Zero Escape: Virtue's Last Reward Review
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This mind-bending visual novel captivates with challenging puzzles and an intelligent story unrivaled in its ambition.
- Masterful narrative
- Unyielding puzzles
- Memorable characters
- A few visibility concerns
- So-so environmental design
One day, the pages of history will demand that the best games of this generation be decided. It is my sincere hope that Zero Escape: Virtue's Last Reward will be included in that conversation. Here is a game that sets new heights for interactive storytelling, demands emotional and intellectual investment on an unprecedented scale, and dares you to find an experience more compelling or (ultimately) rewarding. Utterly riveting from start to finish, Virtue's Last Reward is a mind-bending visual novel that, in its sheer ambition and pitch-perfect execution, may forever change your expectations of gaming as a narrative art form. If you're ready to see this medium pushed - ready for video games to become something more – then look no further. A few design issues might cause frustration, and the puzzle-ridden, dialogue-heavy gameplay won't please everyone, but don't let these misgivings dissuade you. You need to play this game, if only for a glimpse at just how powerful a game can be.
Editor's note: Zero Escape: Virtue's Last Reward is the sequel to 999: 9 Hours, 9 Persons, 9 Doors, a game that released exclusively for the Nintendo DS. I played and reviewed Zero Escape without having played its predecessor, but used plot summaries available online to gather context before playing the sequel. Zero Escape stands extremely well on its own, but several references to events of 999 occur during the game. These connections are (in general) explained before the game's conclusion, but some degree of familiarity with the events of 999 will provide the optimal playing experience for Zero Escape.
Visual novels aren't exactly common territory in mainstream gaming, but those unfamiliar with the genre will soon acclimate. The majority of time spent “playing” Zero Escape is actually spent watching and absorbing “Novel” sequences - fully-voiced dialogue scenes that move the story forward. These scenes can occupy anything from a few minutes to hours of uninterrupted time, and the ability to either control the flow of text or let characters continue without pause gives gamers the chance to approach Novel sequences on their own terms. “Escape” sequences – challenging and time-consuming puzzles that demand careful attention - break up the narrative progression and represent the other half of the game's content. Novel and Escape sequences interchange as the story moves forward to one of many possible conclusions, and you'll soon adapt to the ebb and flow between these disparate gameplay elements.
The importance of Novel and Escape sequences manifests itself through the game's story, an expertly-woven tapestry of mystery and heart-pumping tension that begins with nine of the most memorable characters I've ever encountered. These nine people – some strangers, some acquaintances – awaken together in a mysterious facility after being kidnapped by an entity known only as Zero. The gathered victims are informed of their selection for the Nonary Game. Points will be lost or earned in a modified version of the prisoner's dilemma, a game theory concept that tasks players with choosing to ally with or betray a friend being asked to do the same. Two people who trust each other completely and each choose “ally” will benefit mutually, but the temptation to betray your trusting opponent and reap a greater reward is powerful. Then again, if both parties choose “betray”, no gain or loss occurs.
Sounds innocuous enough? In the Nonary Game, nine points is all that stands between you and freedom, but instant death awaits if your points fall below zero. This sinister foundation provides the kindling for instability to burn within the group, and the motivations and origins of your fellow prisoners soon unravel. The urgency of the situation, combined with a palpable sense of fear brought on by claustrophobic interiors and the haunting words of Zero, builds unparalleled tension that makes every decision – every alliance, betrayal, and room explored – feel like your entire future is riding on it. Of course, that's not entirely accurate – a unique gameplay system called FLOW enables you to jump back to any moment in the game's branching timeline and change your fate with a different decision.
It's through this ability that the genius of Zero Escape becomes evident. The player's ability to move around freely between different “realities”, and the knowledge they retain in seeing the aftermath of each decision, impacts main ... (continued on next page) ----