This is one of the hardest reviews I’ve ever attempted to write. Zero Escape: Virtue’s Last Reward is a tale so irregular and so unlike anything I had played before, delivered in a way that can only be achieved through the medium of videogames. Yet, it is at the same time a finely crafted story, one that can be objectively praised by anyone that appreciates art that can tell a story both concisely and emotionally. The appeal of VLR stems directly from this uniqueness. However, where most games that endeavour to push the boundaries of what videogames are assumed to do tend to come with massive caveats, be it gameplay foibles or lack of cohesion, VLR hits almost all the right notes, creating a visual novel/adventure game crossover that feels far more cogent than its highly schizophrenic nature should be.
The Zero Escape series started as the initially standalone Nine Persons, Nine Hours, Nine Doors. A visual novel like VLR, it told the tale of nine individuals who had been kidnapped and forced to participate in “The Nonary Game”, a series of room escape trials that plays out a little bit like the SAW franchise crossed with the nineties sci-fi horror film Cube. The appeal of 999 came not from the little gameplay it had or the incredibly abstract puzzles and the inane mathematics that backed up all of the puzzle solutions, but in the execution of its story. Where 999 and, in turn, VLR excel is the delivery of a story that not only allows the player to have immense variability and agency within the world in each playthrough, but also tie into its mythology in a way you’ll simply never see coming.
The difference in execution between 999 and VLR is what you’d come to expect from a new gaming franchise. Particular attention has been paid to the first game's rough edges. The puzzles are dramatically more logical and coherent than they were in 999, which revolved heavily around boring and overly-difficult maths problems. You’re still tasked with a number of room escape scenarios, but in VLR they’re more traditional adventure game set pieces that task you with using a set of seemingly useless items in a specific way. It’s hard to call the puzzle sequences “fun”, and only the most ardent adventure game fan will get through them all without consulting a FAQ. These puzzles can be skimmed through quickly if they’re not your thing but in the end, they are a necessary set of obstacles in terms of how they tie into the story and structure.
So having got the awkward, slightly mundane puzzle gameplay out of the way, I’d like to dedicate the rest of this review to explaining why this game still deserves such a generous score. Zero Escape: Virtue’s Last Reward puts you in the shoes of Sigma, a student kidnapped by a masked man and placed into a seemingly endless, deadly puzzle-filled warehouse with a group of eight strangers. Their only way to escape is by getting an irremovable digital bracelet fitted to their wrist to display “9”. The victims’ number increases by going through several rounds of the “AB Game”, a voting game resembling Flood & Dresher’s “Prisoner’s Dilemma” in which players can betray a chosen partner for extra points or ally to advance the points of the entire group. This dilemma is given further weight by the fact that should someone’s number fall below one, their bracelet will produce a fatal concoction of anesthetics that will end their life.
There is a final, “true” ending to Virtue’s Last Reward, but you won’t be able to see it until you’ve watched all 23 other endings beforehand. VLR is a game featuring player agency and the choice in which direction the story goes. After each puzzle section you’ll get the opportunity to “ally” or “betray” a chosen partner or partners in order to either help the group escape together or to save your own skin. However, the game offers you the opportunity to, at any time, go into a submenu and see every possible story branch from each of your decisions. From there, you can select a story beat to pick up from, allowing you to go back and see all possible outcomes. It even manages to be more of a gameplay gimmick, implemented to prevent repetition. It becomes integral to the mythology and plot in a way that would be impossible for me to describe further without spoilers.
In terms of storytelling, Virtue’s Last Reward is a finely crafted package on every level. The individual characters all grow beyond their initial anime stereotypes, showing humanity, flaws and quirks that you’ll grow accustomed to and appreciate. Characters make mistakes, express regret and grow to make up for their previous mistakes just like real people, a mean feat for what appears on its face to be an interactive manga with Robocop in a toga and a titillated schoolgirl in the main cast. On the larger scale, the overarching plot is best described as a series of non-sequiturs that will suddenly and violently crash into context when all the plotlines have been assembled in the right order. Playing VLR was the first time I’d outwardly cursed in shock at a piece of written literature since I read Othello half a decade ago. The twists are intricately linked and the endings are all varied in ways that will make you want to immediately hop back in.
It would be a crime not to mention how brilliantly Rising Star Games localised Chunsoft’s original Japanese work (this is for me playing the PAL version, the US version of the game was localised by Aksys so it may be of different quality). Sigma’s cat puns grow irritating almost instantly but Rising Star managed to import each character’s mannerisms completely, a localisation job on par with the best of Nintendo. Whilst the English voice acting is serviceable, I found the Japanese voice work to be the preferable option, especially as it sounds less jarring when you read faster than the text scroll and have a tendency to skip lines before characters are finished speaking like me.
If I haven’t sold you on Virtue’s Last Reward yet, I don’t know what else to say. It’s a near flawless narrative experience wrapped in a bog-standard but necessary adventure game. It has more emotional depth than I’ve ever experienced on a handheld, and had 2012 not been such an outstanding year for emotive storytelling with titles like Spec Ops and The Walking Dead, I might have been inclined to extend this compliment to videogames in general. If you own a 3DS or Vita this is without a doubt, unequivocally a must-play.