The reward of genre diversity
Hello, my name is Eric. You might know me from EGMNOW.com, where I write reviews that tend to go on for 2,000-plus words. Maybe you’ve read at least a few of them. This won’t be one of those reviews; this one will be short, concise, and to the point.
Why? Is it because I didn’t like the game, resulting in me just slapping this text together as quickly as possible? Absolutely not—it’s because, as much as is humanly possible, I want to keep as much of Virtue’s Last Reward’s experience a surprise as I can while still convincing you that you should be playing it.
First thing I can tell you: Virtue’s Last Reward is the sequel to 999: Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors, a game released for the DS that became something of a cult hit here in the States. I did not play 999—it still sits unopened on my shelf, one in a long line of victims that come along with playing games for a living. So, my opinions come as one who is experiencing Virtue’s Last Reward as its own game, and not from the viewpoint of a fan of 999 excited for its continuation. And, really, let’s be honest here: If you were a huge fan of 999, you already had this game preordered long before coming here and reading my review. You aren’t here to get actual purchasing advice from me—you’re here just to see if I’m some dumbass who doesn’t understand Japanese visual novel adventure games.
For the rest of you, you might need an explanation for what exactly a “Japanese visual novel adventure game” even is. Virtue’s Last Reward has two main gameplay portions to is: Novel scenes and Escape scenes. During those Novel segments, the game’s storyline unfolds, presented via dialogue scenes with other characters, flashbacks, or other similarly styled noninteractive elements. As the “visual novel” part of that long genre tag denotes, most of those storyline segments are digested by reading huge chunks of text. However, Virtue’s Last Reward also complements a lot of the back-and-forth dialogue that occurs between characters with voice acting—and, always a nice option to have, you can select between either English and Japanese speech.
I always get a little nervous when I have to explain that games such as Virtue’s Last Reward contain a lot of text that’ll need to be read, and I hate that I feel that way. Us Westerners used to play and enjoy plenty of text-based adventures back in the earlier days of PC gaming. These days, however, it seems like we’ve been conditioned more into epic thrill rides that are nonstop adrenaline rushes, ones that feed our need for quick and constant satisfaction over and over and over again.
If you’re the type who simply hates the idea of games that make you read—or that require enough attention to follow along with a complex plot as it unfolds—there’s no amount of convincing I could do that would make you enjoy Virtue’s Last Reward. Much like the series of Presidential debates that we’ve just gotten past here in the U.S., my goal isn’t to snag those who are already decided on either side: It’s a struggle to reach those who sit undecided in the middle.
The reason I love games like Virtue’s Last Reward is that they’re such a refreshing change of pace. Sometimes, it’s nice to step away from the “NEXT GIGANTIC BLOCKBUSTER!!” and play something that entertains me in a totally different way. The drama that can unfold between people when they’ve been put into situations that challenge their humanity can be amazingly engrossing; Virtue’s Last Reward is a master at doing just that thanks to a combination of a fantastically enthralling story, interesting characters, the creation of a legitimate sense of drama and tension, and a top-notch English translation by the folks over at Aksys.
That situation that our protagonists find themselves unlikely participants in does, of course, often lead to that second half of Virtue’s Last Reward’s experience: the Escape scenes. For some reason, nine strangers are trapped somewhere, and they’re given a set of rules that explain what they must do to once against taste the sweet taste of freedom. Part of that is dealing with one another—while trying to determine who can be trusted—and part of that is solving a series of complex puzzles that have been laid out for them. My first instinct is to say that those challenge rooms start off simple, and then get harder as they go along, but then again Virtue’s Last Reward’s very first puzzle might even put to shame some of the things other games call “puzzles.”
Those puzzles are the one spot where I had real complaints with Virtue’s Last Reward. Unlike 999, here we’re presented with a fully rendered 3D world, and that change really adds to how puzzle can be crafted and what can be presented throughout the progression of the story. Unfortunately, as Japanese developers often love to do in games such as these, moving through that world is typically done on a “Point A to Point B” type of movement path, and not the ability to move freely via direct camera control. Most of the time, this isn’t a big deal, but the movement points feel awkwardly placed in some rooms. Also, Virtue’s Last Reward includes a built-in system for reviewing hints, writing down notes, and so on. Though I didn’t play the 3DS version of the game, I’m guessing this system works better on Nintendo’s handheld; the challenge of trying to write notes on the Vita’s screen with my finger, and the lack of dual screens to have collected documents showing while still directly playing, make me think the 3DS’ hardware options would be better suited for those tasks. At the same time, Vita players do get the benefit of better audio and visual quality—so those might be a trade-off for needing to keep a notebook and pen handy while playing.
Oh, and by the way—while I haven’t yet played 999, I do know that the switch from its trademark 2D art style to Virtue’s Last Reward’s 3D style came with a bit of controversy among some. Let me just say that I was never impressed with the visuals presented here anytime I saw them in screenshots—and yet, after actually playing the game and seeing them in action, that opinion changed.
Otherwise, I know I’ve been decidedly obscure about explaining what you’ll find in Virtue’s Last Reward—but I cannot stress enough that the less you know about this game going in, the more enjoyment you’ll have. In a way, I almost wonder if my lack of experience with 999 was a plus, as I had no expectations or prior knowledge of what I might find here. Last year, Japan’s fascination with visual novel adventure games gave me Corpse Party, a game I utterly fell in love with; this time around, it’s Virtue’s Last Reward. Videogames have this powerful and unique potential to tell us stories that no other medium can tell, and here I found a game that sits as a shining example of that. Some of the things that Virtue’s Last Reward did legitimately blew my mind, and when it wasn’t providing me with jaw-dropping moments or unforeseen plot twists, it was entertaining me with its deeply engrossing story, endearing me to its rich cast of characters, or frustrating me—in a good way—with its puzzles.
So, play Virtue’s Last Reward if you have any love or appreciation for games that challenge you, that entertain you, that surprise you, and that bring you experiences beyond the normal comfort zones of what we’ve come to expect from videogames. As for me, I’ll play 999 the next chance I get—and will curse myself the entire time for not having done so before having spoiled myself on some of its elements.
Oh, and yes, I know—even in promising that I’d write a shorter review, I still failed to do so. I made you expect one thing, and then I betrayed your trust in the end.
SUMMARY: What’s important isn’t what genre Virtue’s Last Reward sits in, what country it comes from, what platform it’s on, or any of those other superficial things—it’s the fact that this is a wonderfully crafted game that will grip you from beginning to end.
- THE GOOD: How captivating and compelling of an experience our little handhelds can provide us.
- THE BAD: Control and camera movements sometimes feels awkward.
- THE UGLY: Just, you know…don’t get too attached to any of the characters.
Zero Escape: Virtue’s Last Reward is available on PS Vita and 3DS. Primary version reviewed was for PS Vita.