"Its sharp wit, cleverness, and enigmatic plot provide not only a top-tier visual novel experience, but some of the best entertainment I've had gaming."
Aksys Games' localization of Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors introduced gamers to Chunsoft's brutal world where death is around every corner and revitalized the visual novel in North America. Such a performance would be tough to top, but Zero Escape: Virtue's Last Reward manages to do just that. With its intricate plot, intriguing science-fiction elements, and clever puzzles, VLR isn't just one of the best games available on the Nintendo 3DS and PlayStation Vita, it's one of the best visual novels I've ever played.
Sometime after the events of 9 Hours, 9 Persons, 9 Doors, another Nonary Game begins. Nine people are trapped within a facility with nothing to guide them but an insane rabbit-like AI known only as Zero III. Placed there by the elder Zero, the AI informs the players that they are in the Nonary Game: Ambidex Edition. With irremovable bracelets strapped to their wrists, the trapped party must compete against each other in a Prisoner's Dilemma
-style competition where allying with or betraying their fellows either provides points or takes them away. Anyone reaching 9 points can escape from the facility, but reaching 0 brings only execution.
The concept itself is just as novel as the original Nonary Game, but the storytelling goes well beyond it. VLR explores many concepts within Quantum Mechanics, including wave function collapse, superposition, and the many worlds theory. Spike Chunsoft manages not only to spin a story that's interesting to both science buffs and laypeople, but Aksys Games' localization is top-notch. Most plot threads are wrapped up nicely, even if there are some questions left in the end. Managing to be simultaneously humorous, somber, and harrowing isn't something that many games can pull off, but VLR manages to do it with aplomb.
It's not just the plot that makes VLR a success, but also its variety of gameplay systems, from the ability to pick any branching choice in the game you've made and hop right back to that spot to the "to be continued" endings that can only be passed by finding a piece of information in another path. Thankfully, this means that 999's annoying repetition has been eliminated and every puzzle in the game manages to feel fresh.
Each of the escape rooms has some kind of mathematical or logic puzzle to suss out, and the difficulty is tuned perfectly. Some puzzles are on the easier side and others on the harder side, but none fall too far from the middle of the scale. For those who do find themselves stuck, though, easy mode provides not only more detailed hints, but also the answer straight up if you should fail too many times. It's a nice feature for those who simply want to get through the story.
However, this is where problems begin to creep up, especially with the Vita version of the game. Moving around the rooms can be done with the analog stick, shoulder buttons, or touchscreen, but none of these are particularly friendly. The analog stick is too sensitive, the shoulder buttons are sluggish, and the touchscreen is overly quick. There's no good medium, especially when trying to click on something that might only be a few pixels wide. Luckily, it's always clear when there is an item in the environment, even if it's not particularly simple to click on it.
The memo function in the Vita version is completely worthless, as well, since it's impossible to write using your finger on the capacitive touchscreen, as anyone who has played Draw Something can attest. VLR still managed to keep me from being frustrated despite being the only game in years where I've had to use both scratch paper and
Excel to keep track of what's going on in puzzles. The feeling that you get at the end of the room after going through 3 pieces of graph paper is magical; something few games match.
Despite the good puzzles, though, the environments all feel very similar, with a couple of exceptions. During most of the game, you're trudging through an industrial-looking warehouse, and with the required branching paths, you see a lot of the same grey rooms. Still, the character models are interesting enough, though some don't really work that well in 3D, such as Alice's. It's one thing to see a 2D character dressed in a nonsensical way, but quite another to see what should be a more realistic model wearing nothing but a gold ring for a shirt. The models themselves work well as portraits when dialogue occurs, but more action-oriented shots show the weakness of Chunsoft's 3D modeling. Just about every character manages to look goofy in an action pose at least once during the game.
The aesthetic issues don't stop there, especially related to repetition. The sound effects in VLR are passable, but I've heard the same "group of footsteps" sound effect so many times I think I've memorized the intonation of every step. The music isn't anything memorable, but serves its purpose admirably.
While all of these gripes are real issues, none of them overshadow the fact that Virtue's Last Reward manages to be a top-quality game. Its sharp wit, cleverness, and enigmatic plot provide not only a top-tier visual novel experience, but some of the best entertainment I've had gaming. If you own a Nintendo 3DS or PlayStation Vita, you owe it to yourself to at least give VLR a try; there's nothing else quite like it on either platform.