Review by Suprak the Stud
"Quite the Reward"
I didn't have a lot of nice things to say about 999: Nine Persons, Nine Plotholes, Nine Playthroughs to Figure Out How to Get the Ending. The story started off well enough, but about three quarters of the way through it got aboard the cuckoo crazy train to Nonsenseville and it felt like they tried to resolve all the important plot points by pulling random statements out of a hat. And the actual gameplay was a series of boring puzzles that had a difficulty level only slightly above turning the game on. And yet, when the sequel was released, I bought it almost immediately. Partly because the name, Zero Escape: Virtue's Last Reward is awesome enough to warrant a purchase by itself, and partly because the current library of the 3DS is only slightly more impressive than that of the Virtual Boy. Moreover, while 999 had plenty of shortcomings, it did feature an interesting story, a strong cast of characters, and it offered an experience that was incredibly unique in a sea of otherwise similar platformers and first person shooters. Luckily for me and my dusty 3DS, Virtues Last Reward is actually a very solid title, remedying many of the most glaring issues of the first game. There are still a couple of problems with the story and the gameplay, but this is a much stronger outing and definitely worth checking out if you are a fan of visual novels or are in need of an excuse to use your 3DS as something other than a novelty coaster.
Unfortunately for you, when the game starts, things have already gone that special kind of awful that you usually only see in Saw movies or if you happen to accidentally visit Detroit. Sigma, the main character, awakes in a small room on the floor, confused and frightened and having no idea how it was that he arrived there. He is somewhat groggy and finds a woman in his room named Phi who he doesn't know, but who knows his name despite the fact that he doesn't know hers. This may sound like the description of every one night stand you've ever heard, but the lack of urine and vomit on the couch rules out that possibility. The reality is far worse and involves a lot more kidnapping and death traps, because Sigma, Phi, and seven other poor suckers have been kidnapped and are being forced to take part in a new and improved edition of the Nonary Game. A talking rabbit with an affinity for murder and making rabbit based puns (I'm still not sure which is scarier) soon shows up and delineates the basic rules of the game for you (because any other creature explaining the rules would just have been silly). Once again, you will need to complete a series of puzzles and escape through a number nine door, all the while figuring out exactly where you are at, who kidnapped you, and why you are being forced to partake in this game in the first place. Oh, and the penalty for losing? A nice parting gift including a year long subscription to the sausage of the month club and oh wait, I'm reading that wrong. It's death. So, uh, good luck with that.
A visual novel without an interesting story is like a car without wheels or Mario without his mustache, and if this game didn't have a worthwhile story then you'd be better off playing something where the primary gameplay features wasn't "words". Luckily, the story in Virtue's Last Reward is interesting and unique, or at least as unique as a sequel can get that uses the same set up and premise as the first game in the series. The dialogue is fairly strong and the game as a whole is enjoyable written. The script is much more enjoyable this time around, perhaps because they are better able to strike a balance between serious scenes and comical scenes, and there were portions of the game I found genuinely funny. Again, the game does a nice job setting up a series of mysteries and portions of the game are difficult to put down. And, completely unlike the first game, some of the plot twists are actually enjoyable. As a whole the game seems better paced, and the story was able to keep my interest throughout its entirety.
If you weren't sure this was a true successor to 999, you'd figure it out the first time Virtue's Last Reward delves into a philosophical aside that underlines some important theme or story concept in the most roundabout way possible. The story definitely doesn't adhere to the most common videogame tropes, and is far more complex than your typical videogame plot. There are perhaps even more bonkers crazy plot twists than what was featured in the original game, and the complexity of the plot can get overwhelming to the point things start feeling convoluted. And while the plot twists are typically unexpected and unpredictable, keeping you guessing until the very end, some of them are only unexpected because they make so little sense. One in particular is something that should have been discovered almost immediately if the game hadn't been intentionally trying to hide it from you, and believing that it would have taken nearly the entire game to discover requires a suspension of disbelief that isn't even possible in a game about psychic messages in a game of death. At times, the plot seems overly complex simply for the sake of being overly complex, and I would call it Kafkaesque if I wasn't afraid it would make me sound pretentious. There is a common turn of phrase that goes something like "If you hear hoofbeats, expect horses not zebras" meaning the most logical conclusion is usually the right one. Not in Virtue's Last Reward. Here, if you hear hoofbeats, expect cloven elf warriors from the planet Xanadu coming to get you with their psychic moon lasers, because anything less wouldn't meet the minimum level of craziness.
