Zero Escape Volume 2: Virtues Last Reward
PlayStation Vita, Nintendo 3DS
Visual Novel, Puzzle
October 23rd, 2012
Congratulations! You and a friend have won all inclusive passes to participate in the Nonary Game: Abidex Edition! This once in a lifetime opportunity is not afforded to many so act now! Participants will be able to take in wonderful unique scenery only a select few get to see. Meet exciting and diverse new people! Solve puzzles that keep you on the edge of your seat! Brought to you by Zero himself, and hosted by announcer Zero III, the Nonary Game has been providing a self-reflective, totally interactive experience matched by no one else in the world! So grab a friend or come alone, and bring your wits, and prepare yourself for the thrill ride of your life!
Participants are not guaranteed food, water, air, medical attention, or the continued ability to remain living. Please contact your doctor if you are allergic to muscle relaxers, are pregnant, nursing, or are otherwise opposed to the possibility of dying. The Nonary Game will not issue refunds, reimbursements, rain checks, or restitution in the result of injury or death.
Yes it's that time again. Nine people wake up to find they have been taken against their will and are trapped in a large facility. Zero-III, their announcer, reveals to all of them the rules of the Nonary Game. To escape they must simply collect nine points on their wristbands, and exit through the door marked number nine. The stakes are raised when they are informed that only people who manage to get nine points will be allowed to leave, and refusal to play will result in death. To complicate things the perpetrator of this sick game is actually one of those among the nine. You play as Sigma, a college student and general nobody. Why are you here? Who are these people? Who should you trust? Who is really Zero in disguise? Will you even get out of here alive? These are the questions that will haunt you every step of the way as you navigate the trappings of trust and betrayal in a sinister game where no one is safe.
The first and largest change most people will notice when comparing this game to the previous title, 999: Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors, is the move from sprite graphics to complete 3D renders. Though you still move on a track, you can move freely in the new 3D virtual environments. The graphics are about as close to an anime in CGI as you can get, outside of games like Asura's Wrath or One Piece: Pirate Warriors. Fans of the previous game will no doubt love the character designs here as well. Each character is designed well pretty true to that character's personality, and some of those personalities, man! This is to say that you can never expect the graphics in this game to get too realistic. I mean, if you are looking for realism in a game that features a talking rabbit, a man in a full suit of armor, or a Egyptian loving woman who seems to loathe wearing tops, you'd be looking in the wrong place. Yes, Alice doesn't wear a top; do with that information what you will. Indeed the game looks great on the Vita's OLED screen which is something I find myself saying a lot these days, but it is just as deserved with this title. Chunsoft certainly utilized the sharpness and graphics available on the Vita ensuring that players will never feel as though this game belongs anywhere but here.
Amazingly being trapped in a facility is no excuse not to take players to a wide variety of locales. This seemingly all inclusive resort of a certain sinister nature has a botanical garden, production line, medical facilities, lounge areas, and even rather large pantry. You'll never know just what you're getting into with a new room which is certainly half the fun. This is no doubt an easy design choice as the facility you are trapped in is meant to be one that contains anything a person would need for a prolonged period of time, but it's one I appreciate knowing just how repetitive visual novels can get from time to time. Either way from the wonderful character designs, to the smooth 3D visuals, to the diversity of gameplay environments this game does its best to provide more and more reasons to get into Virtue's Last Reward.
The music certainly does a great job of keeping you on edge. While sometimes it seems strange to hear music during certain moments of the escape portions of the game, they do sound great. Here, the music can be frantic, hitting you with a nagging urge to escape. The only problem is escaping can sometimes be a lengthy endeavor. The tracks that play during novel sequences are even more noteworthy. This game exudes suspicion. Who to trust, who not to trust, the music amplifies this setting effortlessly. I could be listening to this soundtrack while doing anything and it would force me to doubt my feelings. Hell, I would start to wonder if I could trust my own mother while these songs are playing. They're that powerful.
When it comes to voice acting there are several very amazing things to bring to your attention. First off, the game has voice overs in both English and the original Japanese voice acting. Not only is this a huge plus for many fans of import games but there's more! You aren't simply stuck with a single audio track through your playthrough, any time you load your game you can choose to switch or continue with whatever you were using before. It's convenient to be at your fingertips but this also has to do with the fact this game actually lacks an "options" menu. Regardless of why I'm glad to be able to switch back and forth very easily, a feature I know many other gamers will appreciate as well.
Japanese voice over fans will appreciate the Japanese audio track regardless of what I say here, so I'll focus on the English voice cast. If the Oscars had a category for best voice actor, the actor voicing Zero III would win hands down. In a performance I feel absolutely appropriate for comparing to voice work such as Mark Hamill's Joker, Stephen Merchant's Wheatley, Ellen McLain's GLaDOS, Zero III's VA perfectly embodies the role of a particularly psychotic AI. As one would expect from a raving psychotic Chinese rabbit, he jumps from accents like a western cowboy, to valley girl at the drop of a hat. The wacky, creepy, zany, ultra serious, condescending, tones of Zero III remind the player their life is at stake, even without having to actually say it. The rest of the cast for this game perform great as well. Some may sound familiar to those out there who watch anime in English. Each voice actor defines the personality of their character, some deviously so. It's also worth noting that any game with multiple Lord of the Rings references, and general potty humor is a great success for the guys at Aksys for bringing an equally fun experience to this title amidst the tension of the Nonary Game.
