How much you enjoy a visual novel like Zero Escape: Virtue's Last Reward, which mixes a handful of puzzles into a lengthy narrative, will naturally rely on how much you enjoy the story. VLR's tale, which I won't spoil, takes some satisfying twists and turns but is at times so utterly crazed that it's hard to work up the energy to chase down every last thread of the plot. It can be almost unbearably nonsensical at times, but the journey of VLR is still so fascinating that you can't help but keep coming back, pulling every last secret from its bizarre depths.
You play as Sigma, a PhD student who wakes to find himself trapped in a vast, empty facility with eight strangers. A psychopathic, pun-loving AI rabbit (no, really) reveals that they've been brought together to play The Nonary Game, a nasty competition in which the goal is to earn enough points to open the sole door to freedom, which will open only once. Each player has been given an unremoveable bracelet to keep track of their current point total and periodically must vote to ally with or betray another player. The outcome of the vote determines whether points are added to or subtracted from your point total; if your score drops to zero, you die, making your decision about more than just simple morals.
You'll spend most of your time with Virtue's Last Reward working through the story, reading huge swaths of text or bickering with the other characters. The voice work in the Novel sections is impressively extensive, and even if the actual quality of the acting is hit and miss (Dear Quark : Please shut up.), it nevertheless helps flesh out the personalities of your companions. Your investigation of the facility will yield several Escape rooms in which you must solve a variety of puzzles in order to unlock the safe containing the key allowing you to move on. A welcome "Note" feature lets you take advantage of the touch screen to sketch out ideas as you work through the brain-teasers, but you'll still probably want a real-life notebook at hand for the thornier puzzles. The Escape rooms are cleverly constructed, blending inventory puzzles with elements like code-breaking, anagrams, and block puzzles into a pleasingly layered conundrum. The difficulty is automatically set to Hard, but should you find yourself well and truly stumped by a particular Escape, you can swiftly switch to Easy and receive a deluge of increasingly blunt hints.
The characters taking part in the Nonary Game are a bizarre mix similar to the group in Virtue's Last Reward's predecessor, Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors, some of whom make a return. Everyone's hiding something, all of which is strange and almost none of which will be revealed during your first playthrough. Virtue's Last Reward is meant to be played through many, many times, with some narrative paths being completely blocked until you've made enough progress in other directions. There are oodles of different plotlines to pursue, but the setup for the many different narrative tendrils is the same. Thankfully, the game provides ingenious tools to prevent you from having to slog through the same story elements time and again. The Flow feature charts your entire course throughout the game, boxing off the story-advancing Novel segments, puzzle-heavy Escape rooms, and points where you're forced to make a decision. By touching the screen, you skip to any point in the game that you've completed, making it easy to hop to key decision-making moments and explore whatever option you didn't pick your first time through. Combined with the Skip function, which fast forwards through text and dialog until it hits something you've yet to see, Flow makes it easy to work your way through Virtue's Last Reward's many storylines.
A few nagging details may inhibit your overall enjoyment of the game's story, however. An odd vulgarity underscores the writing, with plenty of profanity for profanity's sake and juvenile sexual humor that feels particularly out of place. If it was done a bit better, it would be easier to accept as simply being an aspect of a particular character's personality - maybe Dio is just plain foulmouthed - but it's presented so clunkily that it's often jarring. The limited character animations can also be grating, especially when they're so utterly at odds with what's happening. When a scantily-dressed girl is winking at you, smiling, talking about how upset she is that someone just got murdered, an already absurd situation becomes just plain stupid.
The characters of Virtue's Last Reward have all also apparently gone to the Bad Horror Movie Academy, and are obsessed with being unnecessarily vague. They stubbornly refuse to answer the most simple direct question, even when it's clearly in their best interests to be forthcoming. They find endless reasons to wander off by themselves, despite the constant concern that someone in the group is a killer. Their behavior is all in service of the storytelling , and in fairness the plot would be ruined if everyone did the sensible thing and stuck together while being perfectly honest with each other, but you do want to take them by the shoulders and just shake the stupid out of them sometimes.
Bottom Line: Zero Escape: Virtue's Last Reward's story is absolutely bonkers, but untangling its many secrets is an addictive enterprise. There's tons of plot to discover, and the many storylines cross and reference each other in subtle ways that reward the diligent player. Puzzle fans will undoubtedly wish there were more Escape rooms, but those that are there are strange and fun.
Recommendation:The story is rough in patches, but fans of Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors, or just visual novels in general, will still want to grab this. Even if you're not in one of those camps, it's pretty much worth it just for the rabbit.
This review is based on the PS Vita version of the game.
Game: Zero Escape: Virtue's Last Reward
Publisher: Aksys Games
Platform(s): 3DS, Vita