Gaming has a rich history that spans multiple decades. To this end, The Last Word on Gaming Backlog is a series that looks back on titles across all generations. From the golden 8-bit era to the landscape-changing 64-bit scene and beyond, The LWOG Backlog’s aim is history. It’s time to play the Nonary Game once again, as we take a look at the sequel to Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors known as Zero Escape: Virtue’s Last Reward.
Zero Escape: Virtue’s Last Reward – An Overview
A Game of Life or Death
Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors, the first title in the Zero Escape series, was a landmark Nintendo DS title upon its release. Despite being a visual novel game, at its core, it encouraged problem solving and stirred suspense each step of the way. It’s almost difficult to believe that Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors, or 999, was meant to be a standalone title. However, due to the positive reception the game received, it became the first in a miniseries.
The second title, Zero Escape: Virtue’s Last Reward, was developed and published by Chunsoft in Japan, published by Aksys Games in North America, and published by Rising Star Games in Europe. It was also originally released for the Nintendo 3DS and PlayStation Vita in 2012 across all regions. Though dread was still present in Virtue’s Last Reward, the developers wanted to focus more on exploration. Furthermore, as opposed to the flat 2D drawings of its predecessor, Virtue’s Last Reward opted for 3D models and environments. How does this sequel hold up? Let’s take a look.
Zero Escape: Virtue’s Last Reward stars a cast of nine characters, each wearing a bracelet. The characters are captured by a mysterious entity known as Zero. The game proper begins with Sigma and Phi, two of the characters in question, escaping from a room; fans of the original 999 will find this type of opening very familiar. From there, the rest of the cast joins up before being greeted by Zero III, a wisecracking CGI rabbit that explains the rules of the Nonary Game. This involves the characters breaking into teams, exploring different rooms, and participating in the Ambidex Game; the latter allows the characters to choose to “ally” or “betray” one another, with points being lost or gained in the process. If a character reaches 9 points, they can escape; if they reach 0 points, they are penalized by way of death, courtesy of mechanisms within the aforementioned bracelets.
Not unlike 999, Virtue’s Last Reward explores the concept of life and death through a sadistic game orchestrated by an omnipotent force. However, the Ambidex Game is a new addition to the sequel, incorporating the mechanic to “ally” or “betray” characters. This makes each encounter feel tense, as any choice can have a major impact on future rounds. During subsequent playthroughs, the player will learn more about the colorful cast of characters, all the while witnessing shocking turns and twists. For those that enjoy suspenseful stories that border on horror, Virtue’s Last Reward will keep you hooked. Make no mistake, though, as this is still a video game at its core.
In terms of gameplay, Zero Escape: Virtue’s Last Reward is similar to 999 in that it’s separated into Novel and Escape sections. When in Novel mode, the story progresses normally, as if one is reading a book or thumbing through a script. During key points, the player will be able to interact and make decisions that take the story on different paths. These segments are made that much more dynamic with the utilization of 3D graphics, allowing characters to become more expressive. This element of choice makes Novel sections feel more engaging than traditional books might.
The Escape sections are where the core gameplay takes place. These place players in escape rooms where they must find solutions to certain puzzles. These eventually lead to players escaping the rooms, though some puzzles are trickier than others. Even the most difficult of situations can be solved with the use of hints, which clue players in on where a certain item or solution may be. From combining items to discovering safe passwords, each “eureka” moment feels well-earned.
New to the Zero Escape series, introduced in Virtue’s Last Reward, is a flowchart. Essentially, this allows the player to return to previously explored story sections, where they can make different decisions than previous playthroughs. For instance, if a player previously allied with a character, they may wish to revisit a section to see how the story would progress if they chose “betray” instead. Given that Virtue’s Last Reward boasts 24 endings in total, exploring every possible scenario in the flowchart is encouraged.
Presentation (Graphics and Sound)
As stated earlier, Zero Escape: Virtue’s Last Reward utilizes 3D graphics, which work very well on the 3DS and Vita. These allow the characters to emote more, showcasing their different personalities to such a degree that wouldn’t have been possible with hand-drawn 2D models. The same can be said for the environments, which fit the tense mood of the game. While certain environments lack color and vibrancy, it can be argued that this adds to the aforementioned mood. In other words, from a visual standpoint, the player is never truly at ease.
Making his return from 999 is Shinji Hosoe, who is responsible for Virtue’s Last Reward audio composition. He would also return for the third, and final, Zero Escape title, Zero Time Dilemma. Virtue’s Last Reward’s sound effects are cold and unwelcome, which is perfect for this title, from the PA system chime to the monotone announcer’s voice that follows. The same can be said for the music. Tracks such as “Divulgation” are composed in a way that evokes hopelessness, “Strain” feels more rushed, ushering the player to move along, and “Ambidexterity” complements the act of solving a puzzle under hostile circumstances. Expect at least a few tracks to stick to your mind even after the end credits roll.
Like most visual novel-style games, Zero Escape: Virtue’s Last Reward is a lengthy game. In fact, just because a player reaches the end of the story for the first time doesn’t mean that they’ve seen everything that it has to offer. In fact, for those that are invested in the game’s story, it wouldn’t be unfathomable for the game to last over 70 hours. This includes visiting every section in the flowchart, making every possible in-game decision to ensure that said flowchart is one-hundred percent completed. Furthermore, like any good book, it’s entirely possible for a player to revisit Virtue’s Last Reward once every few years. Much like its predecessor, this is a game that holds its own in terms of replayability.
Zero Escape: Virtue’s Last Reward proved to be successful, in its own right, following its release. Critics praised its unique graphical style and voice acting, just to name a few attributes. It would also go on to win numerous awards the year of its release, including Best 3DS/DS Story from IGN. It would also be successful enough that it would be followed up by Zero Time Dilemma, which saw a 2016 release on the 3DS and Vita.
In 2017, Virtue’s Last Reward would see new life on the PlayStation 4 and PC, courtesy of Zero Escape: The Nonary Games. This title packaged all three titles in the series, complete with quality of life changes. While most of said changes benefited 999 the most, the fact that more people became aware of the series was incredible. For those that are looking for a visual novel that challenges the mind, not only mentally but emotionally, Virtue’s Last Reward is a follow-up not to be ignored.