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Zero Escape: Virtueâs Last Reward is a mystery interactive novel and the sequel to Zero Escape: 999. Itâs available on PlayStation Vita, Nintendo 3DS and has just been re-released on PlayStation 4 and PC as part of The Nonary Games bundle pack. Alan Stock figures out whodunnit this time in a spoiler-free review for ComiConverse.
Game Review: Zero Escape: Virtueâs Last Reward
After loving Zero Escapeâs premier title, 999 – Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors, I couldnât wait to play the sequel and continue this crazy tale. But there was one problem: I didnât have a Vita or 3DS to play it on. So with squirming anticipation I impatiently waited for the PC port which has finally arrived. The Nonary Games bundle recently released for PC and PlayStation 4 includes both 999 and Virtueâs Last Reward, remastered with slightly better graphics and small improvements over the originals. You can read my review of 999 here – and you should definitely play it first, as Virtueâs Last Reward contains many spoilers and references to 999 which will definitely diminish the impact of that classic story for you, and some of the events will be confusing without the first game to provide context.
Virtueâs Last Reward (weâll call it VLR) is firmly in the interactive novel genre. That means a lot of reading text and listening to dialogue, interspersed with a bit of puzzle solving. This game is massive compared to 999 – itâs a much slower paced game and youâre looking at around 30-40 hours at least, if you want to experience all of the story. But like 999, the writing, premise and complex plot are so good that youâll find yourself unable to put it down as you unravel all its mysteries. Iâll be going a bit more in-depth than usual in this review as thereâs so much to talk about regarding the story, but will keep things spoiler free as the plot is full of twists and revelations.
VLR sees a rehash of the events of 999 in a different setting. Nine seemingly random people are abducted and wake in a strange facility, imprisoned by the mysterious Zero (identity unknown) and forced to play the deadly âNonary Gameâ. They will be forever trapped until one of them opens the Number 9 Door allowing at least one of them to escape. In order do that, they are funneled into puzzle âescapeâ rooms – after solving them they gain access to the âAmbidex Gameâ. Win 9 points in the Ambidex game and you can leave through the Number 9 Door, but it only opens once and only the winners can go through – leaving everyone else to rot forever.
The Ambidex game is a version of the Prisonerâs Dilemma in which the players can choose to Ally or Betray each other, with the votes made in isolation. If each Ally they both gain points, but choosing Betray if your opposite number chooses Ally gets you more points, and punishes the Allying player too. Co-operation to Ally should get everyone out alive, but each character has their own motivations. Mistrust is heavy in the air with events taking twists and turns including murder, the revelation that one of them is probably Zero, and the announcement that the bracelets they’ve been fitted with will inject a deadly poison should they disobey the rules or reach zero points. How will the players get out of this situation, who will get out alive, and just what the heck is going on? They are compelling reasons to keep playing Virtueâs Last Reward and uncover the truth behind it all.
You play as Sigma, a young, normal chap whoâs one of the unfortunate nine players. You get to see his thoughts and feelings as he reacts to the situation and chats to the other players, and occasionally you get to choose dialogue responses. You also get to make bigger decisions like whether to Ally or Betray other players, or choose which doors to go through. Like 999, at regular intervals in VLR the players are forced to go through coloured doors in the facility to reach puzzle rooms, but due to the colours of their bracelets they can only enter these in certain combinations of players. Itâs a clever idea but not as ingenious or well integrated into the plot as the mind-blowing number bracelet system of 999. Anyway, this means that you will always be paired with different people for each room, allowing you to learn more about those characters in the process.
The locked rooms are classic Escape game puzzle environments and are well designed, tying in nicely to the themes of the game and the setting. This time around, itâs a fully 3D environment that you explore from a first person viewpoint rather than static screens which makes for some nice immersion. Once again, a clunky inventory system hinders matters somewhat. Puzzles are nothing revolutionary but enjoyable enough – the difficulty is definitely up a notch from 999, with some puzzles very tricky, and others veering towards frustration. For the most part theyâre good, but I had to use a guide in a few places for solutions which were left a bit too open to interpretation. Thereâs two difficulty settings – on Easy you get progressively detailed hints from your companions, on Hard youâre on your own. A flaw in VLR is that by finishing a room on Hard you can earn a reward in the form of extra files, giving more background story and game development tidbits, so you wonât want to miss them. But thereâs nothing stopping you from cheating the system by playing a room on Easy and then just replaying it on Hard, already knowing the solution. I played without hints but when I tried them, I found they gave you the actual answers way too quickly anyway. Still, the puzzle rooms offer a nice change of pace from the story and thereâs plenty of them, too.
