Note: I re-reviewed this game in 2016. Please disregard this original review.
I will not attempt to hide the fact that I loved 999, or to give the game its revised title, Zero Escape Volume 1: 9 Hours, 9 Persons, 9 Doors. A title given because nobody had copies after the initial shipments, and they wanted to make it more immediately connected to its sequel. Either way, I absolutely adored the game despite the entry barrier being about eight feet tall and covered in spiders. However, I got to the land of tangential learning by mixing in scientific theories in with one of the my favorite stories I’ve heard in recent memory. That aside, it still got coo-coo up the nutters by the end, and had to be explained through a Q&A with a creator. So how does the sequel hold up, pretty damn well, but I have reasons after the jump!
Zero Escape: Virtue’s Last Reward Review
Release Date: 23/10/2012
Platforms: 3DS(Reviewed) and PS Vita
Publisher: Aksys Games
Now, most people who loves a story and does not want to give it away, have trouble explaining it and why it is so good. After all, you need evidence to back up claims, and you also need context for it. And when it is a story you do not wish to spoil that is a sequel to another one much the same, my whole, “only talk about the first fourth” mentality comes down to the first fortieth. To the point where I do not even want to spoil a lot of stuff said in the trailers.
At the same time, saying to go out and pick up the previous title beforehand, also makes it feel like an incomplete experience. Yet, Virtue’s Last Reward spoils the epilogue to its predecessor, which you kind of need to play to get the full weight of some of the game’s best twists. And if you liked the previous game in the series, and the developers have not changed, chances are that you’d like the follow-up as well, making this review feel a bit pointless. So, instead I will just try my best to review the game as its own entity, cool? Onwards and upwards then!
The story of this title kicks off with some unassuming guy wearing one of the most absurd “normal-looking” outfits I’d ever seen, getting gassed on Christmas morning. After being knocked out for a while, he finds himself in a large building with eight other kidnapped individuals. With some form of magical rabbit holding the strings and having these nine play in a twisted game of life and death, called the Nonary Game: Ambidex Edition. With their way out being simple, go through the door after you go through rooms with a team of two others, and get nine points to leave this oddly designed prison. However, it is nowhere near the sample after the first hour.
Now, the setup is nearly identical to 999, with the idea of nine individuals trapped in some place and getting out by going through a series of doors and solving puzzles for some untouchable being with more power than any of them can comprehend. And by doing that, it shows just how much thought was put into this idea, because through the similarly structured script, the whole tangential learning aspect, individuals holding bracelets with numbers on them, using simple formulas to get through doors, the two games feel very, very different.
From simple things like focusing more on individual choice through some of the most plausible binary moral choice I can remember ever seeing. It is the same case of the prisoner’s dilemma, where you can choose to go and betray your partner who you have no contact with, in hopes of securing a better deal for you. Or you could choose to be silent and hope your fellow prisoner does not stab you in the back. Now, this might seem normal, especially with a graph they provide, where betraying results in a measly boost, but it revolves around one plausible fact, people are assholes. And since the characters are exposed so much, and in a way where you get to know and appreciate everyone of them, I felt bad for going against some of these people just to see what happens. And I’m someone who is apparently devoid of empathy.
I have stated before that while I do enjoy sequels to things I enjoyed, I never want a sequel to feel like a repackaging of the previous entry. And if they rework everything enough so it could be viewed as a spiritual successor, not a single issue there! And in terms of creating a storyline that is sprawling, filled with surprise, educational, and coherent within itself, maybe for a snip or two, I have rarely seen a better example of one.
Although, I think that owes a massive deal to the fact that I took notes whilst playing this title. My playthrough took 45 hours, and I took 31 pages of little figures, pages of text recapping the plot and theorizing what could happen, codes for, let’s just say surprises, and some dialog quotes that I would describe as lovely. I really do feel like I’ve never been more invested into a game. Yes, I spent 172 hours on Skyrim and 20 more than that on Dragon Quest IX, but I can hardly think of a single piece of media where I felt as much invested in the characters, the world, the theories, and whatever fancy words for things you care about when you are immersed in a game.
However, this being a visual novel, a genre of games that, along with subtitled anime, is often met with the almost disrespectful response of response of, “I’d just read a book!” As if that is the only medium that may use text more than anything. Here is my one simplified rule of art: Make something that can induce emotions that people consider to be pleasing. This can be fear, joy, introspection, sorrow, or even some cases of being educated. If you fail, you just made art that is not very good, but it is still art. Makes sense, doesn’t it? Even then, art really has no rules, and dismissing an entire format of entertainment is just being, well, arrogant, especially when the story is built around it, but I will say no more.
Also, they tossed in voice actors for everyone, except the main character. Now, I actually do believe this increased my experience with the title. I played through the great bulk, about 85% or so, voicing the main character of this game using my own voice while he was talking to others and acting like a narrator for this tale. And because I was the one vocally expressing this, I was naturally more involved in the story. I know that I should not claim one artform over another, but I just think that listening to good voice acting gives characters more weight and personality than just text on a screen. Yes, text is a lot easier to go through than listening to people speak, but with the amazingly smart feature of having the text automatically scroll after every voice clip, and a bit too long after the main character speaks, really does bring the title to a level that could not be reached by its predecessor.
