That's an eccentric cast of anime characters if I ever saw one.
Zero Escape: Virtue’s Last Reward follows in the underappreciated footsteps of the supernaturally sci-fi 9 Hours, 9 Persons, 9 Doors. An obscure hit for sure, few games have unraveled as well as 999’s murder mystery set aboard an elaborate seafaring ship rigged to capsize. Zero Escape’s deserted warehouse setting has a lower chance of suddenly sinking into the vast ocean depths, though hidden puzzles throughout the sequestered structure are no less taxing on the brain’s synapses. Virtue’s Last Reward retains the visual novel design and branching narratives of its predecessor too, while the game’s better localization, voice acting, and streamlining of consecutive playthroughs polish the areas in which 999 was rough around the edges.
For this cryptic conundrum, players inhabit Sigma, a seemingly ordinary college student abducted on Christmas Eve. But VLR's enigmatic story does not adhere to a linear path or reveal the transparent kidnapper through a clichéd monologue like most thrillers. Rather, many replays are needed to unmask the true culprit, who the game suggests may be one of the other eight people also trapped in the confined storage facility. These similarly confused protagonists were selected for seemingly unspecified reasons, and each has a distinct personality that factors into his or her goal of self-preservation.
Although the voice acting will bring the player to care for several of the cast struggling to understand their unfortunate predicament (keep your enemies close, after all), Zero III deserves attention for his role as the antagonistic AI designed to monitor the proceedings. His shrill voice, love of sleazy rabbit puns, and casual apathy towards human suffering all contrast his adorable, hare-y appearance. He simply loves to pit the contestants against one another, and that makes him easy to loathe. He cannot operate outside the programming of his creator, however, and could you really call the flesh and blood Zero a villain unless he made a game of his prisoners’ misery?
There are two parts to the gameplay, and both are equally capable of unsettling one’s calm disposition. The first portion of Zero’s “Nonary Game” locks you and two more survivors in a sealed room, where you must uncover the clues to a safe’s combination (the safe contains key cards used to access the “Ambidex Edition” round). Puzzles that consist of dislodging a stubborn panel or matching associated numbers and shapes forgo traditional strains in logic, but the more convoluted solutions may require you to scribble down observations on the provided notepad, such as the exact placement and mixing of colored cocktails.
I'm uncomfortable with there this scene is going...
Until you find the code to escape, you are unable to leave. But unlike the Saw films and their penchant for murder porn, there’s no risk of suddenly perishing in an oven, acid bath, or medieval torture device. Instead, death comes in the form of lethal injection should the points on the bracelet strapped to one’s wrist fall to zero after the “Ambidex” round. During this voting process, players must trust or condemn the life of another. This system of chance takes each team of three from the prior puzzle and further divides them into a “pair” or “solo,” which changes after each round. A pair of survivors vote together, while the solo entrant votes alone. You are not banishing someone from the group here. On the contrary, you select to “ally” or “betray” fellow teammates, and the results increase or decrease a person's points depending on the tallies. For example, should both a pair and solo vote ally, those three people gain two Bracelet Points, or BP. On the other hand, if either side chooses to betray and the other selects ally, the traitors gain three points while their partner loses two.
The goal is to attain nine points, because nine BP will let those lucky few open the exit to the warehouse. The door can only be opened once too, meaning there’s a constant threat of deception and ulterior motives to Zero Escape’s ingenious design. You never know what the AI will select, as their ballots are determined by the branch of the flowchart you currently pursue. Thankfully, the game tracks your decisions at each fork in the narrative so you may choose the opposite on subsequent playthroughs. Even then, the verdicts never feel unfair. The writers expertly explain the thinking process behind each vote cast – including Sigma's – and I was inclined to agree with some prisoners’ stances despite having lost several BP in the process. Still, there’s more to this psychotic adventure than a man getting his sick thrills.
The branching paths unveil alternate timelines, a worldwide infection, autonomous androids, and more, and it becomes the player’s job to piece the relevance of this information together. It is not uncommon for the mystery to deviate from expectations, because the developers intentionally throw players off the trail. Does it work? Absolutely. Survivors you thought to be at the heart of the matter usually turn up dead before the next puzzle, and to unlock the story’s true conclusion, Zero Escape requires gamers to see every character’s arc through to the end.
I believe they call that a watch, Sigma.
The repetition soon subsides, as the minds at Chunsoft implement certain fail-safes to remove the frustrations of divergent storytelling. Players can hop between breaks in the flowchart at will, and a couple taps of the Y button will speed through conversations already overhead. That’s all well and good, so what about puzzles? I thought I would have to suffer the monotony of solving the same introductory elevator sequence multiple times, but the game saves all files, passwords, and secrets across replays, so escaping is as easy as inputting the safe’s combination, grabbing the key, and leaving the room.
Cracking the puzzle chambers for the first time becomes an issue the more objects a room introduces. Every pantry, medical bay, living quarters, etc. demands players turn over each cushion and piece of paper, investigate every loose screw and panel, and combine every possible item in their inventories before deciphering Zero's brain teasers. On a handheld device with a five-inch screen, and interactive objects that blend a little too well into their surroundings, the next clue could be staring straight at you, mocking your defunct eyesight while you are none the wiser.
When it does come to inspecting the warehouse’s finer details, I would recommend the 3DS version over its Vita counterpart simply for the stylus’ more precise inputs. Unfortunately, the 3DS release plays hosts to a glitch that may corrupt the game’s only save file, forcing players to delete the data and restart from the beginning. In this case, avoid saving during the escape puzzles, or keep those safe codes handy.
Technical problems aside, few conspiracies coalesce into an experience both logically challenging and intellectually stimulating better than Virtue’s Last Reward. How many charades punish gamers for playing the goody two-shoes that wants to befriend everyone? Betraying one's fellow man will make you feel like a monster, and quality voice performances from the more innocent and soft-spoken characters drive the stake through the coffin. It’s rare for a game to produce nearly two dozen spectacular endings and cliffhangers, but even rarer that I wanted to see them all.
Publisher: Aksys Games
Release Date: October 23, 2012
Number of Players: 1 (Campaign)
Platforms: Nintendo 3DS (Reviewed), PS Vita