Zero Escape: Virtue’s Last Reward is a weird game. Successor to 999: Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors for DS, Virtue’s Last Reward continues the series trend of being a visual novel/puzzle game hybrid that contains an ever-unraveling story.
The plot follows nine people who are kidnapped and brought into a warehouse. They are then instructed by a talking AI rabbit (named Zero III) to complete a series of tasks, part of the Nonary Game: Ambidex Edition, that tests the survival skills of the contestants, as well as the level of trust that exists among the group. Of course, this is a terribly general description of the events that occur in the game, as the plot uses this as a jumping-off point to get all kinds of crazy depths.
The game is mainly separated into Escape and Novel sections. Novel sections are, as expected, where the story plays out. Being a visual novel, very little interaction takes place unless it comes to making a decision (more on that in a minute), and Novel sections can each take upwards of 20 minutes or more with little interaction outside of being able to take notes, clicking on dialog boxes, or occasionally fast forwarding through text. This is not to say featuring so little interaction is bad, however; VLR is clearly a visual novel as much as it is a video game, and the writing is so excellent that simply watching the story take place is enough.
The Escape sections are puzzle rooms in which the main character is required to escape a room by obtaining a key from a safe using everything he can. For example, you may find yourself in the pantry. To get the code located on the monitor, you need to turn it on. To do so, you need to find the right ration boxes and water to fit into the right slots next to the monitor. But even before doing that and figuring out how that whole thing works, you may need to find the key card, which you might be able to do if you can just get into the cupboard squished behind a bookcase. What makes these puzzles so great is how they just throw you into a room with little context, and require a solution through pure curiosity. While some puzzles require that you are able to think in a certain way, the ones in VLR test your skills of how good you are at connecting ideas to find a solution.
Escaping is surprisingly visceral and addicting, and inspires a line of thinking of “if I do this, I wonder if this will happen”. And like an old Zelda game, finally finishing one of these rooms (which can take between 20 minutes or an hour) inspires a feeling of accomplishment that I miss in modern video games. The only downside to this is that some puzzles do feel like trial and error more than a test of intellectual capability, though this is the exception more than the standard.
After completing one of the escape puzzles, the game usually presents a Novel section or two before making the player play an Ambidex game. Based around the prisoner’s dilemma, every team (of either one or two people) is placed into their own separate room against an opponent within the group. Starting with three points (connected to a watch on their wrists), each player needs to decide whether to betray their opponent or ally with them. If both players ally, both players earn two points; if they both choose to betray, both players earn zero points. However, if one chooses betray and the other ally, the betraying player earns three points and the allying one loses two. Once a player earns nine points, they can escape, but if a player’s score goes down to zero, they die.
These sections provide tension, and really question how desperate you are to escape — as well as the level of trust among the group. I chose to betray at both opportunities during my first play through and I escaped, but at the cost of a moral coldness knowing that I left several people to die. This is amplified by the fact that once any player gets nine points and opens the door to escape, the door (and all hope for the other participants) closes forever.
What makes the entire experience a brilliant one, though, is how significant every single decision is in the game. Making one decision early on provides not only different plot points, but also an entirely different game than someone who chose something different. The puzzles are totally different, the character interactions are different, and playing through everything is necessary to understand the scope of the plot. This is why, in spite of the fact that reaching one ending probably only takes about four hours, you will need to play upwards of thirty to appreciate the entire experience. And this does not feel like a grind either. Each of the potential endings (well over a dozen, both good and bad) provides new key revelations in the plot. And, thanks to the ability to jump to any part of the story with a touch of a button (so you don’t have to play the entire game over 20 times), going back to key decisions and doing something else is a breeze. This takes away a little bit of the weight in decision-making, but the convenience is easily worth it. Without spoiling anything, the game even comes up with a clever way to incorporate this “plot-jumping”, which truly shows how above and beyond the developers went to provide adequate detail.
To go along with incredible writing and design is equally excellent voice acting. The sound quality is great, and every character (with a couple specific exceptions) sounds organic and natural. On the other technical side of things, the artwork is also very good, though the visuals don’t entirely feel like they’re taking advantage of the Vita version (which was used for this review).
Although I said that New Little King’s Story was the best game on Vita not very long ago, I must admit that this is a superior experience (despite not being a traditional game). It has all of the depth players have dreamed a Vita game to have, it has some of the best writing I have ever seen in something sold as a video game, and it has puzzle gameplay that is uniquely stellar. I can’t recommend this game highly enough, and since you don’t need to play 999 to play this, it seems like every handheld owner is out of excuses. Go buy this. Now.