2010 was a year that had a lot of ups and downs for me, and I constantly found myself burying my head in my DS, still plugging away at Chrono Trigger, but it was time for me to find something new. Finding solace in gaming was easy thanks to 9 Hours, 9 Persons, 9 Doors; a visual novel game released by Aksys Games for the Nintendo DS. The combination of a suspenseful visual novel and complicated 'escape the room' puzzles made for an experience that wasn't typical of DS games up to that point. The cliffhanger story with multiple ending paths left me longing for more after completely finishing the game, and here we are, two years later with Zero's Escape: Virtue's Last Reward. This was one of those games that I had kept my eye on from the moment it was announced for the US market, and when it hit stores I was all over this game non-stop. After nearly forty hours of trying to unravel the story and solve all the puzzles, I'm left wanting more yet again. If it's going to be another two year wait, Chunsoft and I are going to have a problem.
Virtue's Last Reward follows the events of 999 with some returning cast members placed in a rather precarious and unenviable position of playing the Nonary Game: Ambidex Edition; hosted by an evil AI named Zero III. This maniacal rabbit plays enforcer to make sure that all participants are well behaved and that all rules are explained in the most schizophrenic manner possible. It's a bit unsettling hearing Zero III talk about the manner in which the players will be dispatched should they break the rules; all with a wild grin on his face. Each player of the game is given points based on how they choose to play the Nonary Game, will they ally with the other players or betray them? Should they reach nine points they will be able to escape their prison, but the escape will only open once and will stay open for only nine seconds. From that point on it's a mad dash to deconstruct this mystery, with a story that contains elements of theories and rules presented by Herman Minkowski, Isaac Asimov, and Erwin Schrödinger all wrapped up in a 'who dunnit?' murder mystery that will leave players scratching their heads.
As Sigma; a college student who is as clueless as everyone else as to why he would be a candidate for the Nonary Game, players will make choices that will lead them down a winding story path that features multiple branches and dozens of endings that have some rather shocking results, including an ending that left me cursing my Vita, begging for more. There's also tons of supplemental data that will help players in trying to make sense of it all, and I applaud Aksys for taking the time to translate it all and present it such a neat little package. I have to say that the absolute best way to prepare for playing Virtue's Last Reward would be to play 9 Hours, 9 Persons, 9 Doors. Some of the returning characters have some deeper connections than they initially let on, and it's a real trip to see how their presence affects the story.
The gameplay of Virtue's Last Reward is presented in two formats, there's the 'Novel' sections of the game that present the story and will make up a bulk of the reading. It is also where players will participate in the Nonary Game and will make the choice to ally with or betray the other members of their group. Depending on how the votes go, the player will either lose or gain points, putting them closer to escape, or punishment. The 'Escape' sections of the game place players inside of a room with cryptic clues to aid in their escape. These rooms will require a lot of mental gymnastics by the player in order to find a combination that opens a safe that holds the key to the way out. A lot of the later rooms have a rather steep increase in difficulty on the path to completion and these rooms also offer clues as to what's really going on with the Nonary Game, with a lot of hints driving toward objects found that seem to be of little consequence. I wish I could divulge a bit more, but I want to be very careful about spoilers. I will state that it is really pretty much impossible to see the true ending of the game without playing through other branches of the story.
The touch controls for the Vita feel a bit imprecise and mushy at times, but that is to be expected from the lack of the precision a stylus brings. There's a little bit of use of tilt with the system as well, but it's a bit awkward to use and thankfully isn't a forced mechanism for control. The game also has an annoying tendency to 'snap to' locations when scrolling between viewing points, so early on I'd find I wasn't moving enough to reach a new area. It's a small matter, and eventually I got over it, but I wish the game was a little less rigid on where the camera can be placed.
Visually Virtue's Last Reward is a great looking game and a lot of that is driven by its excellent character design. The colorful cast offers a sharp contrast to the at times bland warehouse where the bulk of the game takes place. The rooms themselves aren't at all bad to look at, but the sterility of the visuals is kind of a bummer. The characters themselves have a bit of animation to them during novel sections of the game, but they are limited animations and the canned movements sometimes is a bit off-putting. The characters themselves also have some weird idiosyncrasies that kind of grated on me, like Clover's inability to do anything other than smile. These kinds of things are incredibly minor, and it's not really anything that holds the game back, but it's just weird things that I hope Chunsoft can address in the future.
The industrial maestro Shinji Hosoe returns and he provides another excellent soundtrack for Virtue's Last Reward. It's great in providing tension during key moments of the game while at the same time able to really hammer home some of those more emotional moments, of which there are plenty. The voice acting is solid from the English voice cast, and I've got to hand it to whoever cast Zero III, because I don't see how that role could have been done any better. The inclusion of a Japanese vocal track is certainly appreciated, and it was certainly surprising seeing some of the most famous actors of Japan lending their voices to the game.
Zero's Escape: Virtue's Last Reward is one of those games that captivated me from start to finish. From the initial mystery of who Zero is to the final reveal, I was making guesses left and right and constantly found myself wrong. While the story unraveled I found myself hanging on to the last minutes of charge that my Vita was able to hold, constantly anchored to a socket so I could enjoy the game uninterrupted. If anything the poor Vita battery life hurts a game like Virtue's Last Reward because it's very easy to spend hours upon hours trying to escape from a given room much like I did. The carrot is just far enough on that string to keep the desire to see this game through strong, and it's to Chunsoft's credit that they were able to strike such a fine balance.
By the end of Virtue's Last Reward I was ready to just start whatever game was next, but that's obviously a long way off. I really can't emphasize enough how much I enjoyed this game and how much I think it will be enjoyed by Vita owners. The library is slowing getting some quality titles and this is one of them. Gamers shouldn't let this game slip away and in a crowded holiday season it's tough to set aside money for a niche game like this, but this is one of those games that is absolutely worth every dollar spent on it. Chunsoft, I hope you're working on a new game, and Aksys, I hope you're ready to pick up the next game when it's ready.