As you may have been able to tell by the title to this game "Zero Escape" this is an escape game. Much like 999, there are two major gameplay segments that alternate in this title. The first is the novel segments. Yes, kids, you'll have to read in this game. Have no fear though because the novel scenes have full voice overs to really give the characters all the more... well, character. As you talk to your fellow players in the Nonary Game, and make decisions about who to ally with or who to betray and what doors you will go through, you will continually affect the game's story line. Whereas other games have slight variances due to your choices, or even marginal ones, Virtue's Last Reward's choices create staggeringly different worlds each time. It seems each possible path has been scripted individually to really give the player the desire to view the every one of the game's endings.
Once you get to the escape, things are pretty straight forward. Well, the goal is anyway. You will find yourself trapped in a room filled with deliberately placed clues. You'll navigate around the room with either analog stick, or by quickly flicking the touch screen. Movement is kind of jerky, and by that I mean it is being a jerk to me each time I try and move. Flicking seems to be the least user friendly, and I found myself overshooting where I wanted to go so frequently that I simply moved to using the analog stick. The analog sticks have the same "accelerating mouse" feel to them that the flick controls do, but gives you a bit more control over the distance the camera travels. That little gripe aside examining works perfectly fine with the touch screen. By tapping objects in the room you'll zoom into an object that is relevant to your search, anything that isn't will simply give you a quick explanation of the object. Anyone with "fat sausage fingers" (their words, not mine) will be glad to know the analog stick can be used for this as well. Whatever can be collected into your inventory automatically will, otherwise anything you are forced to manipulate will remain in place. You can also utilize the in-game memo pad or archives to help you. I would have loved to see more memo pages than just two, but as this game is on the Vita, I found the screen capture function to be a very convenient way to remember things!
As you can imagine, logical thinking and problem solving are huge components of this game, but nothing is ever thrown at you unexpectedly. Compared to other visual novel/puzzle games this game is all inclusive. Whereas frustration had set in during my experiences with Layton games and their constant need for me to be a scholarly mathematician, this game does a great job of explaining anything you might need to know. This is definitely appreciated and oddly overlooked by other games in similar genres.
As you navigate your way out of a puzzle room there is also a very awesome addition. Aside from having your password to finally escape the room, there is a second password that will unlock extra files. This often requires repeating one of that room's puzzles in a different way. This is far more challenging that simply escaping as it requires you to utilize previous seemingly useless information, or using the same information in an alternate way. For those having trouble with the game on its default hard difficulty, the option to select the easy difficulty is available at any time from the menu. This will prompt your partners to chime in with more helpful information, so you can still figure it out on your own, but with a little help as well. Switching to easy though, will downgrade the extra reward for your second password from a gold file to a silver one.
The most interesting, but perhaps not surprising to those who have played 999, is the concept of time being a very lateral thing. This is first evident when seeing the game's flow screen in the menu. Events are mapped out on a branching tree, showing the path to any of the game's 24 different endings. On this screen you can actually select one to head back to any fork in the road you've already been to. This is by far the best, yet surprisingly simple addition that really helps make this game what it is. Just like Doc Brown and his crazy "now my mom is hitting on me" time altering events, each choice you make takes you to some radically different path. Being able to head back without loading a previous save or starting a new game is a monumentally beneficial inclusion. Now, my allusion to Back to the Future is not purely for geek cred. You may find yourself headed down a path that is not quite ready for you and you may see a "To be continued..." screen. These endings are locked because information is needed from a different path in order to continue. Why is information needed from a different path? I assure you my dear readers there is a very good explanation for this, but I won't ruin the surprise. All you need to know is that information you find during one version of this story may be far more relevant during other versions of the story. It's enough to make your head explode sometimes, but in a good way.
As I said before this game does have 24 different endings, most so vastly different from others that this game is not one you will want to complete just once. Each playthrough from start to finish should run you about 10 hours give or take a couple, but the occasional locked ending, or jumping back to previous events in the game to choose a different path can work that well into a 20 hour journey just to see your first ending. Honestly, each second spent in the game is addicting, and immersive. I've never repeated a single puzzle room in my 20 hours yet, which really helps keep the gameplay fresh. The game doesn't feel repetitive at all; especially considering even minor events tend to change the story drastically. Collecting all the files through the "second password" is also a lofty goal that will no doubt provide a lot of incentive for backtracking and completing every room.
No doubt the lure of trophies will be an attractive bonus for those deciding whether to get the Vita or 3DS version of this game. There are 32 trophies as well as a Platinum, making for 33 in total. Most of the trophies are hidden as to not spoil the details of any of the game's elaborate endings, but I'm sure if you manage to see all the game's endings you should be at a Platinum, or at least very close.
It's almost a shame visual novels and puzzle games are not as popular here as they are overseas. Thankfully the first Zero Escape game, otherwise known as 999, and Professor Layton games have started to turn that around a little. When a visual novel game really ups the bar in terms of providing an experience that changes with the player in an exceptional way, it stands to reason it also helps breathe new life into the genre. That is how I feel about Virtue's Last Reward. It does not simply give us a new story; it innovates and gives back to the genre that gives it form. It gives us fully improved 3D graphics, an excellent soundtrack, wonderful gameplay additions such as the flow screen, and a wide variety of endings to keep anyone trapped in the Nonary Game far longer than it takes to accrue 9 BP. Even the ease of jumping time lines with the game's flow screen is more than enough to offset the initial frustration of hitting a locked ending. In time that frustration turned into curiosity for me, as if it were another puzzle I currently lacked the clues to solve. Its my sincerest wish that any of you who love a good suspense thriller, puzzle game, or visual novel give this game a shot, I assure you that you will not be disappointed. If any of you are curious as to what these games are all about, you won't find a better jumping on point than this.