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 character Sigma, who slowly but surely becomes self-aware of his sudden predisposition toward certain choices. He knows things that he shouldn’t, senses danger where others don’t, and as pieces of the game’s grand puzzle come together, questions are unraveled and the player moves ever closer to the answers. What is the sinister purpose of the Nonary Game, and who is Zero? What is the connection between the nine participants, and why were they chosen for the game? Why are members of the group mysteriously falling ill, and what secrets lie waiting in this facility?
The successful presentation and execution of so many plot threads can only come with the utmost care and attention to detail, and Zero Escape delivers without equal. Layer upon layer of nebulous obfuscation is peeled back to reveal pieces of something much, much bigger, and the game keeps you engaged with a steady drip of clues and extraneous detail throughout. The precision by which so many disparate elements connect with one another, and the jaw-dropping impact of revelations that result, is nothing short of a narrative masterstroke – an incredibly dense, thrilling, and rewarding tale that not only embraces the influence of players, but integrates it. The emotional and intellectual investment that Zero Escape asks of you is unrivaled, but so is the ultimate payoff, along with every moment of understanding that builds to it.
Intellectual investment extends to the game’s puzzle rooms, which engage your mind on multiple levels. Deductive reasoning, pattern recognition, algebraic operations, and geometric manipulation work in tandem to make each room an honest challenge – a true obstacle that stands between you and watching the story unfold. Escape sequences tip-toe the line of fairness, but never cross it, and while some solutions come easier or harder than others, this is in no way due to unbalanced design or uneven difficulty – you’ll simply figure some things out faster than others. In fact, it’s not unusual to spend hours on a single puzzle room, making these gameplay sections the perfect complement to PS Vita’s portability. Novel sections, on the other hand, are best viewed from a comfortable seat with your Vita propped up at a good viewing angle.
Unfortunately, the puzzle rooms are also the source of one issue I hold against Zero Escape. While I understand the need to avoid making a puzzle solution too obvious, this should never be done by making the solution physically hard to see. A specific instance comes to mind where I was tasked with discerning the exact volume of substances in separate containers. The key to finding those values was simple, but actually viewing the amount of substance in each container proved less so. The contact lenses I wear theoretically correct my eyesight to near-20/20 vision, but I still found myself squinting closely at the Vita’s OLED screen to decide – somewhat warily – how much substance was in each container. Because my eyesight is better than most, I worry that individuals with poor eyesight and no means of correction may have some trouble advancing past this particular trial. Along similar lines, the low level of light in one puzzle room made one important item impossible for me to see while playing in a glare-heavy environment. Ultimately, I made do without this item, and it was only when I continued playing later that day (in a different environment) that I realized the answer had been right in front of me all along.
These moments, and perhaps one or two more, are extremely rare exceptions in a sea of challenges that are otherwise well-constructed and mentally stimulating. It’s all part of a package that begins and ends with some of the best ever localization and English voice acting. From dark humor to silly fun, from hard-hitting profanity to nervous confusion, characters are written with vivacious personalities and deliver their lines with wit and perfect timing. It’s refreshing to hear such a careful translation, and while the original Japanese audio track is a dialogue option, you’ll quickly forget it exists. The musings of your companions are back-dropped by a synthetic ambient score that sets the stage for everything from quiet introspection to sudden danger. The game’s soundtrack could stand on its own, but the ominous silence of moments when the music stops might be the most powerful sound of all.
Equally impressive are the game’s visuals, which tout a gorgeous character aesthetic that combines 3D modeling with anime influence. The interior environments of the facility setting are less memorable, but still served to sell me on the idea of a place that was once inhabited by others, a place with a great deal of importance that is above my understanding. And, throughout this nearly 40-hour adventure, you may come to discover what that importance is. That’s the beauty of Zero Escape: every element serves the greater task of telling a mesmeric story, and the result is unlike anything you’ve ever seen or felt in a video game.
Zero Escape: Virtue’s Last Reward comes with the highest recommendation as the very best game on PlayStation Vita and one of the greatest games of this generation. No game is perfect, but this thrill ride comes damn close. If you’re looking for another rehash of the same old tired genre conventions, look elsewhere. If, on the other hand, you want to push the medium of video games and test the limits of your engagement with them, Virtue’s Last Reward should be the first one on your list.