I was not even voice acting out of instinct, I just felt like it was the proper thing to repeat his thoughts, like that was what I believed the designers wanted me to do. I am probably in the minority here. Scratch that, I know I am, but taking my time and just reading and listening to everything, while diligently taking notes, made this entire game more than just a title, it was an experience that I do not believe I could have achieved any other way. Sure, in games like Knights of the Old Republic and Dragon Age Origins, you did not have a voiced character, but responding was selecting a choice, here. Here, you do not get choices, you just act out as an individual who you are not, creating a feeling unique to this medium, and this medium alone.
However, you do indeed get many decisions throughout the game, the most prevalent of which are rooms you must escape from. There are 16 in total, all containing puzzles of some sort along with a lot of deducing, basic problem solving, and simple math. However, despite that description, I must break my seal of praise and complain about how they can be very cryptic. Not to directly name an issue, when you provide me with fractions like, 7/14, I do not instantly see it as ½, I think that the fact that the 7/14 has significance, when it does not.
Also, when you ask me to make a sentence using preset words, I would assume that it needs to be grammatically correct. And while I can blame myself for not rotating numbers that I could barely see due to the screen resolution of the 3DS being pretty low-res compared to most screens I’m used to. And not realizing that every password must be significant unless directly supplied as a simpler and smaller code, some things I think are not a very fair difficulty.
They try to remedy this by providing some extra files detailing lore about the world, which hold the harder puzzle, at least half the time. Although, you do not get the full file if you choose the game’s easy mode for the game’s normal hard, which I never did. You see, there is this thing called the internet, and when I am stumped after trying to figure something out for half an hour, I use it. And this is the kind of game you probably should play at night in your house, with only a lamp lighting up your notebook, so you will probably be next to a computer.
Granted, the puzzles do feel rewarding when you get them done on the first go, but after doing them for 20-25 minutes, I just get fed up with the individual puzzle if I can not find the pattern. Granted, I did this to myself, and most of the solutions are the kind where it’s so simple that I do admit it to be my fault for glancing over them. I just tended to over think things because part of me thought the puzzle design team was also made up of the writers, which would mean they make sense as long as you must think on top of the box, and on the bottom, at the same time!
Oh, and the music. I often say that I prefer soundtracks with more of a beat to them, however the smooth underlying atmosphere does nothing but enhance the general sense of unrest the title evokes, even when it is being more prevalent in some puzzle filled rooms, it makes everything seem more than a little off in the best kind of way. And for the voice work provided from the English cast, I’d say it is pretty top notch. I am more than a little flabbergasted as to how they even managed to keep this much sound data on a single game card that I doubt is more than 4GB, if that. Let alone make the quality crisp and clear through my headphones, since that is how I listen through all things, and have believable and emotion filled performances whenever they talk outside of a puzzle room.
Yet, we then come to the visuals, with this being a visual novel. I read in an interview with someone who I believe was this game’s director, and he stated that the decision to use 3D models for the characters, rather than sprites, was to support the 3D effect. Now, I find this hilarious for one reason, the 3D does not work on the character models. It works for the backgrounds of the warehouse just fine, but when the game has a pre rendered screenshot of the characters in a pose, it is flat, with only the dialog box popping out.
Aside from that, the models are very well designed, although the animations can be a bit janky when moving from pose to pose. I probably should complain about how the developers could not even get 3D models to be viewed in 3D, but I think it is just a joke they played, pointing out how little they actually value the hardware that the game is probably only needs due of cartridge space. Hell, they even use 2D sprites for about 15% of the screens.
But during the puzzle areas, you are actually given the ability to move around the room from a first person perspective, which you always have, and move around via shoulder buttons or the stylus. Granted, I could raise an issue with having to navigate through areas on a one dimensional path, yet it never becomes a hindrance as you search through the room, and pretty much everything you need is very visible from a glance. I did not know that I could not interact with a few objects here and there, but it is hard to really critique that, because sometimes things can be obvious to one person, and be cryptic to another, all depending on the way their individual mind works.
To conclude this overly long analysis, Virtue’s Last Reward is probably my favorite title that came out in 2012. Well, I did not play every game, so it could be dethroned, yet that alone summarizes how I find this game to be wonderful. There are a few games that I adore to the point where I do not think that I should even mention what was noted in the trailers and instruction booklet, and this is certainly one of them. Sure, some of the puzzles were a bit cryptic for me, and I had to look them up after I tried for twenty or so minutes, and some of the plot threads border on being a bit contrived.
The sheer thickness of the atmosphere and incentive to take notes end up making an experience that I do not think could have been fulfilled by any other medium. I am tempted to say it is next to flawless, but I should not need to look up something to figure out what to do, and feel like I am taking the wimpy way regardless. It is fitting the title is Virtue’s Last Reward, because it is rare to play a title that feels as much like a reward as this one does. And I’m certainly glad is will not be the last.
An exceptional product that merely suffers from a few nagging issues that do not distract too much from this experience.
Have a positive or negative response? Please leave one below, it’s the only way I’ll improve.
God, I hope I did not do this review wrong!