Zero Escape: Virtue’s Last Reward
Publisher: Aksys Games
Release Date: 10/23/2012
Two years ago, Aksys Games and Chunsoft unleashed 9 Hours 9 Persons 9 Doors onto what could best be described as an unsuspecting gaming community, and the game generated a fairly large amount of press for what was otherwise assumed to be a niche release. We were certainly no exception in the shock department, as several of our staffers listed it among their favorite games for the year, and the game took home Best Adventure Game in our 2010 Year End Awards. Needless to say, Chunsoft isn’t one to disappoint when something draws a following, and what was originally one game has become the first title in the No Escape franchise, with its sequel, Virtue’s Last Reward dropping on both the Vita and 3DS. We took a look at the Vita demo not too long ago and found that the game seemed to be going in the right direction, which is an impression the final product validates nicely. This is not to say that Virtue’s Last Reward pays off the fact that it is a sequel to one of the best games to come out on the Nintendo DS as well as it could have, sadly, but the end result is certainly rather good, and it’s overall a very strong effort in franchise building if nothing else.
So, as with the first game in the series, Virtue’s Last Reward has your main character, this time a man named Sigma, wake up in a supposed deathtrap, and upon surviving, discover he has been gathered together with eight other people to play something called the Nonary Game. This time around, however, instead of a disembodied voice calling the shots and doors that require you to have groups that add up to nine, the new game, dubbed the Nonary Game: Ambidex Edition, requires players to go through color coded doors, solve puzzles, and then vote to Ally or Betray one another once the round is over. By matching up their bracelets to make color combinations that allow them to pass through the Chromatic Doors they encounter, the characters can earn cards that allow them to participate in voting, which raises and lowers their point values as they progress; getting to nine points allows you to escape, but hitting zero, or failing to participate, ends in your death… which is something that will happen more than a few times. As in 999, there are numerous extensive pathways to progress down, with good and bad endings aplenty, and there is an extensive amount of depth given to the various characters you meet across the game. The game also does several things very well, plot-wise, as it gives each character an ending instead of having a few endings that relate to nothing but someone (usually Clover) losing their minds, which gives every character the chance to shine. As such, you feel more for the odd secondary characters that matter less to the main plot than you might have in 999 because they’re given more time on-screen to work with, overall, and everyone has an important point to the plot in some form or another. The game also, as did its predecessor, makes very good use of surprises, and several events will come out of nowhere, while still making perfect sense upon reflection, leaving you anticipating every twist the game has to throw at you.
Having said that, Virtue’s Last Reward fails to match the magic of 999, due in large part because its end goal is completely different. 999 had a coherent beginning, middle and end that were tied together by an intelligent, emotional plotline; Virtue’s Last Reward, however, is tasked to both expand on a game that didn’t expect a sequel, while also making the effort to leave room for a planned sequel, and the results are more mixed. For one thing, the ending of 999 was an incredibly emotional event that, as I mentioned in my review, brought me to literal tears during the final puzzle because of how well executed the sequence was. Virtue’s Last Reward builds to an ending that consists of a bunch of rehashed puzzles from other rooms, which is then followed by something around two hours of exposition. Yes, yes, it’s a visual novel, but the pacing is seriously out of whack here; you get the final actual puzzle, followed by a talking sequence, then NEW BRANCH, talking sequence, NEW BRANCH, talking sequence, over and over and it just doesn’t come together well at all. Further, 999 spread out its exposition across the game, so that when it got to the end, while a bunch of elements were explained, the player was ready for the explanations and caught up enough that only the details needed to be filled in. Virtue’s Last Reward, by comparison, does this MASSIVE exposition dump at the end of the game to fill you in on everything, which just becomes tiresome after so much data is dumped on you and you’re just waiting for it to end. It also bears noting that the game makes a much bigger deal out of the time jumping gimmick, which is fine as a plot mechanic, but the game is (to be blunt) so up its own ass about how great it thinks its thought experiments are that it becomes onerous at times. Look, I love thought experiments, I already knew about Schrodinger’s Cat and The Prisoner’s Dilemma and such before going in and *I* was getting tired of it by the end. There’s a difference between being intelligent and being a windy know-it-all and Virtue’s Last Reward comes close to crossing that line a few times. That the plot STILL is one of the best this year is a testament to the character writing more than anything else, but the game doesn’t compare, writing-wise, to 999, and that’s a shame.
On the visual front, Virtue’s Last Reward does a very good job of justifying the transition to full 3D visuals over its predecessor’s hand drawn work. While the design duties are once again handled by Kinu Nishimura, and her artwork does pop up here and there, the character models and environments are rendered in full 3D, which loses the artistic effect slightly, but not by much. The 3D characters are given a larger range of motion than static art allows for, bringing them to life much more convincingly in some respects, and while the game isn’t pushing the technical capabilities of the Vita, it’s very cleanly designed and artistically interesting. As you get fairly far into the game animation repetition can become a little more obvious between the characters, but this is minor and doesn’t detract from the experience. Aurally, the music here is powerful and fits the theme of the game as well as one could hope, using a strong electric mix that combines ambient and futuristic elements to match the themes of the game wonderfully. There’s also a fairly strong amount of voice acting, as aside from dialogue spoken by Sigma and banter during Escape scenes, all dialogue in the game is voice acted. This plays to the game’s benefit, as the voice work is very good overall; every voice matches the character nicely and the voice work isn’t stilted or poorly done in the least. The game also offers the choice between English and Japanese voices, and both are high quality, so you’ll find something to appreciate no matter your preference. The various audio effects used in the game are also generally quite well implemented and fit the objects or actions they’re associated to, and nothing sounds at all out of place by and large.
