Back in 2010, Aksys Games released 999: 9 Hours, 9 Persons, 9 Doors on the Nintendo DS. Being a text-based adventure game mixed with puzzles, to most it seemed like it would be a small niche release outside Japan. However, following a number of rave reviews and positive word-of-mouth, it turned out to be an acclaimed hit and triggered a follow-up title: Zero Escape: Virtue's Last Reward. With expectations at an all-time high following 999, was developer Chunsoft able to meet and even exceed expectations?
Just like in 999, an unknown assailant kidnaps nine unsuspecting strangers and traps them inside an unknown building with only one way out - a door with the number 9. To get out, the "players" are forced to play in the new "Nonary Game: Ambidex Edition", which features not just the "escape" sequences found in 999, but also new voting sequences where the players choose to either ally or betray with the player (or players) they joined up with previously.
If both teams cooperate they'll both gain BP, but if one chooses to betray the other and the other chooses to ally, the betrayer gains BP and the betrayed loses BP. If you get 9 BP you can escape, but if you lose all your BP you'll die as each participant has a watch attached to them which will kill them if this occurs. And to add to things, the AI running the show, Zero III, purports that his creator Zero is among one of the nine, causing distrust to run rampant from the outset - something which only keeps growing as the unwilling participants do whatever they can to survive.
This opening premise leads into the "choose your own adventure" style gameplay that was executed so excellently in 999. Like in 999, you have to pick your teammates. Whether you escape or die over the course of the Nonary Game depends on some seemingly small, but critical choices as each decision creates a branching point that can be seen in the flowchart available in-game via the menu.
After picking your teams and going through some dialogue, you'll end up in the "escape" portion of the game. Similar to 999, each of these rooms has one giant puzzle made up of a number of smaller puzzles. To give an example, one of the initial puzzles involves a room with pieces of a globe and various types of liqueur. On their own neither seem to relate much to each other. However, after putting together the globe and figuring out some other smaller puzzles the game gives a hint as to how to mix together the liqueurs together, allowing you to solve the puzzle and gain access to the pattern that unlocks the safe that holds the key to move onto the next room.
The puzzles ramp up in difficulty later on, as expected, but they never feel too complex where you need to resort to a guide. And for the completionists out there, there's also a secondary puzzle that gives extra background information.Improving on 999, Virtue's Last Reward's (VLR) escape sequences are much more interactive this time around as you can move freely around. Like in 999, VLR employs a point-and-click interface for interacting with the various suspicious objects littered throughout the rooms. On the Vita version you can also use the analog sticks to move the pointer, although this method can be slightly annoying at times as the pointer has some slight inertia to it. Because there's no obvious indication of when you've hovered over a investigate-able object, using this control method often ends up with having to re-hover over the object. If you prefer touch controls, though, there's no issue as it's just as precise as 999 was with its stylus-based controls.
Unlike 999, players now have the choice between a new "hard" difficulty and an "easy" difficulty akin to 999's difficulty. The difference being that VLR's new hard difficulty leaves the player to their own devices in solving the overall puzzle, as well as netting a gold folder instead of a silver folder upon completion of the secondary puzzle. Your partners do give some brief insight when investigating new objects, but unless you switch to the easy difficulty they won't give any more clues afterward. In addition, VLR also fixes the issue in 999 where multiple playthrough requires going through the same puzzles over and over again by allowing players to jump back to previous points in the flowchart at any time, so unless you want to replay a puzzle it only has to be completed once.
Complimenting the escape portions in VLR are the "novel" sequences which take place between the escape sequences. Implemented in a visual-novel type format, Sigma and the other players in the game interact with one another as they try to deduce who in their group is Zero and how to escape from the facility. The Japanese voices from the original Japanese release are still here, but Aksys Games also included an incredibly well-done English dub with a number of voice actors that Japanese RPG and anime fans should immediately recognize. There's a slight disconnect between the voices being spoken and the animations on the screen, but after a few hours it isn't much of an issue.
As stated before, VLR is meant to be played through multiple times due to its multiple endings. To help lessen the issue of repeated text, VLR has the ability to speed through any dialogue you've previously encountered and stop once you end up at a decision or text you haven't seen before. After going through multiple runs you begin to piece together the complex overall story and encounter a number of mind-blowing plot twists along the way that change your perception of the game's participants.Considering the complexity involved and without giving any major spoilers away, it's clear to say that Chunsoft crafted an extremely written narrative here that meets 999's quality and it's only been helped by the superb localization work on the part of Aksys Games. VLR also does a much better job in developing all of the characters instead of only a few, which garnered some complaints from those who played 999.
One minor issue some may have with this change in direction, however, is that because there's more focus on the characters, many of the character endings are hidden behind password locks which require venturing into other branches to find the corresponding key. Some players probably won't mind this diversion, but some may not like having to stop focusing on specific branch and backtrack to find the key to unlock it.
The graphics and music in VLR are also held to the same standard of quality found elsewhere in the title. Instead of 999's 2D approach, VLR uses 3D-based models and environments throughout the game. The graphics don't reach the same standards as other PlayStation Vita titles due to there being a Nintendo 3DS port of the game, but Chunsoft did smooth out the pixels in the Vita version enough where it doesn't feel out of place. The musical score is quite fitting, but it doesn't stand out nearly as much when listening to it outside the game.
Aksys and Chunsoft knew they had a hit on their hands following the release of 999: 9 Hours, 9 Persons, 9 Doors and high expectations were set once the second game in the series was announced. Zero Escape: Virtue's Last Reward manages to hit those expectations and bring fans another excellent entry in the series, complete with its own twist thanks to the ally/betray system. Fans of 999 already had this game pre-ordered a while ago, but if you enjoy puzzle games and a well-written narrative you should "reward" yourself by picking up this game.
|The ally/betray mechanic makes for an excellent narrative.|
|Lets the player choose if they want hints or not during the escape sequences.|
|Excellent music and English dub voice overs.|
|The new 3D-based graphics are nice, but occasionally there's a disconnect between their animations and their voices.|
|The password locking system might annoy those who want to keep on going in a given route.|
|Using the analog stick during the escape sequences isn't as precise as it should be.|