Developer: Chun Soft / Publisher: Aksys Games / Played on: 3DS / Price: $39.99 / ESRB: Mature [Strong Language, Sexual Themes, Drug Reference, Violence, Blood]
One of the surprise successes of 2010 was Aksys Game’s 999: Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors, which took players on a psychological journey filled with devious puzzles, deceitful allies, and the danger of death around every corner. The follow-up to that game, Zero Escape: Virtue’s Last Reward, builds off its predecessor laurels to deliver another compelling and captivating story for gamers to experience. Though light on gameplay, Virtue’s Last Reward offers one of the most thrilling stories you’ll see in any game, handheld or otherwise.
Virtue’s Last Reward relies almost entirely on its story. Discovering each new clue, finding out more about each character’s background, and exploring every new room of the warehouse is both exciting and nerve racking. I don’t want to give too much of the story away, to allow those of you that have yet to play it to get the full experience.
You play as Sigma, a 20-something college student who gets abducted a few days before the New Year. Sigma wakes up in a strange room with an equally strange woman huddled in the corner. The couple quickly deduces they must escape the room if they are going to survive, and after some careful exploration they manage to get out, finding that they are being held in a huge warehouse. Not only that, but there are seven other individuals also held captive. Before Sigma can talk with the others, a monitor turns on to reveal a talking rabbit named Zero III. Often speaking in rabbit puns, Zero explains to the group that in order to escape, they must play his demented game. With no other choice, Sigma and company begin to explore the warehouse in search of clues, key cards, and, ultimately, a way to escape with their lives.
The story gave me a few inklings of the first two Saw movies in plot and character development, and has an overall chilling feel. The characters themselves are at all times mysterious, never divulging their true intentions, and oftentimes lying or hiding the full truth to manipulate Sigma and the rest of the group. It’s fantastic storytelling that I’ve rarely seen in a video game. I’m talking motion-picture-adapted-from-a-best-selling-novel quality writing here. No two characters are the same, and experiencing the story is the main aspect of Virtue’s Last Reward. That being said, there are 24 different endings to the game, and in order to unravel the full story you’ll have to play through the game a few times. Considering the quality of storytelling the game possesses, that’s certainly not a bad thing.
Virtue’s Last Reward is split into two modes: novel and puzzle sections. The novel sections are lengthy story segments that flesh out the main plot, character backgrounds and motives, and usually contain one or two game-changing revelations that drastically shift the direction of the story. These sections are fully voiced and give the game a great sense of atmosphere. Since this portion makes up about 80% of the overall gameplay, you can expect to read a lot of text.
The puzzle portions make up the rest of the game. Between novel sections you must explore a room, looking for key cards and clues as to why all of you are in your current predicament. What this usually breaks down to is scouring each area for curious looking objects like books, batteries, computer monitors, and more. Oftentimes you’ll need to use your head to come up with the solution to unlock a specific door. For example, you may find three pieces of metal that seemingly have nothing in common, but by combining all three you form a metal star that can fit into a star-shaped lock you discovered earlier.
The difficulty of these portions of the game arise more from not noticing something in the level itself as opposed to not knowing what to do (e.g. knowing the star-shaped lock is there, but not having the star-shaped key). Thankfully there is an easy mode available, which prompts your partners in the room to point out hints on what to do next. The easy mode ensures you make it through each stage without much trouble, but if you avoid the easy mode and figure everything out for yourself you’ll unlock special items that give extra detail on characters and items. After you find the exit in each puzzle stage, you’ll talk to the rest of the group to trade information (or not, in some cases) and repeat.
As mentioned before, there are multiple endings to discover, with some better than others. Every decision you make alters the outcome of the game: should you choose to go to one room instead of another, the clues you find and the information the other group members give you will change. Even major plot events change based on these choices, making each decision more impactful than normal.
Thankfully, the Flow system has been implemented in the game, which allows you to return to any key point in the story and continue from there, choosing different routes if you so desire. This is a great addition to the game, and one that would have greatly benefitted the previous entry. There’s even an option to skip over any dialogue already heard from previous playthroughs, ensuring you don’t waste your time on the old stuff and get right into the new content. In terms of overall gameplay you’re actually not doing much more than swiping the stylus on the touch screen and doing some simple math in your head, so those looking for a more interactive experience will be disappointed. But the real treat here is completing each puzzle section to unlock the next savory novel portion.
The story is fantastic, no doubt, but aiding immensely in this success is the terrific voice acting. Each character you interact with has a distinct personality that really comes through when speaking. Virtue’s Last Reward is a good example of how a game with voice acting enhances the quality of text-only dialogue. Hearing the retort from the devious Dio and noticing the inflection of his tones tells a very different story than simply reading the text in a box. Each voice actor delivers a fine performance that every other game should strive to achieve. Unfortunately, this stellar voice acting is absent in the puzzle sections, regressing to a simple text box on the bottom of the screen.
The game’s soundtrack is a good mix of haunting tunes that play in the background and increase in intensity as the story picks up. The sound effects leave more to be desired though, producing little more than a clash of metal when you pick up a metal coin or a splash of water when pouring together chemicals. Even with these minor letdowns, the voice acting steals the show and almost makes up completely for the other shortcomings.
Zero Escape: Virtue’s Last Reward calls itself a visual novel and that description couldn’t be more accurate. The excellent story hooked me in from the opening minutes and I didn’t want to let go. With branching paths, multiple endings, and truly mysterious characters to interact with, Virtue’s Last Reward will keep you thrilled for hours on end. While there isn’t much in terms of gameplay, those who pop the cartridge into their 3DS will enjoy one of the best narratives the system has to offer. As Zero would put it, “Have a nice tragedy…”