Two years ago when I played the prequel, 999, I was thoroughly impressed by the true ending. Virtue’s Last Reward jumped from being merely impressive to utterly mind-blowing. Needless to say, VLR blows its prequel out of the water and sets up for something much larger than I originally imagined. I have actually lost sleep over this game, which is not something I can say about most games, even for some of my absolute favorites (by “losing sleep,” I mean I slept for 3 hours and in those 3 hours I dreamt about myself playing the game).
The protagonist this time around is Sigma, a 22-year-old college student who was abducted on Christmas after getting into his car late at night. He wakes up in what seems to be an elevator, partnered with a snarky white-haired girl named Phi. Phi seems to know his name from the get-go, and appears to have superhuman strength. After escaping the room, they meet seven other people who are in the same situation: kidnapped and woke up inside what looks to be an elevator. The nine of them have to participate in what is called the Nonary Game.
Virtue’s Last Reward, like its predecessor, revolves around the Nonary Game. Nine people are kidnapped and placed into a gigantic sealed facility, and wake up with unremovable bracelets equipped with needles that can inject a sedative and a muscle relaxant into the wearer (thus giving them a painless death). The Nonary Game involves opening doors using a combination of three bracelets (one pair and one solo), and then solving the puzzles in the rooms behind them to progress. After solving each set of rooms, those who entered the same door are forced to play against each other in the Ambidex Game, which forces the Prisoner’s Dilemma onto its players. Depending on each player’s choice, points can be added or subtracted. Each person begins with 3 points, and the door that allows escape from the facility can only be opened and passed through by players with 9 or more points. The catch is, the door only opens once. Getting kidnapped and dumped into an unpleasant facility to play a suspicious game that can very well end in death, unrest haunts the air. This is fuelled by the revelation that the one who set up such a disturbing game is amongst the nine participants…
Virtue’s Last Reward is a visual novel with many endings and branches, with escape-the-room puzzles as the central gameplay element. The puzzles are much harder on a whole than 999’s, and I had to resort to consulting the internet more than once. They are also all set up so that there is a safe in plain sight that contains the key required to pen the door, and the safe itself requires a code to open. However, there are actually two different codes that can open each safe: one for the key, and one for a secret file that adds to your in-game encyclopedia. All acquired codes are stored in the encyclopedia, and are randomly generated for each game. The room puzzles also have two difficulty modes. It is set to Hard on default, but one can switch to Easy where the characters will give you hints a lot more often. Easy mode does not give you all the encyclopedia entries (unlike hard), and obtaining a secret true ending scene requires completion of every room on Hard.
In 999, you could technically get away with completing only one route before the True route, and thus completion of all the puzzle rooms is not required. Here in Virtue’s Last Reward, there are nine character-specific endings, and you must go through all nine of them for the True end. In addition to that, each character ending also has a Game Over bad end that thankfully branches off near the end. The routes are also supposed to be played in a certain order, as many of them have “locks” that can only be bypassed with information obtained from the completion of a different route. Without obtaining the necessary information to bypass the lock, the “To Be Continued” screen will show instead, much like trying to go for the True end in 999 right off the bat. It gets somewhat frustrating when you become invested in the events of a route, only to be hit by a “To Be Continued” screen and having to choose a different route. Thankfully, the game’s system is designed to be much more user-friendly, and gives you a flowchart of the story. You can then jump to any point in the flowchart that you have seen before, meaning that you no longer have to start from the beginning again and abuse the skip function.
It may sound troublesome to get all the endings, but believe me, the revelations in the True ending are well worth it. Plus, the reveals in each route are interesting enough to keep you guessing, and unveils the past of the respective character. The game makes sure that you know each character’s backstory to effectively tie them together and ramp up the reveals in the True end. I was physically trembling with excitement when playing through the True ending, and the way this game is tied to the previous game makes it much more impactful for players of 999. The writing this time around also feels more fluid, and the story sequences have full voice acting in the dialogue. If you liked 999 then VLR is a no-brainer. If you enjoy story-centric adventure games like the Ace Attorney series or Ghost Trick, then just hurry up and get started on the Zero Escape series already (begin with 999 for the best experience). It’s suspenseful, full of mysteries, and gathers up tension to unleash the mind-blowing revelation at the end to leave you burnt out from awesome.
Characters-wise, I prefer 999’s cast by a slim margin. I like Junpei and Sigma equally, and I prefer Phi’s personality over Akane’s. However, Clover was a great deal more interesting back in 999, and my favorite character there (Snake) doesn’t have an equivalent in VLR. On the plus side, I really liked Luna (probably my favorite character in the game, despite not being my usual type). The character interactions are still great.
I preferred the previous game’s detailed and animated 2D sprites to the 3D models used this time around. Not only does 2D look nicer and more true to the original character designs, the 3D doesn’t really add a lot more movement or energy to the scenes that are still told visual novel-style with the characters standing around. Importance CG events are stills rather than moving 3D models. The models themselves aren’t bad though, they just lack some of that detail and energy expressed by animated 2D sprites.
The English voice acting definitely impressed me. I normally go into games with Japanese audio chosen when given the choice (since the games that did give me the choice are usually localized by NISA), but I wanted to see what the English voices were like so I picked that option. 26 hours later, I forgot there even was a language option. The English dub is of a high quality, so much that I didn’t even bother switching audio because I wanted to hear the rest of the game in the voices that I got used to so quickly. The characters all have fitting voices that convey emotions properly, without overacting or sounding monotone. The only one whose voice I didn’t care for was Quark’s, but everyone knows that shota voices in English (and depending on who you ask, shota voices in general) just don’t work that well. Good job, English voice cast. The bgm was appropriately suspenseful, but not something I’d want to listen to outside of the game.
At the end, if you want a suspenseful adventure game with a top-notch story, do play the Zero Escape series (but be sure to start with the previous game). The puzzles are a plus if you enjoy escape-the-room games, but the main attraction is the plot, so be prepared for lots and lots of text. The time you spend with the game is definitely worth it. Be warned that the 3DS version has a crippling bug that activates if you save and load in certain rooms during the escape portion, so try to save only in the novel parts. If you have both a 3DS and a Vita, you might want to consider the Vita version instead since this bug doesn’t seem to be present there.