Zero Escape: Virtue’s Last Reward is possibly one of my favourite videogames of all time. I was actually surprised by how much I loved it since I only got it on a bit of a whim. It had received good reviews, particularly for its story, and I’m a sucker for a good story, so I figured I’d give it a shot. Little did I know what I was getting into. And with its sequel now on its way, what better time than to convince you lot to play it? … Well, probably when it first came out but I can’t time travel. Now, sit yourself down and get ready for the long haul because there’s a lot to get through, starting with the concept and plot.
VLR is a sequel to a DS title called 999: Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors (which was annoyingly only released in Japan and North America) and is described as a visual-novel – basically like an interactive book. The story begins with Sigma, a college student. On the night of Christmas Eve, his car is suddenly filled with white smoke. Somehow locked in his own car, Sigma falls unconscious – the last thing he sees is a hooded figure wearing a gas mask.
When he comes to, he’s in what looks like an elevator, along with a young, white-haired girl. Both of them have bracelets attached to their wrists with the number ‘3’ on them, which they are unable to remove. It’s not long when a small screen near the door turns itself on, revealing a talking rabbit who calls himself Zero III. The rabbit tells both Sigma and the girl that the elevator is about to fall and they need to solve the puzzle in the room if they are to escape. They succeed and escape through a hatch in the ceiling.
Outside, they learn that they were never in an elevator but some kind of booth inside a large and seemingly abandoned warehouse. There, Sigma is gradually introduced to seven other people, who all claim to have been kidnapped, just like Sigma. This brings our main cast up to nine and I shall list the other eight characters because they are just as important to this story as Sigma. They are:
1. Luna – a timid and gentle woman. Quite introverted, she does her best to try and get along with everyone and seems to generally avoid causing any conflict. She also has a medical licence, showing quite a lot of knowledge concerning medicines and the like.
2. Tenmyouji – the epitome of grumpy old man. Tenmyouji doesn’t give a good first impression; bitter, cynical and sharp-tempered. Despite describing himself as a ‘garbage collector,’ he’s deceptively intelligent and he does have a softer, more jovial, side to him that occasionally breaks through.
3. Quark – a young, precocious boy who is apparently Tenmyouji’s grandson. He is naturally very wide-eyed and optimistic, though he does understand the danger that the cast finds themselves placed in. He’s also polite to all the adults and wants to help everyone, especially Tenmyouji.
4. Dio – a self-proclaimed circus ring-leader. To say Dio is a dick would be an understatement. Selfish, mean, foul-mouthed and cold-hearted are only a fraction of the words that could perfectly describe him. He doesn’t hide his distaste of everybody else and has no problems with stirring tension amongst the group.
5. Alice – a beautiful yet mysterious woman. She’s friendly enough and a bit of a flirt but she possesses somewhat of a cold heart; she strongly believes in survival of the fittest. She’s also incredibly smart and cares very deeply for the people she considers friends.
6. Clover – a bubbly and somewhat ditzy girl. Despite her seemingly sweet exterior, Clover has a hard time trusting people; the only exception being Alice who she’s very close to. However, she expresses concern and compassion for those she feels she can trust. She’s prone to rapid swings of emotion and it’s clear that she knows a lot more about the group’s situation than she says.
7. K – a man wearing a large suit of robotic armour. K has been struck with a case of amnesia, unable to remember who he is. What’s more, he can’t take the armour off. The lack of a physical appearance makes everyone automatically suspicious of him. However, he is very calm and methodical, but is capable of making rather irrational decisions. His size lends him a lot of strength too, which adds to his already intimidating appearance.
8. Phi – the first girl that Sigma met. Cold and distant, Phi makes a point of not trusting anyone. Her great intelligence makes her a great manipulator and liar. She’s very secretive about herself and her past but she does seem to know something about Sigma, knowing what his name was before he told her. Despite her personality, she may very well be Sigma’s best (and possibly only) ally in the events that will unfold.
Once all the introductions are out of the way, Zero III once again reveals himself to explain the rules of the game that they are about to play (sounds very Saw-like, doesn’t it?). Called the Nonary Game: Ambidex Edition, the goal is for the players to get 9 Bracelet Points (BP) in order to open a large door with the number 9 on it. This door is the group’s only means of escape and once it opens, it’ll only stay open for nine seconds before shutting permanently.
So how can they get 9 BP? Well, the nine participants are split into groups of three (one pair and one solo) depending on the colour that’s currently on their bracelets (to go into any more detail would take another whole paragraph). They then go into seperate rooms and solve the puzzle within to escape the room (more detail on this later).
Afterwards, they must return to the booths that they woke up in, with the pairs going into one and the solo going into another. There, they must vote Ally or Betray. Now, here’s how the voting system works.
- If both you and your ‘opponent’ vote Ally, you’ll all get 2 BP
- If you pick Ally but your ‘opponent’ picks Betray, you’ll lose 2 BP while they gain 3 BP. The same applies vice versa
- If both you and your ‘opponent’ pick Betray, none of you will gain or lose BP
- If you don’t vote at all within the time limit, your choice will default to Ally
Oh, one more thing. If any of their BP hits 0 or below, they die. And thus the game begins.
