Also On: 3DS
Publisher: Aksys Games
I still find it strange to think that a video game that’s less game than it is story could be as engrossing and hard to put down as Zero Escape: Virtue's Last Reward. As a follow-up to the fantastic 999: 9 Hours, 9 Persons, 9 Doors, it might be a little less difficult to swallow how great this game is, but if you haven’t played that DS release, well, Zero Escape is really something you need to check out.
And it’s safe to say that while Zero Escape is a sequel to 999, you don’t need to have any prior knowledge of events to enjoy anything found here. There’s some added bonus, as the events do get referenced a bit, but Zero Escape is certainly welcoming to newcomers, and features a couple refinements over its predecessor that make for a more enjoyable experience even. There are also a couple of missteps, unfortunately, but by and large this is a fantastic sequel.
So for those of you that aren’t familiar with the type of visual novel gameplay that Virtue’s Last Reward offers up, I’ll try and explain it as best I can. In this game, you take on the role of a character by the name of Sigma. Sigma has been kidnapped in the early hours of Christmas Day, and awakens inside an elevator with a mysterious young girl named Phi. Phi, likewise, was also kidnapped and awoke inside of the same elevator, and together you need to puzzle out a way to escape. This is your first introduction to the core gameplay mechanics found in Virtue’s Last Reward, which essentially consist of a series of rooms with locked doors, in which you need to piece together a series of puzzles that will unveil a combination to a locally stored safe, which in turn contains a key to unlock the door that will allow you to proceed.
In between these bouts of challenging puzzle solving, you’ll get a whole lot of story, which centers around the mystery of why you were kidnapped, where you are, and who exactly the other participants in this “Nonary Game” might really be. There’s a whole host of mysteries to unravel, and each one is well worth seeking out. There’s also a series of endings to uncover, one for each character, including an overall “true” ending that helps to piece together the events of the entire game.
These endings are dictated by a series of branching paths, which split off at different decision points that you’ll need to choose between. See, the entire Nonary Game has you working with, and against, the other kidnapped participants in the game. Prior to entering a puzzle room, you’ll be randomly paired up, and then asked to choose a third partner to join you. Once you leave a puzzle, you’ll then need to make a decision to either ally or betray your third wheel. Both choices come with certain benefits and risks, which in turn lead to whether or not you’ll “win” the game, and be able to leave this nightmarish scenario with your life intact.
These moral decisions presented by Virtue’s Last Reward are never easy. While there’s opportunity to play the part of a do-gooder, Zero Escape doesn’t always reward you for making the upstanding choice. Sometime it will downright penalize you for it, and there are multiple occasions where you’ll be forced to hang someone out to dry in order to not only peel back layers of the mystery, but to save your own skin. Zero Escape is a game that really takes you on a rollercoaster ride of emotional quandaries, and sort of revels in your misfortune. But it’s a hell of an experience, and there’s little like it when it comes to the modern world of video games.
As far as directly comparing it to its predecessor, there are some changes to note. One is on the visual side of things, which sees Zero Escape replacing the 2D sprite based artwork of 999 in favor of 3D models. To be honest, despite my enjoyment of the character art itself, the transition to 3D isn’t that great. The art doesn’t translate well, and for a game that’s not really reliant on animated characters and movement in general, I could have done without this change.
The puzzles in in Zero Escape also feel a hell of a lot more difficult than I remember 999 to be. That’s mostly a good thing, but there are a handful of rooms that have their difficulty amped up due to poor item placement and some sub-par texture work that just makes it difficult to find stuff. I’m not saying that I’d like to highlight objects or make them pop out necessarily, but some of the angles given make it overly difficult to realize you can interact with some objects, which tends to be more frustrating than just working on a puzzle.
One nice addition, considering the nature of the game revolves around finding new information from one story thread, and then revisiting another to apply said information, is the ability to quickly jump between them via a timeline menu. Instead of replaying events and rooms already seen or conquered, you can jump right to one of the many split off points you’ve already encountered, allowing you to quickly explore a new path without much redundancy. Of course, if you want, you can start over at the beginning each time, but there’s little reason to do so.
For the most part, I think you’ll find Zero Escape: Virtue's Last Reward to be a step up from 999, and really, that’s saying something considering how excellent 999 was. It’s not flawless, no, but well worth your time, especially if you’re the type of person that enjoys new gaming experiences that are far from the norm. And while the current release slate is quite busy, there’s nothing quite like a fresh, palette cleaning experience, which is exactly what Zero Escape offers up.