Taking place in the not-so-distant future, Zero Escape: Virtue’s Last Reward puts you in the role of Sigma, a young man who’s removed from his normal life and forced to take part in the ‘Nonary Game’ – a sick and twisted creation that ponders whether you're willing to betray in order to survive.
Virtue’s Last Reward is essentially a blend of visual novel and puzzle, with the latter presenting itself almost as soon as the game begins. It’s immediately apparent that these aren’t your typical newspaper conundrums, though, as the head-scratchers form around one main theme: escape. Whether it’s exiting an elevator that’s about to smash into the ground, or escaping an eerie, abandoned warehouse, you must utilise your surroundings effectively in order to find a way out.
The puzzles, like the game itself, are unique and incredibly engaging. While you’re always making use of somewhat mundane objects, these sections are frighteningly tense. This is partly due to the game’s cramped, dank interiors that give a claustrophobic vibe, but it’s mostly due to the inherent dangers of being subject to Zero, the game’s antagonist, and the mastermind behind the aforementioned Nonary Game.
It’s not just Sigma who’s being forced to bend to Zero’s rules, either. Virtue’s Last Reward features a rich and diverse cast of characters, all of which are stuck in the same predicament. Escaping Zero’s insanity requires the players of the Nonary Game to rack up points, which are tracked through a watch-like device securely fixed to each character’s wrist. When someone manages to collect 9 points, freedom is theirs for the taking. Keep losing points until the counter hits 0, however, and they’ll be killed. It’s not a completely original scenario, but this base concept holds the game’s plot together perfectly.
Since the game’s outcome hinges on this system, Virtue’s Last Reward could have easily faltered when it comes to actually gaining said points. However, the process not only cements itself as a pivotal part of the story, but it also becomes a gameplay highlight as well. Points are collected by either betraying or allying with other members of the cast, presenting difficult decisions upon the completion of each puzzle room. And, unlike many games that boast far-reaching consequences as a result of player choice, every decision in Virtue’s Last Reward has a huge impact. Characters will die, enemies will be made, and sudden, brutal conclusions to the game’s plot will occur with frightening frequency.
The game features 24 different endings, all of which are dependent on the choices that you make throughout. As previously alluded, even the smaller choices such as deciding which of the other 8 characters you want to be paired with can radically change the progression of the plot. It’s here that Virtue’s Last Reward offers so much more than simply solving quirky puzzles; the story has countless twists, and staying on top of the wealth of information dispensed during the ‘novel’ sections of the game is made easier thanks to some superb writing.
That said, the game often hits an extremely slow pace due to an excessive use of dialogue. While this doesn’t hamper the story or the atmosphere, it can be tedious scrolling through reams of text with no real gameplay in between. Thankfully, the puzzle sections themselves are equally lengthy. The title also makes use of a very handy save function, which you can use at any point. Whether you prefer five minute stints of puzzle solving, or hours of engrossing story, this makes the game a perfect fit for portable play.
Virtue’s Last Reward pulls no punches when it comes to shock value, either, with some scenarios – especially endings – being both graphically and mentally mature. Make no mistake, this story is not for the faint of heart – but it’s refreshing to see in a video game nonetheless.
Due to its wealth of endings, the game is deceptively time consuming. You'll definitely be shocked when you reach your first conclusion – whatever that may be – but it quickly transpires that the adventure doesn't end there. Thanks to a well implemented level select mechanic, you can jump back to a previous decision and adopt a different route.
As for the visuals, character designs are flamboyant, attractive, and typically Japanese, while the environments are grey and industrial. It’s a stark contrast that sometimes feels a little jarring – but it works for the most part. Sadly, some puzzles are restricted to 2D interfaces, which break the immersion a little bit.
Puzzles typically require you to fiddle around with the Vita’s various control methods, although some work far better than others. Tilting the console in order to manipulate sliding blocks is unruly and frustrating, while in contrast, the Vita’s touch screen can be used to click objects of importance, and is incredibly accurate. Thankfully, the game also supports traditional controls – but we can’t help but feel that the game misses the opportunity to use Sony's latest system in some truly unique ways.
Similarly, audio is a mixed bag. Although much of the game’s music is suitably tense, it loops far too often and starts to grate during long sessions of gameplay – especially when you're tasked with solving a difficult puzzle. In contrast, the voice acting is varied and emotionally driven – even if it is in Japanese.
It’s safe to say that these flaws are minor at best, though. Attention to detail is easily Virtue’s Last Reward’s biggest accomplishment, and it’s exciting to see such a complex and mature narrative brought to life on a portable system.
Zero Escape: Virtue’s Last Reward is a deep, engaging, and incredibly intelligent visual novel. It's a shame that the game doesn't do more with the hardware, but its meaningful player decisions, taxing puzzle elements, and unforgivably mature themes fuse to create one of the best Vita titles so far.