Zero Escape: Virtue's Last Reward - The Ultimate Visual Novel
Zero Escape: Virtue's Last Reward is the second game in the Zero Escape series. It is a direct sequel to the first game, 999: Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors which is an excellent game on its own, and Virtue's Last Reward is even better.
[Slight spoilers ahead]
The main character is Sigma, a college student and a 'generally bright, young man'. At the story's outset, he is kidnapped from his car and brought to an abandoned facility along with eight others.
There, they are all put through a game of survival, the 'Nonary Game: Ambidex Edition'. Attempts to break the rules of this game result in death. Losing this game results in death. Only the winner of the game is allowed to escape.
The goal is to acquire points, which are won by cooperating with or betraying the other players.
You can decide at various points during the game whether to choose 'ally' or 'betray', which will result in different endings.
Virtue's Last Reward makes extensive use of branching storylines. There are 24 different endings total.
Some pathways simply result in a 'game over' screen but others must be cleared in order for you to progress in the game.
The timeline system is much easier to navigate than in 999: Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors as it is the most important aspect of the game's storyline.
Over time, the game itself acknowledges this 'hopping between different timelines' mechanic. In this way, the game acts very much like a work of metafiction but not quite. It simply is aware of itself, and it is aware of you.
You are directly involved in the story of this game.
Not only are you the witness, but you are also acknowledged as an actual presence in the game. Rather than it being the case of you playing as Sigma, in one of the final cutscenes the game points its finger at you. You are the one that has been manipulating Sigma's decisions. You are addressed directly by the game and identified as the one responsible for the events that have transpired.
As would be expected of a visual novel, gameplay alternates between 'Novel' and 'Escape' segments.
The Novel segments are standard visual novel fare, comprised of predominantly static graphics with an emphasis on story and dialogue.
During these segments you progress through the storyline and interact with other characters.
The Escape segments are puzzle games. The difficulty level for some of the puzzles can be infuriating.
Virtue's Last Reward's puzzles overall are significantly less intuitive than 999: Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors. However, there are many different puzzle types and mini games so at the very least it certainly never gets boring.
Aside from the puzzles however, the game consists primarily of watching scenes unfold and making decisions at key points. This is a point of criticism for the game, and for visual novels in general since they are viewed as largely uninvolved interactive experiences.
Virtue's Last Reward's storyline and plot twists make up for this. The interactive aspects of the game are all plot related. Even without a lot of gamplay, you are actively involved.
There is a significant bug in this game that can result in a corrupted save file. Since the game allows for only one save file, this can prove catastrophic for players. It is thankfully easy enough to avoid as long as you know about it beforehand.
I would say that it was a significant oversight on the part of Aksys games to not try and patch this or at the very least release an official statement about it for the North American release. Of course the players can easily find out about it through the internet but this just seemed very unprofessional.
Perhaps the only real reason I hesitate to recommend this game to my friends is the unfortunate ending. While 999: Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors is relatively self contained and can stand on its own, Virtue's Last Reward has a great deal of story left to be explored.
This is not to say that Virtue's Last Reward does not have an ending. It simply has an ending with mentions of storyline not yet explained and altogether is less than satisfying.
Unfortunately the first two games of the Zero Escape series did not sell well enough in Japan to get the greenlight for the third installment. Fans have come together in support of 'Zero Escape 3' but at this point it has been put on hiatus indefinitely.
Playing this game was truly one of the most remarkable experiences I've ever had. Virtue's Last Reward is a story that could not exist as anything other than a visual novel video game. It is an example of a narrative that makes full use of all its creative medium has to offer.
The medium is integral to the story, and the story is interactive on so many different levels. It is a truly involving experience that keeps you riveted to the very end.