The thing is, despite the fact that this games ramps up the craziness, distills it, and then injects a concentrated dose of Grade A turbo bananas right into its own heart, I actually enjoy the story far more than I did in the original. The game does a better job establishing its game world, so all of the craziness at least makes some semblance of sense given the rules within the world itself. By having had the rules of this universe better established, it doesn't feel like the game is just pulling plot twists out of its butt when stuff actually starts going down. If this doesn't make sense, then imagine you are reading a novel about vampires, which from the very beginning establishes that vampires are real and exist within the universe of the novel. If a plot twist occurs at the end where a main character is revealed to have been secretly a vampire the entire time, it might be a surprise, but it doesn't feel odd considering that vampires had been established to be real this whole time. If, however, you are reading a novel about the Civil War and at the very end Lincoln comes back to life because he was secretly a vampire then you are reading a novel where the author appears to have been replaced at the end by a five year old who didn't know what the story was about. This might sound like it should have a minor effect on the quality of the story, but it helped both the immersion and the atmosphere, and as a result I found the story far more engaging. The plot still does go off the rails a bit at times, and even with the improved writing and dialogue I still found myself shaking my head at some of the sillier moments, but as a whole this is a stronger, more cohesive story.
While the story as a whole is better constructed this time around, the characters themselves are a bit weaker than the cast from the first game. The cast from the first game at least all felt like real people and even with all the crazy stuff happening in the story, they still seemed somewhat grounded and relatable. Apparently that cast didn't meet the prerequisite level of zany wackiness, because this time around it was amplified until the summary of the cast sounds like descriptions of things you might see in your dreams if you've either had some really good alcohol or really bad food poisoning. There is a man with amnesia wearing a robot suit and what looks like a bath robe (because he just got out of the shower), a woman that is either an Egyptian mummy or a detective wearing only a necklace for a top, and a little kid wearing a hat made out of trash. Clover also makes a reappearance, but she has had a major design change and now looks like what would happen if Pebbles from The Flintstones became a prostitute. Once you get past initial impressions, however, the cast as a whole is actually fairly strong. Each of the nine individuals stuck with you in the Nonary Game are well developed and have distinct personalities and quirks. While it might be a bit of a step down compared to 999, as a whole the crew in Virtue's Last Reward is far stronger than typical videogame characters.
The gameplay is also significantly improved, in so much that I no longer dread it when the game stops being a book. Like the first game, Virtue's Last Reward is divided into reading segments and room escape segments where you must figure out a series of puzzles in order to uncover the password and get out of the room. Both the variety and cleverness of the puzzles are markedly better, and there were a couple of puzzles where I actually had to stop and think. There are some classic adventure style object combination puzzles and more traditional logic puzzles, and the combination of the two works well. While the puzzle design is still a little less impressive than some other games in the genre, it is a significant step up from 999 and a majority of the puzzles I actually enjoyed. There are a couple of annoying puzzles, and in particular a dice puzzle towards the end had me cursing the gods of poor game design. For future reference, if a symmetrical puzzle has a nonsymmetrical answer, you might want to indicate which way up is supposed to be or you can't be surprised when I start pelting your office with trash. However, these sort of puzzles are in the minority, and for the most part the game manages to make the puzzles clever and fun without being frustrating.
While both the story and the gameplay are improved in comparison to 999, perhaps the biggest improvement is something which seems relatively minor: a chapter select feature. I usually don't comment on a chapter select feature, because it is typically only slightly more interesting than the layout of in game menus. If a reviewer typically starts talking about the chapter select options, you can assume he or she is getting paid by the word and it is only a matter of time before the start discussing the shape of the box it came in. However, I can't begin to describe how much better this game is with the inclusion of the feature. This game features a flowchart that shows every possible path and allows you to select any chapter you have already been to so you can immediately replay it. This allows you to immediately jump to any decision you have already made and select another option without needing to go back and play through the entire game again. You no longer have to worry about if your arbitrary decisions preclude you from seeing the ending, because Virtue's Last Reward prevents you from having to replay the same segments over and over again, allowing you to skip to new material and preventing the flow and pacing of the story from being utterly quashed. The game even does a clever job integrating stuff you learned in one path from having an effect on other paths through a mechanism I really don't want to detail too much out of fear of spoiling something. All visual novels need to incorporate something like this; fast forwarding text is still a complete waste of time, especially if you can just select the branch point you want to go to immediately.
The whole game has these sort of clever design decisions that to me really perfect this style of game. The flowchart is great, but the game also utilizes this clever password system that prevents you from having to go through and solve the same puzzles over and over again if you find yourself wanting to read through the story a second time. Solving the puzzle in each escape room gives you a password that you can use to access a safe, which then gives you a key you can use to exit the room. While this might seem like just putting another step in the whole "get key escape room" setup, it makes it so that once you get the password the first time, you already know it if you go through the room again. This way, you can just open the safe, get out, and get right back to the story if you want. There is also a second password that allows you to open a different part of the safe and access some secret files which give you information about certain things you might not otherwise know. It is a nice way to incorporate some extra puzzles for the hardcore puzzle geeks like myself, while giving an easier path for people who just want to focus on the story and have trouble tying their shoes. There is even an easy mode which gives out more hints for people that are having trouble figuring out the puzzles, and there are just a lot of features like this that really are well thought out and help the game be more enjoyable to a broader audience.
