Following the initial release of 9 Hours, 9 Persons, 9 Doors, the game failed to capture a sizable market in Japan, with sales failing to surpass 50,000, while in the west it sold enough to justify a second printing. Because of this the game was viewed as a success, and a sequel was put forward, one that would release on two platforms in order to maximize the audience, feature a far larger and more ambitious story, and be rebranded under the moniker of Zero Escape. However, the game failed to perform adequately in Japan, and there was a brief period where it was believed the series would end forever on the cliffhanger of the series. Which would have been a colossal shame, but that isn’t the case as the final chapter is due out in a week. But before that, let’s dig into the middle chapter of this trilogy with Virtue’s Last Reward.
Zero Escape: Virtue’s Last Reward Review
Platforms: Vita(Reviewed), 3DS
Developers: Spike Chunsoft
Publisher: Aksys Games
Virtue’s Last Reward follows the same general framework as its predecessor. An enigmatic figure by the name of Zero has abducted nine people and forces them to participate in the Nonary Game in order to escape from the massive compound they are imprisoned in. Where the nine must solve a variety of puzzles, uncover the mystery of Zero, determine why they were abducted, and about twenty other plot threads that are opened and tied before the game comes to a close.
Progression is now determined by a color wheel instead of digital roots, with every player being assigned a color along with a pair or solo designation, in order to open the next door of progression. Afterwards, the players of the Nonary Game are forced to solve an escape the room puzzle, and upon solving it are allowed to play in the AB game. That is, a simplified version of the prisoner’s dilemma, asking the pair and solo who solved the puzzle together to either betray or ally with their partner in order to be awarded points that mean the difference between freedom and an arm filled with a lethal dosage of muscle relaxant. Salvation can only be awarded upon people being virtuous enough to have faith in each other, though that doesn’t often happen.
It is a firm and intriguing starting position that serves as the base of the nonlinear narrative of Virtue’s Last Reward, allowing the player to jump back to previous decisions and see alternate histories. What if you chose to ally instead of betray, or chose to enter the green door instead of the blue, well the answer is quite a lot. Across a total of 24 endings, the slight majority of which are simply, but unique, bad endings, the scope and variation in the story of Virtue’s Last Reward is quite wild, with a series of unique mysteries, reveals, and character moments across each of them that all are interconnected to each other through a way that… I won’t say, but should be pretty obvious early on.
The story contains a wide array of concepts and ideals that manage to remain cohesive despite all the time jumping, and manages to tell a compelling science fiction narrative rich and ripe with its own deluge of reveals, twists, and overall compelling narrative circumstances. Even as I remembered the great majority of turns the story took, it was still incredibly compelling to go through it a second time, and quite impressive how smoothly constructed the story is.
Though, I won’t say that such a complicated plot can never be confusing, as there with all the time jumping some confusion is almost inevitable, and remembering things such as how many points a character has, or what their color assignment is, can be especially hard to track, as they change following every round of the AB game. Plus, there is the very real issue how one progresses through the story, which can hinder this game far more than its predecessor.
Along the flowchart of progression, there are a series of locks that must be unlocked by going along an alternate route, where you learn something vital for narrative progression. Such as a code, or perhaps a secret about a character that is necessary to keep the story going. While I was positively giddy whenever a story lock was unlocked, the idea of stumbling onto a story lock and getting stumped is not an appealing one. There is a recommended order to view endings in so the player can avoid almost all of these story locks, but the game offers you no help in figuring out what that is. Instead you need to find a flowchart, or just follow an order I laid out at the end of this review.
It’s also worth noting that the characters are far more developed than those in 999, with all of them having their own chance to shine through the story, make major contributions to its progression, and their own ending to further establish themselves as people. This is amplified by the high quality voice acting provided that brings the character to life, with the manic and dastardly AI Zero III being an absolute treat thanks to the abrasive yet playful personality his voice actress bestows him with. While other characters, such as reserved and mysterious Phi feel more vital and important when their lines are being uttered by a human being, and not a series of pitched chirps. I pretty much loved all of them, even if I couldn’t help but hear Noire from the Neptunia franchise whenever Quark opened his mouth.
