The visual novel is a difficult concept for us to swallow in the West; for all we reminisce about a misspent youth consuming Choose your own Adventure and Fighting Fantasy books we tend to want our video games to be, well, a little more interactive. It’s a different story over in Japan where the genre is big business – big enough for smaller offshoots such as the erotic visual novel to be massive money-spinners in of themselves. In fact, it’s only very rarely that even the best visual novels manage to get a release over here, leaving many fans bereft of any gaming at all. Unless, of course, they can speak Japanese and are rich enough to import a constant stream of games. It’s a significant buck to this trend then that Rising Star have decided to release Zero Escape: Virtue’s Last Reward in Europe. As the sequel to the cult DS release, 999: Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors, Virtue’s Last Reward not only builds on the excellent base provided but also stands alone as a self-contained tale, which is helpful seeing as 999 only managed to make it Stateside. So then, a game from a rare genre that follows on from a cult classic receiving a release in a previously ignored territory? It certainly speaks of confidence in the product from Rising Star and to be fair of them it is well deserved.
As a visual novel then it should come as no surprise to learn that Virtue’s Last Reward is predominantly text and plot driven, and from the off the story it delivers is a corker. Playing as Sigma, a college student who was busy trying to study on Christmas Day, you are drugged and kidnapped as you try to start your car. As the drugs wear off you wake up and find yourself trapped in an elevator with a strange girl called Phi. Manage to escape from the elevator (which is no mean feat) and you’ll find a ragtag group of other kidnappees trapped in a large complex – and all the time since you woke up you’ve had a virtual rabbit giving you instructions on where you are and what you have to do. The story is confusing and disorienting at first, your own feelings mirroring that of Sigma’s as you try desperately to process what is happening and who all these new people are. Then the big whopper is dropped – not only is your life in danger but a murderer walks among you. Welcome to the Nonary Game.
The Nonary Game is the catch all term for the games your captor forces you to play, so called because of the reoccurrence and the importance of the number nine to the game. Each character wears a bracelet showing a number, or your ‘bracelet points’ as the game calls them; manage to raise that number to nine and you have effectively won the game and you are able to leave the complex with your life intact. Allow your bracelet points to drop below one however and needles will shoot out of your bracelet and inject you with a lethal serum. The crux of the game then pivots on the desire to acquire more bracelet points, with those who drop into lower numbers becoming desperate to shore themselves up as fast as they can. In a rather genius move the only way to acquire bracelets points is to play the Ambidex Game, a version of the Prisoner’s Dilemma. Locking themselves into Ambidex rooms the characters have to decide whether to Ally or Betray with one another – if both parties decide to ally then they both receive two points, but if one betrays the other then they will gain three points and the other character lose two. If both characters betray one another then neither get any points. Evidently the recriminations from such decisions can be monumental, with trust between characters shattered in an instant with one selfish betrayal. As the player you are torn between the Ally and Betray buttons, the implications of the choices stark for both yourself and the characters you are facing. Questions of trust run through your mind, dialogue is replayed from your memory as you try to ascertain whether any hints of betrayal have been dropped in the run up to the vote.
The Ambidex Game is compelling stuff, made even more emotional by the connections you can forge with each of the characters. While the ‘Novel’ sections of the game are advanced by talking head style dialogue the talking heads in this instance are fully realised 3D sprites, each with their own mannerisms and unique animations which managed to personify them to an amazing level. The simple repetition of a hand flutter for instance, or the sight of a particular character’s shoulders sagging or the furious gesticulations of someone accused of a crime – all of these humanise the characters, gifting them readable body language and assisting in the communication of emotion. Developers Spike Chunsoft haven’t managed to get it all right however; for instance, the character Clover seems to regularly display a little smile when she is talking, even in the most inappropriate of places. It feels so incongruous to the dialogue and the situations she finds herself in that you can’t help but be shaken out of your immersion by it. As a more general issue the depictions of Clover and Alice follow some of the worst Japanese gaming conventions you can find – in fact, Alice gives new meaning to the phrase ‘scantily clad’ as she plays the Nonary Game with her decency preserved only by a remarkably static necklace. It’s a shame to witness – while one can argue that depictions such as these follow standard manga/anime stereotypes their inclusion in a very adult game dealing with adult themes gives the whole production a teenage gaming feel. You may well have tortured yourself over whether to Ally with or Betray a character, only to find their heaving chest taking pride of place in the next dialogue scene. It is a slight credit to Virtue’s Last Reward that the game never steps over into the realms of overt exploitation, but this is certainly one gaming stereotype we would happily see abandoned.
