999: Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors was a sleeper hit that crawled underneath the radar for many Nintendo DS owners. Having received high critical reception upon release, even today people still play and enjoy this visual novel. Having had success localising 999 in North America, Chunsoft’s sequel Zero Escape: Virtue’s Last Reward hopes to improve upon the original and has found its way to a worldwide release. However, does Virtue’s Last Reward really improve upon its predecessor, or with it forever be lost in Zero’s twisted grasp?
Those who are familiar with 999 will find that VLR’s story continues on in such a way that won’t leave newcomers stumped or stuck with a broken story. Taking up the role of a college student known as Sigma. You’re abducted by a masked assailant and awake with a mysterious and intelligent smart-ass girl named Phi. After meeting others who are stuck within the huge warehouse you finally meet Zero III: a rabbit who runs the Nonary game – which we’ll get to in a bit.
While the main goal is to escape from the warehouse, there is a twist here that could easily confuse. VLR contains many branching paths throughout its story, each outcome is decided by the ‘FLOW system’. During the course of your playthrough Sigma experiences déjà vu moments and creates a parallel universe where previous choices will now have different consequences and outcomes. At first this is really confusing, but as you begin to complete different paths you quickly become familiar with what’s going on and then the story begins to make a lot more sense. The sooner you catch on, the better, as this is one disturbing, engaging and a well narrated masterpiece. There’s really nothing else like it out there.
Gameplay is broken up into three different sections: Visual Novel, Escape, and Nonary game. Visual Novel sections are wonderfully fully voice-acted and generally discuss the situation at hand. During these parts you’ll be able to make decisions that allow you to continue on with different characters. Escape portions have you figuring out complex brainteasers to uncover hidden secrets, and largely work like a point and click adventure would. You’ve got to find the secret key to escape the room and seeing as there’s a good amount of rooms to find your way out of, each with interesting and well thought out puzzles, it’s hard to see how you could get tired of this winning formula. There’s even some secrets that shed light on the story.
The Nonary game takes Sigma away from everyone else, or just takes him with one other person to make a rather tough decision. The entire point of the Nonary game, which overshadows all the games events, is to escape the warehouse you’re being held in. You do this by gathering nine BP (Bracelet Points), if a character is unlucky enough to have their BP reach zero then they’ll die through lethal injection from the bracelet on their wrist. In these Nonary game sections you’ll have to make a decision to ally or betray his partner. If you and your opponent both decide to ally together then you’ll both get two BP. However, if you ally and the other betrays you lose two BP – but they’ll gain three BP. If you both decide to betray nobody gets any points. It’s really rather simple, but with your life on the line it can be a really tough decision.
There are a few notable improvements over 999, largely the implementation of the FLOW system. VLR’s predecessor had you start over from the beginning to experience a new path, but thanks tot he aforementioned FLOW sequences you can just jump back a chapter and take a new path. You can also fast forward through text, which makes the slower Visual Novel sections easier to get through when replaying the game. They may be small, but they’re welcome additions that polish up the title even more.
You’ll also be pleased to know that VLR looks absolutely brilliant. 999 used 2D character art, but this time around things look wonderful thanks to fully rendered 3D character models. Things aren’t utterly tip top, but that’s understandable as the title bridges both 3DS and Vita. For those in the know, Liam O’Brien and Laura Bailey take up roles this time, along with others, so you can guess that the voice acting really is top-notch.
In North America and Europe, Visual Novels aren’t really all that popular, but Zero Escape: Virtue’s Last Reward could easily change that. There may not be an awful lot of gameplay, but it’s all about the experience you go through on the story rather than action packed set-pieces. In the end Zero Escape: Virtue’s Last Reward is a unique game made for mature audiences and really isn’t something that anyone should overlook.
Audio/Visuals – 4/5: Voicing acting has some great talent behind and the graphics offer some detailed character models and environments, but not by much.
Gameplay – 4/5: There isn’t much gameplay in VLR, but its more about the experience then the gameplay. When the escape sequences do happen, they offer some brain-teasing puzzles that will keep you busy for some hours.
Innovation – 5/5: This is a unique visual novel with some crazy story elements that ties into the improvements, along with the way it plays out.
Replayability – 5/5: This game will keep you busy for hours, with branching story paths, hidden files to find, and mastering all the puzzles room will stack up the hours.
Final Score: 4.5/5