As mentioned when discussing the demo, Virtue’s Last Reward is fairly simple to work with mechanically, and offers both controller and touch screen controls depending on what you’re more comfortable working with. During Novel sequences, X is your default interaction button, Circle cancels out of decisions when applicable, and the left stick allows you to bring up a cursor to highlight choices when presented with them, though you can certainly also use the touch screen to make these choices by tapping it as needed, which is often easier. These controls remain the same in Escape sequences, though the game also offers you the ability to look around the environment, either by dragging around the screen or by using the triggers to rotate the view. You can also use the Triangle button to bring up your inventory in the Escape scenes to look at items in your possession, select an item to be used and so on, or tap on objects in the background that are important to zoom in on them or back away when you’re done investigating. The game also offers a submenu at the bottom of the screen that you can access through the D-Pad or the touch screen, allowing you to look at your archived documents (including files on game information, passwords, documents related to the room puzzles and such), draw memos for yourself, save, review conversations and access the story flowchart, which we’ll discuss shortly. The controls generally work very well and are quite intuitive, overall, and the game makes it easy to understand how to play, such that anyone should be able to figure out the game inside of the first hour of play with no trouble.
The game alternates between two modes of play, Novel sequences and Escape sequences, which do what they say on the box. Novel sequences are almost exclusively dialogue based, and revolve around expanding the plotline to the player; interaction in these sequences is minimal except in a few late-game sequences where you have to type a password or two, so you can sit back and enjoy. For sequences you’ve seen already you can choose to skip them entirely, or you can set speech to Auto and let the game move the plot along while you watch if you’re so inclined. Escape sequences are pretty standard, and fans should have an idea what needs doing immediately. You’re locked in a room that has a bunch of potentially interrelated items inside of it, which you have to experiment with, as in any standard adventure game; using the right items at the right times will produce various results, which should eventually lead you to a password to unlock the safe in each room. Passwords are semi-random, so you’ll have to put in the work to unlock each safe and escape, and in a nice move forward from 999, which repeated some puzzles at times, Virtue’s Last Reward ensures that there are unique Escape rooms along every plot path, so you’ll see a lot of unique puzzles as you play. The puzzles themselves get fairly complicated, from adding up points in a game of darts by hitting the right panels to moving dice in a specific pattern to line them up to using different seeds to decode information from their makeup and beyond, so you’ll see a fairly diverse amount of puzzles as you play to keep you appropriately guessing.
The most interesting addition to Virtue’s Last Reward from its predecessor is the plot flowchart, which shows the points at which each existing plotline divides from one another, as simple choices can have complex consequences. This was also how the events of 999 worked, though in that game the effects were more implicit; here, the flowchart as an existing tool adds several new levels to the divergent realities concept. For one thing, you can select any icon in the flowchart to instantly drop back into that location on the chart, so that instead of playing through the game several times to get to the branching path you needed, you can just jump right there. This is important, as several points in the plot will be locked down because you lack the information to complete them and you’ll need to go through other paths in the plot to unlock the story locks holding you back from completing those sequences. As you progress through each storyline you’ll garner more and more information, including logins and codes as well as general knowledge, that Sigma will recall when needed (or you’ll have to input on your own) to break the locks, allowing you to move forward in the plot. The objective, as you might expect, is to see each ending associated with the characters you meet, as each gives you information on the cast of characters, as well as additional information you’ll need to progress. You’ll know if you’ve seen what you needed to see to break a lock when the game turns the associated lock icon from black to green on the flowchart, and you can also use the chart to revisit scenes where you know codes were revealed if you missed them the first time and suddenly find that you need them.
Outside of the above, the game mostly spends its time fine-tuning what worked in 999 to create a more enjoyable experience. Being able to skip sequences and avoid entire sections of the plot that you’ve seen before makes heading for the endings a lot simpler than it was in 999 (which allowed only repeated text skipping). The game, as mentioned before, also makes sure that there are unique Escape rooms behind every door, so you’ll be sure to see a new set of puzzles every time you go forward. The game also offers secondary passwords to find in each room which can be found by performing some sort of puzzle solution outside of the standard expected response, which is also often hinted at if not explained outright. As would be expected, there are also plenty of BAD END sequences, and while many are nowhere near as messy as they were in 999, focusing instead on simple failure over violent death, there are certainly a few harsh endings for those who are intrigued by this thing. The new Nonary Game: Ambidex Edition rules also make for some interesting concept modifications. The gimmick here is that each set of doors, dubbed Chromatic Doors, must be passed through by three people, consisting of one pair and one solo player. The trick is that the doors are of set colors, and the party has to combine colors from the solo and paired bracelets they possess to make a color scheme that allows them to open the door. This doesn’t modify anything mechanically, but it does allow for more leeway as to who can enter what door; since the bracelet colors change after every round, the plot can simply change the colors as wished to ensure you’re pairing up with different people routinely, which is, again, a simple element that adds more variety to the game by changing around the principle players. These little details add a lot to the game, as it helps to keep your interactions fresh between characters, and allows the writers more control of who they want to pair up, when, which in turn helps the plot move along moreso than in the prior game, exposition-wise.