Moving away from the talking heads and the Novel sections of the game leaves you with the other half of the game, the Escape sections. As you move around the storylines and engage in Ambidex voting you will have to team up with members of the cast and solve some quite devious puzzle rooms. Locked in place until you unlock a safe and retrieve a key the puzzles are great examples of ‘Escape the room’ type gameplay, each offering a wealth of excitement and frustration. Each room starts with a trickle of items and hints which can range from explicit instructions to vague allusions, while whichever additional characters you have ended up with chime in from time to time with insightful comments (switch the difficulty to Easy and you could find yourself drowning in such help!). The puzzles in each room build up as you assemble clues, each small success unlocking a new task or allowing access to a previously unobtainable device. All of the information you could need to finish these puzzles is right there, often in plain sight, and yet each have been crafted to inspire that leap of realisation within the player. It’s conceivable that you could be stuck in some of these rooms for hours but realistically each of them play out with far more satisfaction than irritation. If you have a mind like some kind of twisted evil genius you will be happy to note that each room actually comes with two puzzles, the second yielding a file of secrets that offer additional explanatory texts and backstories helping you frame more of the game’s events. To solve these however will usually require some kind of additional mental leap or close examination and appreciation of some incidental and un-flagged clue. This division provides an olive branch from the developers, allowing gamers who are maybe less inclined to make the additional leaps of understanding able to continue with the Novel sections once they have found their escape code.
As with many games of this ilk Virtue’s Last Reward comes with oodles of endings (twenty-four since you are asking) and any serious player will want to see most of them if only to experience as much of the storyline as possible. As you work your way through the Nonary Game however it’s guaranteed that at times you will flat out lose the game and experience one of the so called ‘Game Over’ endings. As well as these certain branches of the storyline contain ‘Story Blocks’ which will (you guessed it!) block your progress unless you have already gathered data from elsewhere in the story. In many games these could have been sources of frustration, a tolling bell that sent you right back to the beginning and cursed you to retread paths you had already worn thin. Instead here the Flow Chart functionality allows you to zip around the entire branching storyline, returning to any scene which you have previously visited. Feel bad about that last vote of ‘Betray’? ZIP! You’re back in the Ambidex Room ready to choose ‘Ally’ this time. Fancy seeing which puzzle is behind the Red Door? ZIP! There you are, once again trying to figure out which group to progress with. The Flow Chart is integral to Virtue’s Last Reward – as you zip around you will notice that Sigma will start to remember the events of other branches, an essential requirement to pass some of the story blocks. The longer you spend in game and the more story threads you unlock the greater your understanding of the big picture will become. There is a monumental amount of information to digest and many many secrets to uncover – it’s all too easy to call a game compelling but in Virtue’s Last Reward we really do have a game worthy of that accolade.
With all this in mind then it’s a shame to note that Rising Star have decided to release the EU version of Virtue’s Last Reward without the English voice track created for the American release. At points in the game the absence of English voices are actually quite detrimental – when a Cockney robot turns up at one point you could almost scream in frustration at not being able to hear what electronic Eastenders would sound like. While the inclusion of the Japanese voice track is always a requirement for the most ardent of Japanophile there would arguably be as many people who would be drawn to the title by the presence of a language track they could understand. It’s a testament to the excellent translation that the subtitles (combined with the 3D spirtes) do such a fine job in conveying the personalities and idiosyncrasies of the characters but one can’t help but be disappointed that this release is not as comprehensive as that reserved for our cousins across the pond.
The combination of reams of story-driven text and crazy puzzle rooms almost certainly ensures that Virtue’s Last Reward will remain somewhat of a niche title in the West. The quality of the game speaks for itself and it’s debatable whether you would ever be able to find a better visual novel experience in the future without importing but as a game it won’t be for all. However, if you can open your mind to a new genre and are willing to passively consume well written text delivered story then you really could do worse than sink into Zero’s world and experience this iteration of the Nonary Game. Indeed, it’s hard to see another title for the Vita or 3DS that has this fantastic mix of intelligence, mature themes and sheer quality that Virtue’s Last Reward brings to the table. Throw your worries away and give it a go – and remember, if we ever meet in the Ambidex Room then I can assure you that I’m totally planning on voting ‘Ally’...