issue for a low-budget series that communicates most of its content via text, still images, and canned animations. If you need a basic, spoiler-free elevator pitch, though, both games in the Zero Escape series trap nine characters within a life-or-death scenario, and task the player with solving puzzles and weaving their way down the story's many branching pathways in order to survive. And while the series boasts high stakes (with plenty of character deaths) and some pretty outrageous-but-earned plot twists, the real magic comes in how Zero Escape attempts to merge the experience of both the player and the protagonist.
As you work your way to the end of various plot branches—most of which conclude with your grisly demise—the game starts anew, and the knowledge learned from previous trips through the story assists in figuring out which paths to avoid, and which to explore next. It's not that simple, though; the protagonist also retains information from past escape attempts, and can use this hindsight to his advantage. Going into further detail would spoil the living hell out of the plot, so I'll just say Zero Escape does an impressive job of integrating how you play the game into the story itself, making it a wholly unique narrative-based adventure. And if you'd like to give the first game—999: 9 Hours, 9 Persons, 9 Doors—a shot with the largely negligible puzzles excised entirely, you can grab the criminally cheap iOS version to see what all the fuss is about.
As for the upcoming Zero Escape 3, the news of its existence comes as a bit of a shock, since it seemed as if creator and writer Kotoro Uchikoshi had given up on making it a reality. His Facebook Page, created to to help generate enthusiasm for the project, went silent for over a year, and it doesn't take a genius to realize Spike-Chunsoft has a much greater interest in pursuing Danganronpa, which eclipses Zero Escape in terms of popularity (not to mention moichendising!).
Thankfully, it seems as if Zero Escape 3 will have the same modest budget of Virtue's Last Reward (2012's Zero Escape 2), which traded the flat images and pure text of 999 for polygonal graphics and voice acting for its many, many lines of dialogue—with most of the performances being pretty impressive considering Aksys' undoubtedly shoestring budget. Even though Amazon listed a gun-jumping date of December 2015 for their pre-orders of both Vita and 3DS versions, localizing what must be 25-30 hours of dialogue is no easy task, so I can only assume (and hope) this part of the process is happening alongside development. The first two games in the series took six months or longer to reach the USA, and I don't think publisher Aksys is excited about the financial prospects of releasing a Vita game in 2017.
We've only just absorbed the announcement of Zero Escape 3, and production has barely started, but it's still heartening to know this project truly exists. There's a narrative throughline across the first two games, and while Virtue's Last Reward's ending isn't exactly disappointing, it essentially feels like the build-up to the series' final act. Even though the Danganronpa inadvertently delayed the finale of Zero Escape, the silver lining to this cloud is that the growing popularity and critical praise of Spike-Chunsoft's high school murder mystery could have actually made the marketplace friendlier for this kind of experience. For now, though, all we can do is wait and hope that the earth isn't showered in salt and fire before Zero Escape's inevitable conclusion. If you've never dipped your toe into the dark science fiction of this series, the next 12 months should give you plenty of time to see what all the fuss is about.