I apologise for the abundance of information, but I think it’s important for you to realise how dire and messed up this situation is. Despite there being a very easy way for everyone to get out alive, you don’t know anything about these people. And they don’t know anything about you. Due to a combination of people’s egos, distrust, and your own choices, things can turn sour very quickly. And it gets worse when you uncover even more strange mysteries as you explore the warehouse.
Most of the game is very much plot. If people standing around talking, sharing backstory, debating and discussing bores the pants off of you, you should probably stop reading this because VLR is not for you. Like I said earlier, it’s like reading a book, which for people like me is no bad thing. Every character is distinct from every standpoint – visual design, personality, backstory – no two characters feel the same and, of course, your perceptions of each character changes as you progress and learn more about them. It’s fascinating, to say the least.
Sigma also serves as a great player character. He has enough personality and backstory of his own to have his own identity but he’s also quite base and simple, making it easy for the player to insert themselves into the story. When he opts to ally or betray somebody, you can’t get angry at him for making that decision when it was you who pressed the button.
There’s also full voice-acting (with the exception of Sigma) though I believe the European versions only have it in Japanese; the American version has the option for both English and Japanese. Still, I got used to the Japanese voices quite quickly and I’d argue they’re better than the English ones, if only because they capture their characters so beautifully. Plus, they can get super intense when the situation calls for it.
The soundtrack is decent, with each room getting it’s own music to help generate a suitable atmosphere. Unfortunately, I can’t remember many individual tracks off the top of my head. The soundtrack is one of those that’s best listened to whilst playing the game. That being said, it’s still very atmospheric and can greatly alter your own mood. One track titled Sublimity outright scares me. I will say, while it may not be billed as such, VLR borders on becoming a horror game at points. I highly recommend playing it at night whilst in bed. You’ll be shrinking under your duvet in no time.
Now, onto the actual gameplay, which are referred to as Escape sections. When a new round begins and you and your team enter a room, you’ll be immediately locked in. There will be a door that you can unlock with a key. The key is inside a safe which needs a password. Your job now is to solve puzzles within the room to find the password.
These aren’t your usual, simple puzzles by the way. Logic puzzles, riddles, maths, arranging shapes; they will push your brain to the limits and you will be sorely tempted to look up a guide at some points. They very rarely felt cheap, though, it’s always satisfying when everything clicks and you solve it. Whenever I figured one out, I usually felt like it made sense and I wasn’t being cheated (with maybe one or two exceptions). You can take notes using the Memo function too so you don’t have to remember every tiny little detail for certain puzzles, though you only have two pages worth.
There is an option to switch to an Easy difficulty, where your teammates will give you hints if you continue to fail puzzles, eventually outright telling you the methods to solve it. I welcome this since it can prevent frustration on the player’s part if they just want to continue the story but there is a bonus to completing rooms without resorting to it.
See, there are in fact two different passwords for the safes. One gives you the key, the other gives you a file. These files provide extra information on the world, characters and even some of the technical jargon that might go over your head. There’s a lot of science talk in this game and these files can help you understand it slightly better. They also fill you in on the important details and events of the last game in case you didn’t play it.
However, if you pick the Easy difficulty, the files will be silver and will only give you some info. Complete it on Hard and you’ll get a gold file, which will give you all the info. While you can always return to try them again later, getting all the gold files is needed to reach the true ending. Oh, that’s right. The endings.
You may have guessed this already but VLR has multiple endings depending on the choices you make throughout the game. There’s a handy flowchart you can access that shows what route you’re on and which routes you’ve completed. This is important as you can use this chart to go back to previous rooms to try and get the files as well as solve puzzles that require info from a different route.
Yes, this may sound weird, but at the risk of spoiling things a little, there will be times when you can’t continue down a route until you’ve discovered something else on a different one. I’m only telling you this because I didn’t know this on my first time playing and used a guide to help bypass this and wound up learning important plot details I shouldn’t have known by that point. You can also keep your memo notes when jumping between routes but as you do, your notes will begin to fade out or, basically, become less discernible. There is a reason for this but that’s plot related so I’m staying quiet but let’s just say it has an amazing payoff.
I should also note the localisation. For the most part, it’s good. All the dialogue makes sense and there wasn’t a single moment where a sentence wouldn’t make sense due to misuse of words or poor grammar. I have to give credit to all the people involved with translating the game since they apparently had to outright change some things since some jokes only made sense in Japanese. For example, in Japanese, Sigma adds the word “nya” at the end of his sentences whenever he talked about cats (“nya” being the equivalent of “meow”). For the English version, this was changed to Sigma making cat puns instead. Translation isn’t easy so they deserve kudos.
That being said, I do recall the occasional spelling mistake. The worst thing, though, was that some information that you found in the files wouldn’t entirely fit on screen, meaning you could only make out the top half of the last sentence. In at least one case, I swear the file was incomplete if only because some of it was off-screen and there’s no option to scroll down. I don’t know if this is a problem unique to the 3DS version since the Vita has a larger screen.
All in all, though, Zero Escape: Virtue’s Last Reward is easily one of my favourite visual novels, thanks to a combination of well-written characters, a convoluted but clever and intense story, great voice-acting and fitting music. If you love deep plots in your videogames, this is perfect for you. Hopefully, you’ll fall in love with it and get hyped for its sequel along with the rest of us.