Review by bluemaximax011
"The sequel 999 deserved. The wait for game #3 is going to be killer."
I reviewed 999 back in 2010 and it was one of the best games, if not the best game, I had played on the DS system. I didn't believe a sequel was coming, and when I heard about it I immediately jumped for joy and cringed simultaneously. How a sequel would turn out in comparison to the original, rather self-contained story of 999? Would it be anywhere as good as the first?
Like it's predecessor, Virtue's Last Reward (hereafter referred to as VLR) is a visual novel, but thanks to the improved technology contained within the PS Vita, the series has moved onto using full 3D models for story sections, 3D areas for puzzle solving and plenty of voice acting.
The 3D switch in this game brings about the question "is it as good as the 2D backgrounds and animations from the first game?" The answer is almost a definite yes. In the story sections the models on the characters are nicely rendered and detailed, and animations never exactly feel stiff or stressed, even with voice acting. Sometimes however it feels like they could've added a few more animations, or even "idle behaviors", but it's not much to complain about.
The 3D switch gives puzzles a lot better feeling of depth and movement, as you're capable of moving around the room that you're stuck in during a puzzle and look at most of the angles you need to. It's mostly bright, colorful and nicely contrasted, however sometimes the environments can feel a bit bare or flat. However, anything that needs to catch your attention as part of a puzzle usually will do so, and being a little sparsely populated is a perfectly acceptable trade.
All the character's voice acting can only be classed between "well done" and "absolutely brilliant". Every voiced character in the game feels like a perfect fit for that character - everyone from your first encounter Phi to Zero the 3rd, your informant cross torturer - just fits perfectly, with good expression and comprehension from all VAs involved. Although during puzzles the voice acting is nonexistent, which is a shame, since some of the lines in puzzles are as hilarious as those outside puzzles. Also of note is that the main character, Sigma, doesn't have any voice acting, although this definitely makes it easier for the player to immerse themselves as playing as him. (Please note I am talking about the English voices, which are only available in the US version of Virtue's Last Reward. European versions only recieve the Japanese voice acting.)
The soundtrack is perfectly fitting for this game - every track has a synergy between them that helps keep the immersion, while some are just absolute bombshells, such as the main theme. Every puzzle has it's own track but it never feels repetitive, and the tracks outside the puzzles are placed perfectly at areas of light chat and heavy action. It's high in both relative track placement and overall quality, there's not much else you can ask for.
Just like it's predecessor before it, VLR is a visual novel, and most of your time will be pressing X or tapping the screen in order to go through text, and you will mainly be reading the text, due to Sigma's dialogue not being voice acted - you can't listen to the entire plot. It's kind of a shame that this works this way, but it's understandable.
However, two of the main problems with text in the previous game was solved - you can cause text to auto-forward after it's done, so you can sit back and watch it go by without breaking your X button, and once you've seen specific scenes once you're capable of skipping over it almost altogether. Both of these changes make seeing repeat parts of the story nowhere near the trouble they were in the previous game.
Also of note is that, unlike the first game where you had to progress from beginning to end in order to get another ending, this game allows you to jump to any point in the story you so desire, and of course, just like the previous game, it's explained as canon within a relatively short time frame. It's almost a godsend - at each major decision in the story, you can jump backwards after you've proceeded down that route, and immediately see what would have happened down the other route, instead of having to play the game through again. Awesome. I'll go over the rest of the story in the next section, but let's talk about the puzzles real quick.
Puzzles have been done just as well as the previous game - many of the problems I had were with me not interpreting the puzzles correctly (being tired does that to you). The game retains it's predecessors save anywhere, no red herring, no time limit, relaxed puzzle solving, and I'm all the happier for it. Not only do puzzles include the old mechanics such as combining items, several extra mechanics are added to make for a more deep and enjoyable experience.
Puzzles are controlled by any one of two sets of controls - you can either use buttons to move an onscreen cursor and search for things, or you can use gestures and taps on the touch screen to achieve the same result. Both types control just as well as their counterpart and every action is accounted for in a sensible way. The end control set you use might end up being a combination of the two - I ended up touching the screen to search for things, but the analog stick and the circle button to move my viewpoint and move out of zoomed in areas.
The player can also call up several screens to help them progress - the "Arch" screen lets players rifle through any readable objects they may have picked up on the way for clues. Also of note is the "Note" function, which allows players to call up a virtual notepad at any time, and write down notes of anything they might need to remember. It's not the most pleasant experience, writing notes on a touch screen, but they give you multiple colors and sizes to use, and the ability to call it up anywhere in game is a definite plus.
Puzzles now have two difficulty modes, that can be toggled between at any time - Hard and Easy mode. Hard and Easy are practically exactly the same, but placing your game in Easy mode will prompt other characters with you at the time to give you help and hints towards the solution, sometimes developing a massive air of sarcasm about the whole thing. However, to get the game completed 100%, you are required to finish every puzzle on Hard without swapping difficulties. Also however, the solution to the puzzle never changes, so you can come back and do the exact same thing later.
