How far are you willing to go to save yourself? A loved one? These were the questions asked in the 2010 DS text adventure 999: 9 Hours, 9 Persons, 9 Doors. Its sequel Zero Escape: Virtue’s Last Reward tackles similar themes while, at the same time, broadening the universe the story inhabits. Ambitious, emotional, and violent, Chunsoft explores deep into human nature and manages again to craft one of the finest narratives in gaming.
Waking up in an elevator, trapped with a mysterious white-haired girl named Phi, you are immediately introduced to the Nonary Game. 9 strangers, trapped in a mysterious location all instructed by a sadistic rabbit to play a game in which one must solve puzzles in order to gather clues in the hopes of escaping alive. It is here we meet the hero Sigma, a college student who was kidnapped and taken to participate in the Nonary Game: Ambidex Edition.
Chances are if you are reading this review then you have already played the first and are wondering whether or not it reaches the same heights that made its predecessors one of the best games on the DS. I’m here to tell you that not only does VLR match it, but surpasses the first in almost every way. I’ve written about 999 before here so I don’t want to retread old ground. Instead I’m here to tell you why Virtue’s Last Reward is worth your time.
When I finished the game 100% completion, I clocked in around 30 hours. There is a lot of material to get through here. It’s big, much bigger than I could have ever anticipated. Luckily smart design choices prevent this mountain of text from being insurmountable. Like the first game the option exists to skip over repeated dialogue for when one begins a new story route, but to make the process even easier, the player now has the ability to skip towards a specific destination in which a crucial decision was made. This streamlines the process further making the game far easier to manage. This progression map is a part of one’s menu so it’s easy to keep track of which decisions you make and where the narrative branches begin to splinter saving a whole lot of trouble and confusion.
The puzzles have evolved since the original DS thanks to the upgrade in technology with the Vita and 3DS, making them more intricate in design. Also the game is no longer sprite based but instead polygon character models which, even as a fan of hand-drawn sprites, I think look really good (especially in 3D).
The biggest difference in the Ambidex edition of the Nonary Game is the 1v1 (or 2v1) style game in which two groups face off to decide whether the other party will betray or ally with you. It’s a stressful element that, even with multiple playthroughs, never gets any easier and keeps you on the edge. Will they push you under the bus in order to secure their own survival? Will you? Or is there a chance that you can reach out and build trust?
Fictional narrative allows us to ask questions relevant to the human condition from the perspectives beyond the physical. Are we in control of our own destiny? What does it mean to be human? Do we have a purpose and if so do we live solely for it? Virtue’s Last Reward asks all this while blending traditional narrative structure with methods only available to the video game form. True, it’s the same conceit as in the original DS game where a gameplay element has been incorporated into the story but it’s just as effective here as it was then while becoming far more ambitious in terms of scope. Yes, the sci-fi elements become very far-fetched near the end and the story definitely allowed for too many openings in order for the ending to work properly in terms of a series. However, there are intimate moments too. Brutal, poignant, tragic, frustrating, Virtue’s Last Reward is a journey and a mystery well worth seeing through to the end.
When I read a story I don’t always look for the same thing. However, there are themes that I always look for: Loneliness, destiny, love, desperation. I look closely at these themes because it might be that through them we can get a glimpse as to how others see these universal motifs and get a better understanding of both the world and ourselves. In a way Virtue’s Last Reward does the same. You try to look through the eyes of other characters as they reveal their true colors to you. In doing so they reveal a unique perspective on a situation and how it relates to you as either a character or a player. If there is an experience as a gamer that you need to go through it’s the Zero Escape series and the sequel is a far more ambitious and successful title.
[+Best video game narrative of the year hands down][+Hyperbole inducing quality][+Great puzzles that utilize the 3DS touchscreen][+You owe it to yourself to play this game][-The sci-fi elements are kind of outlandish]