Something that really concerned me going into the game was the voice acting I had seen in all the trailers. From the snippets I had heard, it sounded like there was a typo in the job description calling for "voice arters" instead of voice actors, and the only people who applied were a bunch of confused artists because while I did not know for sure what their primary means of employment was, I had definitely eliminated "professional voice actors" from contention. Fortunately, when I actually started playing through the game I quickly grew accustomed to each of the voice actors to the point that I actually enjoyed listening to all the spoken text. Each of the voice actors fits their role nicely, and with the exception of the crazy rabbit (who is intentionally over the top), none of the characters overact or sound stupid. It is kind of weird that there is no voice actor for Sigma, because with all the talking it now sounds like you are watching a movie where one of the parts is played by a mute. Still, overall I enjoyed the voice acting and the sound effects in general and they actually help the tone and mood of the game.
While as a whole the game is a drastic improvement over its predecessor, the visuals are an absolute abomination compared to what 999 used. The first game in the series had these really nicely hand drawn images that were well illustrated and nicely detailed. This time around, to fit the mandatory 3D into any games released on a 3DS, the game is forced to abandon this art style and instead utilizes these somewhat blocky polygons which puts the graphics behind most games on the PS2. To be fair, the visuals aren't completely awful, but they are a definite step back in comparison to the first game. While the game is attempting to utilize the 3D functionality, the alteration in visual style leaves the game with a much weaker aesthetic and causes it to just look generic.
Beyond the visuals, there are a couple of other minor issues worth mentioning. While the secret files were a nice addition, the game doesn't always do a great job placing them in locations that don't eventually spoil something coming up. I don't think I've ever encountered a game that unintentionally spoils itself before, but it got to the point that I was treating the secret files like my loudmouth friend who can't keep a secret and I ended up not reading them until at least the puzzle room later to make sure nothing else was spoiled. Perhaps the worst design choice, however, is the way that they show Sigma and his band of merry assistants traveling. As you go from room to room, the game is desperately afraid that you might think you are teleporting places, so they show you as a slowly moving blinking dot. Across the entire map. Regardless of how far you have to go. At first it is a minor annoyance, but by the end of the game that flashing dot had become the bane of my existence. I guess it says something about the game that one of my biggest complaints is something so minor, but it does end up wasting large chunks of game time where you just watch a circle move around.
Overall though, this is pretty much a must own for fans of visual novels, and it is entertaining enough that even individuals that aren't typically fans of the genre might want to check it out. The story does get a bit muddled at times, and is more convoluted than most origami. There are a couple of plot twists that fall closer to "stupid" than "surprising" and some of the puzzles rooms are a little underwhelming. Still, with all of that being taken into account this is still absolutely the best visual novel I've ever played. Granted, I've only played like four so it doesn't have a lot of competition, but beyond that it is a genuinely entertaining game regardless of genre, and one that I would recommend to pretty much any one who owns a 3DS. If the story had been a bit better constructed, more focused on telling a coherent tale instead of trying to work out the craziest plot twists they could, I would say that this would almost be the perfect visual novel due to the clever way it is constructed and the way it eliminates most of the frustrations that typically pop up in this sort of game. If this really is virtue's last reward, it is a great one.
Nine (THE GOOD):
+Quality and variety of the puzzles are improved significantly
+Inclusion of the flowchart and chapter select feature helps the flow and pacing of the story significantly
+Story as a whole is much better this time around, with an interesting script and good dialogue and characters
+Plot remains interesting throughout the entirety of the game, with enough twists to keep you guessing
+Voice acting is surprisingly well done, and actually makes the game more enjoyable
+Inclusion of an easy mode and extra puzzles for secret files do a nice job tuning the difficulty to your tastes
Zero (THE BAD):
-Art style is forgettable and a huge step back from the first game
-Some of the plot twists are silly and beyond the realm of believability, and the plot is too overly convoluted
-Whoever decided to show movement as a slow blinking dot needs to be fired out of a cannon
-Some of the puzzle rooms are fairly bland and overly simplistic
Negative One (THE UGLY): One of the bonus files lists a made up scale of attractiveness that goes out of 20. Marilyn Monroe is given a 20, while Gilbert Gottfried is given a zero. I really like to imagine him playing the game, getting to this file and just going :OH WHAT THE HELL!?" The worst thing is they give Danny Trejo a 16, which leads me to believe the scale is completely broken.
THE VERDICT: 7.75/10.00
Reviewer's Rating: 4.0 - Great
Originally Posted: 01/04/13
Game Release: Zero Escape: Virtue's Last Reward (US, 10/23/12)
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