In 2010, Askys Games localized the bizarre visual novel 999: 9 Hours, 9 Persons, 9 Doors, developed by Chunsoft and written by the author of the Infinity series (which included games like Ever 17). 999 presented a chilling tale of murder and deceit, set against the backdrop of the sadistic Nonary Game, which eventually spiraled into a complex and utterly mystifying science fiction yarn that required multiple playthroughs along branching paths in order to piece together the entire plot. It garnered a well-deserved cult following, and in 2012 we were graced with a second volume in the now-eponymous Zero Escape series- Virtue’s Last Reward.
Without a doubt, Virtue’s Last Reward successfully carries the torch lit by its predecessor, with an equally twisted and intriguing storyline. Once again, nine participants have been captured by a mysterious gasmask wearing individual dubbed Zero, and forced into a deadly contest known as the Nonary Game. Protagonist Sigma awakens in an elevator with a girl who recognizes him, despite the two of them never having met, and both of them have a metallic bracelet attached to their wrists. Before he has a chance to get his bearings, he is informed by the administrator of the game, an AI named Zero III, that he must escape the elevator or risk death. Upon escape and meeting his fellow inmates, Zero III explains to them the rules of the Nonary Game: Ambidex Edition, a Prisoner’s Dilemma style scenario that examines whether or not the participants will trust or betray one another in order to escape the facility. Failure, of course, will result in death.
One thing to note about Virtue’s Last Reward is that it is considerably longer than 999. This is both a blessing and a curse- on the one hand, the plot of VLR is significantly more intricate and builds upon the concepts established in 999 very well, but on the flip side it’s considerably slower paced. It took me about thirty hours to see and do everything in Virtue’s Last Reward, as there are many more story branches and endings available than there were in 999, and it’s vital to play through these myriad story branches in order to locate information necessary to bypass certain key sequences. The plot of Virtue’s Last Reward is central to the experience, and the player’s patience as they are required solve various logic and math-based puzzles and jot down passwords for later use will vary. Speaking of those puzzles, I personally found VLR to be much more difficult than the first game, although again this is something your mileage may vary on. The goal of each puzzle section is to escape the room, but there are optional files that provide more plot information as well as insight into the various scientific concepts present throughout the game that can be much harder to track down.
On a positive note, Virtue’s Last Reward is significantly more user-friendly than 999, which required a total of six playthroughs from the beginning in order to complete the game. VLR presents each story point on a flowchart, where any point can be jumped to at the player’s leisure, and this makes the process of replaying sections in order to uncover more of the story much less tedious. Unlike in 999, you won’t ever have to replay puzzle rooms unless you want to, and jumping from branch to branch is as simple as selecting the desired destination along the flowchart. Of course, the option to fast-forward through previously seen text returns from 999, and it is incredibly useful. Presentation-wise, I personally preferred 999’s hand-drawn art to the cruder 3D models used here, but the anime-inspired art direction and eccentric character designs still come across well. Special mention has to go to Shinji Hosoe’s music, some of which returning from the original game, which is suitably atmospheric throughout. One important thing to note is the presence of a save glitch in the 3DS version of the game, which can corrupt and possibly erase the player’s save file in a certain puzzle room. To avoid this, I never saved in any of the puzzle rooms, and I never ended up running into the glitch.
My experience with the Zero Escape games has been a bizarre, emotional, and thoroughly satisfying journey. Virtue’s Last Reward is a must-play for any gamer with an interest in unique storytelling, and it is a more than worthy follow up to 999. 3DS and Vita owners who haven’t experienced this dark tale should rectify this egregious error.