Zero Escape: Virtue’s Last Reward review

Few visual novels play around with the possibilities of an interactive medium quite like cult 2010 DS import 999: Nine Persons, Nine Hours, Nine Doors, so it’s heartening to see its follow-up take its bold ideas a step further. Its labyrinthine storyline tugs players down a number of branching pathways that splinter out into a total of 25 different endings. After all, why have one climactic conclusion when you can give players a couple of dozen?

The upshot is a narrative that often leaves you as startled and bewildered as its protagonists – nine wildly disparate personalities trapped in a warehouse as part of a human experiment run by a masked sociopath named Zero. It’s a near identical setup to its predecessor, and there’s a strong sense of continuity, yet references to past incidents are introduced in such a way as to reward the dedicated without alienating newcomers. It’s a tale that stands alone – once you’ve managed to piece it together, that is.

Dialogue has been smartly translated for the most part, with some delightfully poor rabbit puns in the early game from Zero’s lapine AI assistant. Its reliance on exposition is more problematic, with some especially patronising repetition of the game’s rules. Yet while the story sprinkles in twists and revelations like a pulpy airport thriller, it’s not afraid to stir in a few weightier ideas. Given that players can return to forks in the road at any time, effectively resurrecting recently deceased characters in the process, it’s no surprise to see a conversation about Schrödinger’s Cat. That such lofty themes are discussed by the likes of a cryo-preserved Egyptian priestess and a hulking amnesiac in metallic armour only adds to the fun; there may be a lot of dialogue to tap through – the process can be automated if you prefer – but it’s a page-turner with flashes of real intelligence.

Breaking up the chat are a number of room escape puzzles, smartly pitched so as not to halt the story for too long, but challenging enough that there’s genuine satisfaction in solving them. It’s a pity the controls are rather awkward – on Vita at least – with neither touch nor button controls ever feeling entirely natural. Your ultimate destination, meanwhile, is determined by your choices to betray or ally with your fellow contestants after each room is conquered, an idea that would carry greater emotional weight but for the ease with which you can skip across the paths you’ve opened to reverse your decisions, a rare instance where the game’s structure is to its detriment.

It lacks a little of its predecessor’s shock value, too: 999’s thrillingly grisly early set-piece instantly created an unsettling atmosphere that the opening scenes here fail to match. Writer Kotaro Uchikoshi eventually raises the stakes, but the threat of death by lethal injection is undeniably a less forceful motivator than wrist-mounted explosives.

Yet it involves the player much more in its storytelling, asking you to expose the impulses of a character in one branch to explain their behaviour in another. It essentially casts you in the role of virtual detective, your job to uncover new secrets that unlock fresh investigative avenues. Where 999 gave you a more passive role in proceedings, Virtue’s Last Reward makes you a key participant in its twisted tale – and that serves to make its mysteries that much more invigorating to unravel.

Vita version tested.

7
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