If you passed over 2010’s 999: 9 Hours, 9 Persons, 9 Doors, I couldn’t blame you. Although you missed a cult classic visual novel-puzzle crossover, it missed on some points and didn’t exactly set the world on fire.
But I’m here to tell you this time around that gamers need to ally with Virtue’s Last Reward. It’s hands down the best portable game I’ve played this year and will be a contender for “Game of the Year” at the end of December.
I did a refresher of 999 in preparation for Virtue’s Last Reward to see the “True Ending” and familiarize myself with world of Zero Escape once again. That playthrough made me not only be able to instantly relate the events of old to the new plot, but fully appreciate the huge number of improvements that Chunsoft has made to every aspect of this sequel.
Virtue’s Last Reward begins very similar to the first game with the new protagonist Sigma waking up trapped in an elevator that’s apparently hanging precariously over a deadly pit. Inside the elevator, Sigma meets the cute-but-secretive Phi and must work with her to solve an elaborate puzzle set by the mysterious Zero in order to escape their metal cage.
Soon enough, Sigma and Phi discover that there are seven other participants, some of whom will be familiar to players of the first title. Zero’s sinister experiment, dubbed the Nonary Game, is reminiscent of the SAW movie premises by trapping people in desolate location with their lives at stake, but focuses on a more interesting overarching plot rather than gore. This is where the plot really begins to unfold as the characters are dragged through room after room of complex puzzles for the chance to escape once again to the outside world.
To make matter more interesting, each player has a watch that tracks BP, a points system that the Nonary Game runs on. The way each person earns BP is by “Allying” or “Betraying” other players by voting head-to-head against one another. If both ally, each gets points. If both betray, neither gets points. If one allies and one betrays, the betrayer gets extra points and the person who voted ally loses points. The first person to reach 9 points can escape the hell of the Nonary Game, while any players that hit 0 BP die. The game quickly descends into mistrust and conflict, making the latter events in the game much more heated and addicting to watch.
Of course, it you’re familiar with 999, you’ll expect that there’s far more going on in the plot than a madman kidnapping nine people to hold hostage in a sick experiment. I really don’t want to spoil things here because the plot is everything, but I can promise that players will not leave disappointed if they can stick through the multiple playthroughs required to gradually piece together the narrative. It’s immensely rewarding to begin unraveling the curious circumstances that plague the Nonary Game’s nine players as the intriguing layers are subtly peeled away at each time.
Virtue’s Last Reward doesn’t just succeed with its narrative either. The character design is extraordinarily well-done and will keep players hooked. It’s very difficult not to sympathize with Sigma and his confusion surrounding the eerie Nonary Game, yet work both together and against the other participants. There are a few characters in particular that I had a challenging time bringing myself to backstab, even though I knew that none of the people were real. At the same time, I found myself openly despising the likes of others as they merrily made decisions to only protect their own self-interests. Virtue’s Last Reward is a surprisingly easy game to get wrapped up in and lose yourself to.
Aksys has also done a surprisingly great job localizing the game. There were few, if any, grammatical or spelling errors I noticed. The writing seems to maintain itself remarkably well and the localization team has done a great job to add in jokes for the North American audience.
Chunsoft has done a strong job on the visuals in Virtue’s Last Reward. When I began the game, the 3D modeling felt very out of place. As I played, though, I began to warm towards the softer look of the new characters. Each one is unique looking and identifiable, but not obnoxiously so. The PS Vita version will lack this, but the 3D effects of the 3DS are well done and add a very interesting and realistic dimension to the events happening.
The gameplay this time around consists of reading and puzzles. But don’t be frightened by this, gamers. Virtue’s Last Reward manages to strike a much better balance than 999 between each of the novel sections and puzzles. Like I said, most of the gameplay happens in the puzzles that need to be solved. Each room is a series of smaller puzzles inside one large puzzle that will unlock a key to escape the room. The puzzles can be ridiculously difficult to complete, sometimes even to the point of frustration, but it feels very satisfying to overcome the brain teaser that you were just stuck for half an hour on.
The other end of the gameplay comes in the forms of the decisions about the partners to use on any given puzzle. Each choice makes a huge long-term impact, literally leaving large chunks of the game inaccessible until a later playthrough. This wasn’t an annoyance, though, as each decision leads to learning more about the other characters and the secrets they hide beyond the veils of their exterior personality.
The biggest reservation I had going into Virtue’s Last Reward was the addition of voice acting. I had expected, as with many localized Japanese games, the voice acting to be done of the cheap with halfhearted performances from terrible voice actors. Thankfully, I can say that the voice actors used did a fantastic job all-around at capturing the personalities of the characters. Of special note was the voice actress for Zero, which will draw comparisons to the psychotic ramblings of Harley Quinn from Batman or Tiny Tina from Borderlands 2. It’s chilling to witness a cute, high-pitched CG robot be in control of such an insane experiment.
Reading text became overwhelming in 999, so the addition of such strong voice acting was both a welcome addition and fantastic treat. The voiced dialogue takes a lot of stress that I felt with 999 from reading on a tiny screen for hours and made it a beautiful hybrid between a movie, novel and game.
I can’t overlook the solid job done on the music. There aren’t a huge number of music tracks used, but each one is very well composed and used for full effect in the puzzle and novel sections. The music, or the occasion absence, sets the tone early on and ties the entire terrifying experience of the Nonary Game very well.
Zero Escape: Virtue’s Last Reward caught me completely off guard. It does so much right as both a visual novel and a sequel that I cannot recommend it highly enough for even those that are new to the Zero Escape series. It may not provide the most ideal amount of gameplay for some people and seem slightly convoluted to others, but anyone that decides to pass on Virtue’s Last Reward is robbing themselves of a brilliantly-crafted sequel that will hopefully redefine the types of experiences that can be successful in portable gaming.
GO Rating: 5/5
Available now for the 3DS and PS Vita for $39.99.