Zero Escape: Virtue’s Last Reward is Aksys Games’ sequel to Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors which was a great success on the Nintendo DS. The core game is focused on the escape the room genre but the success lies in the story that has been intricately weaved to persuade the player to pursue all the alternate endings. Zero Escape: Virtue’s Last Reward is a perfect example of why video games are such a unique form of media. There simply no other way to tell such a bizarre and ingenious tale in a book or in a movie, and that is the game’s greatest asset.
In the game, you play as Sigma, one of 9 captives of the nonary game. The nonary game involves locking groups of players in rooms filled with puzzles, but the ultimate goal is to escape the entire facility by accumulating points through betrayal and accomplishment. Zero Escape: Virtue’s Last Reward is great at pitting these different paths together in a story that weaves together the fate of all 9 participants.
Zero Escape: Virtue’s Last Reward is technically a visual novel. This is a genre with a lot of text and a few chances to interact with the story in key decisions that will affect the outcome of the story. However, Zero Escape: Virtue’s Last Reward also includes a number of rooms added into the mix to enhance the experience.
The rooms are quite standard of the genre. You control the camera to the 3D environment by swiping your stylus left and right and tapping items of interest. From there, you either zoom in and interact with the item or your partner may make a simple comment. Eventually you’ll find scraps of paper, lock boxes and all sorts of material to point to the escape route. Some of these puzzles include mini games that are quite challenging, others are quite shallow in depth. Zero Escape: Virtue’s Last Reward is quite good in that the puzzles are well selected and well made. They are also surprisingly relevant to the story, so you are not playing puzzles for the sake of playing puzzles.
Truthfully, Zero Escape: Virtue’s Last Reward does not feel like a polished title. Parts of the interface can only be described as clunky and unintuitive, and at no part of the game was I particularly impressed with the graphics or the mechanics. However, these are merely the sufferings of a low budget. What did irritate me was that I had experienced the dreaded save bug that plagues the 3DS version of the game. Saves made in the PEC room freeze the game and I lost several hours of gameplay. It is a testament to the story that even after this setback, I merely grimaced and restarted because of sheer curiosity and the desire to find out exactly what happens beyond that room.
Much like any any other visual novel, Zero Escape: Virtue’s Last Reward’s story branches out to a number of different outcomes. Each branch will let you explore the back story of different characters and you get to know certain characters quite well. There is a lot of humor and atmosphere, and something about the game sends chills down your spine. The writers loved their bad puns, but nevertheless, you get a lot of great character development as you witness how differently they react under new pressures.
The entire game revolves around “The Ambidex Game” which is a mini game forced on the 9 captives. As part of the nonary game, the Ambidex Game occurs after the participants escape from each room. They are given the chance to either ally or betray their fellow players to accumulate points that can be used to escape the facility. Of course, each decision may have beneficial or adverse effects in the later parts of the game.
While this may seem like a tough choice, Zero Escape: Virtue’s Last Reward allows players to view their progress in a simplified diagram. You are free to jump back and remake each decision. Thankfully dialogue that is repetitive can be skipped and you are back on track at a moment’s notice with a new choice.
Tying the Knot
The game is unlike most visual novels which allow you to pursue a single branch. Instead, Zero Escape: Virtue’s Last Reward frequently locks a particular branch until you have explored what happens if you chose otherwise. Initially, this was quite frustrating as I was hoping to complete a single play through and restart the experience as with other visual novel games. However, the purpose of the locks are not simply to extend the gameplay, instead it was a deliberate choice to further develop the story.
It is subtly hinted at throughout the early stages that Sigma has the ability to jump between difference worlds. That is to say, he is able to explore what happens if he had made another decision and retains a memory of it. This particular ability is intricately tied to the story which picks up roughly half way through the game. Zero Escape: Virtue’s Last Reward is deceptive in that it has mirrored a number of popular escape the room games that are borderline generic. It seems that yet another sadistic serial killer decides to toy with the lives of 9 people, but the story unravels slowly to reveal something quite different. Even completely a single branch of the story will not reveal the entire purpose of the game, instead it is by gathering information from a number of different outcomes do you finally reach the true ending that involves concepts from physics, the background of each character and even the reasons for certain puzzle choices.
Zero Escape: Virtue’s Last Reward is masterfully crafted. Seemingly random mini games and incoherent clues become part of the most complex story told in recent video games. The last hours of the game will have your head spinning as you digest what actually happened in the 25 hours of puzzle solving and decision making.
The weakest point of the game is a lack of polish and the distinctly niche appeal of the game. If you are looking for a pick up and play, relaxing game, this is not for you. Zero Escape: Virtue’s Last Reward is only as good as the effort you are willing to put into it. Expect to be stumped and confused before walking away with a truly satisfying experience.
Whether you love or hate the gameplay, you will find yourself tapping away at the A button to read on to the next part of the story. Every lock you encounter, you will bang your head against the wall, but find the strength to continue.