And finally, how do you improve solving puzzles in game? Giving players a secondary way to solve it. Every room in the game has two different solutions, and the most difficult solution will unlock a "file" which contains details about concepts explored in game, the characters themselves, or sometimes completely unrelated rants from what feels like a crazy old man narrator, although some of the secrets these files reveal tend to be really, really cool. Although they may be a little easy to stumble upon accidentally - of the twenty or so puzzle rooms the game throws at you, I tended to find the secret solution before I found the real solution almost half the time.
Just before I move onto the story part again, there's a giant elephant in the room that needs to be discussed. Playing Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors to it's fullest completion is essential in gaining full enjoyment out of Virtue's Last Reward, period. The entire story is rooted around the main element of 999's storytelling, many characters make return appearances and some bombshells are dropped that make absolutely no sense without context from the first game. Once you find a few people who tie into the previous game, especially one who isn't dramatically obvious right from the start, it's like seeing an old friend again.
But anyway, of course, just like 999, the main focus of VLR is the story, and damn, they pulled it off, AGAIN, while making it what is arguably the best sequel to anything in the past decade or more.
The writing is again, terrific. The English translators obviously had a lot of fun while translating. Just like the previous game, you'll be laughing at the ridiculousness of it one minute, having your head explode from a bombshell the next. It's a non-stop rollercoaster that always manages to keep you entertained with humor, action and everything in between. (One of the characters references the old Nickelodeon movie Good Burger, for chrissakes. You should've seen my face.)
Storytelling is also dramatically improved from the previous game thanks to the Flow system (where you can jump to any point in the storyline). The previous game had a system where the information from one ending could help you get to another ending, and this game takes it up to 11 - you can take information back and forth between timelines to help you solve puzzles.
The game designates this as the LOCK system - if you hit a lock, you'll be presented with a "TO BE CONTINUED" screen, and put in the Flow system to go where you need to and try and find the information you need to proceed. Once you break a lock by proceeding down the relevant timeline, the game will alert you with a lock crack (the Vita version tends to be more helpful in this part as it pops a trophy for every lock you break). There's 11 locks to break, along with several not-designated-as-locks-but-function-the-same-as-locks, and you'll end up seeing every single timeline before you can finally break lock 11 and see what's at the end.
Speaking of ends, let's talk about the main part of the story before we move on. The players are thrust into a new version of the Nonary Game, known as the Ambidex Edition. The players, who each start with 3 points, are split into groups of 3, a PAIR of two players and a SOLO player. After every "round" of the game the players are split into rooms - the PAIR goes together while the SOLO goes alone. Either player then votes to ALLY or BETRAY with their partner.
It's a modified prisoners dilemma - if the SOLO and PAIR choose to ally with eachother, they both recieve two points. Nine points allows you to open the final door, get out and win the game, leaving the other players trapped inside the complex. So the obvious option is to ally so everyone gets out fine, right? Well if one player chooses betray and the other chooses ally, the betrayer gets 3 points and the ally loses a point. If both players betray eachother, no one gets anything and the round is null and void. The game continues until there's a winner. The players are sealed in such a way as to not be able to communicate, so how do you know you can trust the other player?
While there are more rules and the Ambidex Game is much more complex than I mention here, that's the gist of the whole thing. The best part about the game is that you are always given the choice of what to do during the voting, and it always branches off into another timeline. This leaves the game with over TWENTY endings to get. Every main character has their own ending to the game, which explains story about them and what/who they are. Not to mention almost every one has some massive, massive feels about it. Wait until you hit the little kid's ending.
As I stated before, the characters are great, endearing, deep and enjoyable, and the story is all about them, not the game, not the world, them. You're here to find out about them, and they'll keep you engaged throughout the whole story. The highlight character by far is Zero the 3rd, your main contact for learning about the game, and it's mainly because they don't overuse him and his wacky personality - he stays for just as long as he needs to, and you end up liking the bastard.
And again, the fact you can jump back and forward in the story to make other decisions is explained in game early on, and just like the previous game, every major reveal is foreshadowed. You'll never go into a major revelation in the game without massive foreshadowing from other characters, descriptions or objects that help the story forward, or (if you put the effort into it) finding the Gold files in the puzzles for more information. You'll never go into any part of the story without feeling uninformed about it.
Warning: Do not play this game if you can't afford to miss four to five days of your life. It can be addicting as many forms of illegal drugs until you find out what happens at the end of it all. The "one more puzzle" or "one more choice" stands as strong as it did in 999 here.
The game takes anywhere between 30 and 50 hours to complete, depending on how well you do on the puzzles and how long you take to read the text. While there's no particular reason to run through the game more than once story-wise the $40 asking price is worth every penny you put towards it.
Just like 999, Virtue's Last Reward stands as a paragon of the PlayStation Vita system. Hitting narrative quality at this level with very well designed puzzle gameplay twice in a row is just an amazing achievement. This game is worth every moment of time and every penny of cash you spend. A phenomenal experience in pretty much every way. Just make sure you give 999 a run through first.
Reviewer's Rating: 5.0 - Flawless
Originally Posted: 01/28/13
Game Release: Zero Escape: Virtue's Last Reward (US, 10/23/12)
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