For the rest of the time though, youâll be immersed in the story. Like 999, itâs is quite melodramatic, with a heavy dose of sci-fi/thriller and is full of twists and turns. It does border on the ludicrous and silly at times, going a bit overboard even compared to 999âs crazy plot revelations. But itâs all engrossing if you take it with a punch of salt and enjoy it for the imaginative and surprising events which often take you by surprise. Thereâs a big emphasis on scientific principles, philosophy and a lot of genius, mind-bending ideas which are sprinkled throughout the story. The setting is a disappointment though, the characterless facility lacking the intrigue of 999âs sinking cruise liner.
VLR is much lighter in tone than 999 was in both visuals and writing – so although thereâs plenty of suspense, thereâs a lot less darkness to the plot, less gore and a lot more wit and lightheartedness instead. Thereâs plenty of humour which is fun, but it feels out of place at times considering the playerâs dire circumstances. Unfortunately, all of this reduces the tension a lot. In 999 the players had 9 hours before they would all die, and something critical or horrible happened at regular intervals. Your choices really felt like they mattered too. In VLR thereâs no deadly time limit and less urgency and dread overall. Apparently it was a conscious decision by the publisher, who thought the horror aspect of the first game put off the Japanese market. Instead, VLR is more of a slow burn game, with occasional punctuations of action and high drama. This is a shame, but I found that I was still engaged enough by the plot and mysteries that I didnât mind the slower pace.
A game like this lives or dies on its characters, and fortunately they are pretty good. The writingâs strong, with a great translation job by the same company that did 999. The players are rendered in a cartoonish 3D, although from its mobile roots the animations are simple and stiff, and lip synching is way off, at least with the English dub. Still, itâs a big step up from 999 to have characters expressing themselves in real time. The characters are mostly likeable and intriguing and some of their endings are great, shedding completely new light onto them. But thereâs still lapses and ludicrous behaviour on display, such as a total lack of interest in each other and their reason for being there at the start of the game, and their witty and sometimes creepy jokes in moments of high drama.The voice acting is mixed, but thereâs some great performances in there, especially the weird rabbit AI of Zero Junior, who although tonally a strange fit for the game, brings a great amount of character (and sadly is rarely seen during the later stages). On the topic of sound, the music is also great, hitting the perfect note of sci-fi intrigue and creepiness, catchy tunes in puzzle rooms and ramping up to just the right scale for big reveals and moments of drama.
What makes Virtueâs Last Reward and the whole Zero Escape series so special is their fragmented storylines. On your first playthrough, you will probably hit either a âGame Overâ screen (maybe you die or someone else escapes), or youâll reach an annoying âTo Be Continuedâ screen. At this point, youâre shown a huge flow-chart of the story showing your route and other routes which are filled with question marks. From here you can jump to any major decision point in the storyline that youâve found, or re-visit story and puzzle segments. This means you can now go back in time and make a different decision. You could Betray someone instead of Allying with them, or perhaps choose to go through a different door with different companions. A much welcome quick-skip feature allows you to quickly fast-forward through dialogue youâve already seen, and this along with the flow-chart makes the replayability much smoother than the original 999. Itâs worth noting though that a flow chart like this has also been added to the Nonary Games re-release of 999, fixing one of the big issues I had with that game in my review.
So the story unfolds as you replay the game again and again, making different decisions each time. Youâll see whole new plot threads by taking different routes, learn more about the players, discover new puzzle rooms and ultimately start to solve some of the hundreds of mysteries the story throws at you. Itâs an amazing structure for a number of reasons. With each playthrough, youâll learn more about whatâs going on, the motivations of the players, and nuggets of information about the grander schemes involved. This casts light on things youâve seen on previous runs, making for some great puzzle piecing together as you start to connect the dots.
This information gained from multiple playthroughs also ties into the structure – the annoying âTo Be Continuedâ screens act as locked gates which can only be breached once you have learned information from other runs – but once you do unlock them, it all makes sense why this is. Thereâs nine ârealâ endings (one for each player) and multiple Game Over endings to find, but theyâre mostly locked away, meaning info from one ending can gain you progress in another thread to reach a different ending. For example, you might find a computer with a password you donât know the answer to, ending that story thread temporarily, but discover the password in a different playthrough, allowing you to jump back to that point in time and progress using what youâve learned. By carrying on in this way, youâll finally uncover the last secrets of the Nonary Game. The word âendingâ is a bit of misnomer in VLR, as each ending is really just a stepping stone on the way to the âreal endâ. Itâs an ingenious structure that builds on what made 999âs story so great.