I could go on about the appealing parts of the VLR’s story and how it manages to remain a very mature and intense experience, as in actually mature, but is more than eager to have the main character speak in cat puns, or have another character mistakenly refer to a pantry as a panty room. Or perhaps I could get into the ending, and hint as to why I absolutely enjoyed it, even if most of the twists are easy to foreshadow, and lack the same punch as the original, though that would be quite difficult. However, I believe my point has been made, and whatever minute qualms I have with the story do little to diminish the sheer adoration I felt for it as I saw it play out while feverishly taking notes. Which may seem odd, but in regards to the game’s escape rooms, a pen and paper are a necessity.
The escape the room puzzles involve examining a decently sized room for various items, using said items to manipulate the environment, and eventually finding a passkey that can allow you to find the way out. It’s really not all that different from 999, but in order to make the game more difficult than it’s fairly easy predecessor, the game incorporated a series of isolated puzzle minigames, or a mechanism that require a specific input into each room. They certainly serve to complicate things, but the logic of determining what you should do with these various devices is not always clear.
Even as I took notes to remember tables of data and remind myself of aspects hinted at in each room, I still found myself stumped as to what I should do next to progress in several of these escape rooms. Once I did look up a walkthrough to see what part of the puzzle I wasn’t getting, it was something rather obvious, and more than a little upsetting. I guess I just wasn’t paying attention to thing that the game didn’t shove into my face, such as a billiards puzzle that gives you a portion of the solution in the minigame itself, but because none of the characters commentated on it, I failed to notice that information.
In addition to the route for the one passkey that will allow you to escape your given room, there’s also a bonus passkey that will provide with player with a collection of facts and lore that further enhance the story itself. Unfortunately, finding out how to obtain these passkeys ranges from incredibly simple to bizarrely obscure. I’m sure they would be easier to find, and everything about the puzzles would be easier to determine, if I chose to play on easy mode, but the locking of a crucial epilogue decentivises that decision dramatically.
Upon looking into this game a little more for the review, I learned that the developers were both inexperienced with making a game using 3D models and the like, and that they were not entirely sure of what the final specifications of the 3DS and Vita were as they developed the game. While nothing about this game looks bad, the 3D models of the main characters are nowhere as detailed as they could be, even considering the more limited power of the 3DS version. They look plain, have less texture detail than they ought to, and have this bad habit of snapping from one animation to the next, without any smooth transition. While the environments often incorporate a similar dirty and industrial aesthetic to 999, with musky walls and a series of environments that look intentionally sterile, excluding a select few.
Though what the game lacks visually, it more than makes up for it with a cast of talented voice actors who bring their respective characters to life with what verges between high quality performances to something excellent. With the eccentric AI Zero III in particular being an absolute treat thanks to his voice actress’ manic and fiery performance.
On that note, I should specify that I played the Vita version after enjoying the 3DS version many years ago. While I do believe the Vita version is more appealing in regards to presentation, many of the puzzles heavily utilize the touch screen, and very much feel as if they were made for a stylus, not an oily human finger that must be dragged along the screen. However, the increased resolution and streamlined UI make me inclined to recommend the Vita version rather than the 3DS one after briefly revisiting it, even before considering that save corrupting bug. But considering that a PC version is very likely in the works, and Spike Chunsoft has delivered on quality PC ports thus far, I’d tentatively recommend that version above all others.
Zero Escape: Virtue’s Last Reward is one of the most compelling and interesting stories I have seen in any game, and due to how it maintains the same high quality of its predecessor, I’d say it’s one of the best sequels I’ve ever seen. It is a glorious and intricate plot with a slew of exciting turns inside it, and I feel it surpasses its predecessor in many ways. My gripes with the occasionally frustrating gameplay are worth noting, but do little to diminish such a compelling story. A story that, in just a week from now, will be concluded.
…But I’m going to need about two weeks to give it the time it deserves. The review will come out during the week of July 13th.