Waking up in a large warehouse with only a vague recollection of how you got there is bad enough, but it’s a prospect that becomes even more grim when you factor in a maniacal serial killer, a series of death inducing trials and a global epidemic that’s set to wipe out all life on Earth. The premise of Zero Escape: Virtue’s Last Reward is similar to the one found in the Saw movies; except here the hostages aren’t being put through near death experiences to make them appreciate their own lives more. There is a reason for everything, but in order to find out what it is you’ll have to untangle the web of lies your fellow prisoners feed you. Just remember that everyone has an agenda and no one is to be trusted.
This idea of trust was a central theme in the previous DS title 999: 9 Hours 9 Persons 9 Doors and it certainly features prominently here. Like the first game, our protagonist awakens to find himself in the company of eight other hostages who are seemingly perfect strangers. As the “Nonary Game” unfolds however, you discover that they are harbouring secrets about who they really are. Before long you will find yourself wondering what their connection is to one another, why the game is going on in the first place and who is trustworthy enough to help you to escape alive. The story is brought to life by the dialog between these characters, and although they are only really depicted as a handful of static sprites and walls of scrolling text, you won’t care in the slightest. This is a very good story that will be appreciated by anyone with a taste for adventure games.
By the game’s own admission, the gameplay can be surmised as falling into two categories: an interactive novel, and a set of area based puzzles. These puzzles are activated each time you enter a new “room” and involve trying to find the combination to a safe that allows you to move onto the next part of the story. On first glance, these rooms look like a random collection of items with no obvious connections between them. Look a little closer, however, and you will discover tenuous clues that slowly surface, making you feel like a genius as you rearrange objects, unlock hidden areas and combine items to great effect. The touch screen controls of the PS Vita and the stylus of the 3DS feel very responsive and natural in these sections, giving the feel of a traditional point and click adventure game broken up into bite-sized 10-20 minute chapters.
The novel portion of the game largely involves pressing a single button periodically in between walls of text before (very occasionally) making a decision about whether to “Ally” with a character or to “Betray” them. This is where the Zero Escape: Virtues Last Reward version of the Nonary Game gets the subtitle “Ambidex Edition”. Instead of using the first game’s system of adding the participant’s bracelet numbers together, this time players need to partner with one another to go through coloured doors. If a partnership’s complimentary bracelet colours match a door, then they can pass through it into the next area puzzle.
Things get really interesting though when players return to the central hub zones between puzzles. Here, you must choose to ally with or betray a character. Allying with them when they choose to ally with you will add two points to each of your bracelets. If a player reaches a bracelet score of nine or more then they can pass through the number nine door to freedom. However, if you choose to ally with a player when they choose “betray”, you will lose two points and they will gain three. This means that choosing to betray your fellow captives could conceivably lead to you escaping faster, but there’s just one problem: if a player’s score falls below zero, then a device inside their bracelets will activate and kill them.
Obviously, this kind of atmosphere isn’t brilliant for making new friends. You will have to carefully watch each player in order to assess whether or not they will betray you should the opportunity arise. Witnessing the aftermath of your simple binary decisions can be very rewarding. You can be a saviour to a vulnerable child, a voice of authority who punishes an asshole for their misdeeds or even a selfish bastard who makes a solitary escape. I do think that it would have been nice if there were more decisions to make in the game though. Don’t expect any sort of conversation branching in the vein of a normal RPG. It’s more like one decision followed by ten minutes of passive observation.
Of course, this constant barrage of text was also present in the original 999: 9 Hours 9 Persons 9 Doors, so fans of the series already know what to expect. Where this game really shines over its predecessor is in the inclusion of a timeline which makes it possible to switch back and forth between possible realities. Here, it is really evident just how many outcomes there are in Virtue’s Last Reward. I easily clocked in excess of thirty hours exploring all of them. Some of the storylines even require you to have completed different paths in order to reach their conclusion. Jumping back into old storylines armed with knowledge your character couldn’t possibly have known is a unique and brilliant experience. Trust me when I say that watching other players’ confusion as your character blurts out a previously unknown and impossible fact is worth the price of admission alone.
There are some things that the original 999 did better than Virtue’s Last Reward. The setting on board an abandoned passenger liner was better for one, and I personally found the backstories of the participants to be more interesting. Everything else about Virtue’s Last Reward is superior, however. From the trickier and more imaginative area puzzles, to the improved Nonary Game and timeline system, this is the logical progression for the series. It won’t be for everyone by any means. The majority of the game involves reading – an admittedly very good – novel with little in the way of branching decisions. But, if you’re like me and you love a good story and the occasional brainteaser, you should certainly give this one a try. You won’t be disappointed.