The multiple mysteries about the Nonary Game, the facility and who the players really are keep you guessing and adapting your whodunnit theories as you play through the events again and again. For example on one run you might suspect a player of being Zero, the next you learn something that completely changes your mind and pushes suspicion onto someone else. Itâs a mind-boggling array of jigsaw pieces which fit together in multiple ways until you eventually start coming close to a final, correct solution. The cool thing is that for each person playing Virtueâs Last Reward, the experience will be different depending on which order they experience events in.
Although the flow-chart structure of the game is well executed and ties into the overall plot very cleverly, it does have some flaws. First of all the question marks scattered over the chart give you too much indication about how much story lies down each decision path, and it spoils the mystery of where the most interesting choices lie. It can be disheartening to see just how much you still have left to uncover. Secondly, it creates pacing and continuity problems. The ability to jump into any point of the action and to the critical path âlocked gatesâ means that a lot of the dramatic moments and reveals can be seen in a disjointed way, depending on the order in which you view them. You could easily have a long period of slow mystery, uncovering puzzle rooms and hitting âTo Be Continuedâ screens, and then find the âkeysâ to unlock multiple plot gates in quick succession, bringing epic drama and revelations one after the other in a mighty deluge, lessening their impact.
Although the disorientation of jumping around the narrative fits with the themes and the plot, itâs gets annoying because itâs easy to forget what led up to that particular decision point. In 999 you were forced to play through the game from start to finish each time. The ability to jump around the plot is a huge improvement – but you lose the sense of continuity as a result. I ended up replaying whole story segments before decisions that I jumped back to, so I could remember what was going on. Things can get a bit repetitive – youâll get pretty tired of seeing the same old rooms and backgrounds again and again, and slightly different variations of discussions about who should go through which door. Youâll see the same events played out time and time again but in slightly different ways. Until you start to get the ârealâ endings, thereâs also frustrating lack of closure as you come across repeated Game Over and To Be Continued screens. But like Groundhog Day, thereâs a satisfaction to be had in knowing the location and events inside out as you replay and learn more and more about whatâs been going on during the gameâs timeline.
Regarding the Nonary Games version of Virtueâs Last Reward – technically, the graphics arenât going to win any awards, it just offers better resolution graphics but the basic environments and characters are always going to be of a fairly basic handheld quality. Itâs certainly not the prettiest game anyway, with lots of drab, grimy environments as befits the setting that do get tiresome. As a PC port, itâs a poor show in general. Controls and the inventory are cumbersome and although the mouse lets you do almost everything, there hasnât been a good adaptation from the touch screen controls of the handheld version. This means moving the camera is laborious and although the memo system which lets you take notes is a nice feature, it hasnât been reworked for the PC, making it slow and awkward. I had to run the game at very low settings even on my decent laptop to get a decent frame rate, the overall optimisation is poor. Additionally, the price is quite high for the bundle considering these are both old games with mediocre ports (although the 999 port is supposed to be a fair bit better than the original).
But you wonât care about graphics once you get into this dense web of intrigue and suspense. Youâll want to the secrets behind the Nonary Game. Who are the players, really?
Who is Zero?
Where is the facility?
Why are you being forced to play a deadly game?
Why does Zero leave you odd information about the world outside? Why was someone murdered and who did it? Why are you solving puzzles and voting against each other? You replay the same events again and again making different decisions, seeing how things change, piecing the puzzle together. Half of the fun is playing detective as you play, I had paper sheets full of unanswered questions and theories. If you just revisit each decision point with no pause for thought, youâll uncover the truth eventually but youâll miss out on the fun of puzzling things out for yourself.
This is a great work of narrative that you wonât be able to let rest. Itâs an admirable sequel for a story that must have been very hard to follow up on (whilst still making sense) and it ties nicely into 999. Virtueâs Last Reward may not be as clean and clever a story as 999 but it expands well on its ideas, and still comes out with one of the best stories in videogames which will surprise you even after thirty hours of play. It’s quality stuff and I canât wait to get on with the third, and final game of the series, which Iâll review soon: Zero Time Dilemma.
An engrossing mystery with a clever narrative that will keep you guessing all the way. Light on gameplay but full on brain-power, Virtue’s Last Reward tells one of the most compelling stories in videogames with its jigsaw plot structure and is a worthy sequel to 999.