If you intend to see the plot through all the way to the end, you’re likely going to be putting in somewhere around twenty five to thirty hours (seriously), as there are several extensive plot paths to go through and puzzles to complete. You can choose to go through the Escape rooms on Easy (the game gives you hints) and Hard (no hints are provided) difficulty as you wish, though the puzzles don’t change from one difficulty to the next. You can also spend some time trying to collect the hidden files in each Escape room to fill out the backstory and minutiae of the plot if you’re interested, and with the flowchart you can always go back and relive scenes if you like. The game also offers the option to wipe the save data so you can come back to it after time away and clear it again, and there are plenty of Trophies to earn as well for those who are so inclined. Really, though, a thirty hour long adventure game is in and of itself an achievement, especially considering that the game manages to keep itself fairly interesting throughout, so for those who are into visual novels and adventure games, this should be motivation alone.
That said, as one might expect, once you’re done with the game there’s no reason to come back to it, at all. Now, I should note that the clear time I mentioned above was, in point of fact, my actual clear time:
(Side note: yes, I just discovered that you can take screenshots with your Vita, why do you ask?)
The reason I mention this is because, if you go and check out my Raptr profile, you notice that, yes, I’ve done everything there is to do with the game. Now, twenty five hours of full play time isn’t a bad deal by any means, but it bears noting that there is no reason to go back at this point. The alternate difficulties don’t change the puzzles any, unlocking the Gold files in Hard automatically removes any reason to go back to Easy for the already unlocked Silver files, and the pacing of the ending sequence has removed any desire to see it ever again. The final puzzle room, again, repeats elements from other rooms, and the ending sequence is just so… windy and full of itself that it’s hard to sit through the first time at some points, let alone multiple times. There’s nothing technically or mechanically wrong with the game, it’s very well assembled, but…
To put it simply, Virtue’s Last Reward is too much as a sequel; it’s a very good game with a very good plot and very good execution, but it tries too hard to establish itself as part of a franchise while 999 tried to be a good story. This game looks and sounds great, and the plot is certainly engaging for the most part, such that you’ll come to appreciate the characters and the game in the end because of how well they’re written. The execution of the game is very well done, and the mechanics all work exceptionally on the Vita, between the Novel sequences that are easy to progress and not repetitive and the Escape sequences that are complex, unique and generally well done. The game is lengthy and does offer some mild return incentive to bring you back if you’re so inclined, as well. However, once the game is done, it’s done, and you won’t find much incentive to bring you back at that point. The game just tries too hard to be the same experience 999 was, but is focused so much on being bigger and more complex and sequel building that it comes across as needlessly windy and cumbersome at times, and it lacks the same emotional impact as a result. Virtue’s Last Reward is certainly good, but given that it’s predecessor was amazing, it doesn’t quite have the same effect. It’s not even a little bit bad, and it’s certainly worth playing, but… it’s a good game that spawned from a great one, and as such, it’s kind of disappointing for that.
Miscellaneous: ABOVE AVERAGE
FINAL SCORE: VERY GOOD GAME.
Short Attention Span Summary:
For those who might take the above as negative commentary or a lack of recommendation against this game, don’t: Zero Escape: Virtue’s Last Reward is in most respects a very good piece of work… it just doesn’t manage to get out of the shadow of its predecessor enough to be amazing in its own right. Taken on its own merits, the story is still fairly engaging and well written, the visuals and audio are fitting and well designed, and the gameplay is simple to understand but balanced out well enough to be challenging to gamers of all skill levels. Also, for an adventure game/visual novel the game is quite lengthy, and there are some reasons to come back between the multiple difficulty levels, hidden files and trophies for those who are so inclined. That said, however, once you’ve done everything you’re basically done with the game, and you can completely clear the game out inside of twenty five hours, which, while not bad, leaves the game with nothing to bring you back at that point. Further, the game tries too hard to surpass 999 but fails to bring the weight that game had to the table, and feels needlessly ponderous and poorly paced at times as a result of this, as it tries too hard to do too many things instead of focusing on telling the best story possible. Virtue’s Last Reward, on its own merit, is a very good adventure game that is absolutely worth experiencing and does a fine enough job building towards a sequel, but it doesn’t pay off the promise of 999 because it tries to hard to do this thing, leaving the end result feeling good, but not as good as it could have been.