JPgamer: Another Number Nine

This week on JPgamer, Pete gives some first impressions on 999's follow-up, the 3DS- and Vita-based visual novel-cum-adventure game Zero Escape: Virtue's Last Reward.

Article by Pete Davison, .

You may recall that a few weeks ago I enthused extensively about Spike Chunsoft's Nintendo DS visual novel Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors. Well, since beating that game I've been delving into the Vita version of the sequel Virtue's Last Reward, and I've been very impressed so far.

I'm yet to finish the game, so this post will be spoiler-free in nature -- and I'd ask that you keep any comments as spoiler-free as possible, too, please! -- but I've already come across a variety of interesting things that are worthy of some discussion.

Like its predecessor, Virtue's Last Reward is primarily a multi-path visual novel that occasionally interrupts all the reading with a room escape sequence, during which you must make use of your brain and any objects you happen to find lying around in order to make your way through a locked door. These escape sequences frequently make use of a combination of different puzzle types, ranging from adventure game-style "combine two objects then use them on something else" object manipulation to more in-depth minigames that unfold on a separate screen.

Cracking a code like this always makes you feel like the smartest person on Earth... until the next puzzle comes along and stumps you.

By far the most satisfying puzzles are those that don't hold your hand at all -- puzzles in which you know you have all the information on hand to be able to solve them, just not necessarily the knowledge as to how you can apply that information successfully. These range from making logical deductions about subtle visual clues you can see right in front of your face, to cracking secret codes hidden within the various documents you accumulate in the game's "file" screens. For those who do find themselves struggling a bit, an optional Easy mode prompts the other characters that you're paired up with -- the game's premise ensures that you're never alone -- to offer their own thoughts and suggestions on how you might go about solving them.

Things continue to get interesting, though, when you realize that every room has two solutions to its major puzzle, one of which reveals a code combination to escape the room and the other of which reveals some supplementary documents you can add to your files for additional information on the setting, characters and real-world concepts that are explored in the narrative. This latter part is entirely optional, but once you find one it's hard to resist the allure of this additional content in subsequent rooms. Cue much teeth-gnashing and head-scratching as you struggle to determine exactly how you could have possibly solved the puzzle you just completed in a slightly different -- but still correct -- way.

Things get really interesting with regard to the overarching, branching plot, however. A comprehensive tree diagram depicts your progress through the story and the decisions you made along the way, and at any point it's possible to stop what you're doing, jump back to somewhere you've already been and try something different.

This is just the beginning.

This may sound a bit like cheating the consequences of your decisions -- the equivalent of reloading a save after trying one option in a BioWare game to see which is "best" -- and perhaps it would be had the entire game not been designed around exploring this concept. On numerous occasions, you'll be confronted with a situation that seems inescapable; assuming you're not on a "bad ending" path, the story will end prematurely with a "To Be Continued..." message, and its node on the story map replaced by a lock. You'll then need to explore alternative story paths in order to uncover the information needed to escape these tricky situations and unlock the real ending for that particular path.

This is a narrative technique that the original 999 touched on -- in order to get the "true" ending in that game, it was necessary to see one specific ending first, then carry the "memories" of that ending through into a subsequent playthrough and use the information accordingly. Amazingly, 999 actually managed to justify this gameplay mechanic pretty convincingly in narrative terms, and although I haven't played enough of Virtue's Last Reward to say for sure as yet, it certainly seems that there's something similar at play here. Most intriguing, for sure.

Different narrative paths will see you spending more or less time with different cast members -- and learning new pieces of information in the process.

999 was a game built around the interactions and conflicts between its characters, and Virtue's Last Reward continues that proud tradition. In fact, it makes even more of it; whereas Zero's twisted "Nonary Game" in 999 was built around cooperation and, occasionally, enforced sacrifice, the "Nonary Game Ambidex Edition" seen in Virtue's Last Reward is specifically designed to put the characters at each other's throats; with regular opportunities to betray and potentially kill one another, it's very difficult to stay on the honorable path, and indeed a number of the game's endings explore the fact that sometimes, in order to save yourself, it becomes all but necessary to screw other people over.

The characters themselves are all interesting in their own right, too. Most are clad in a veil of mystery for the majority of the game, but proceeding down various narrative paths equips you with the information you need to get a full picture of who they are and what they're up to. They're not above lying, cheating and backstabbing you, either; it's both unusual and refreshing to find yourself questioning the motivations and honor of the entire main cast at one point or another -- particularly since there's no obvious "villain" to unite against, save for the possibility that one person among the group might be Zero.

The story, although bleak and serious for the most part, isn't above moments of levity.

Virtue's Last Reward is a fine example of the creativity that's still coming out of Japan, though as Jeremy and I discussed in our recent 2013 in Review piece, director Kotaro Uchikoshi doesn't see himself working on similar games in the near future, due to Chunsoft not seeing them as "sustainable." And for sure Virtue's Last Reward is a niche interest work, consisting largely of non-interactive text, minimal animation and relatively little in the way of "gameplay" in the traditional sense -- but as I've argued in these very pages before, and as a large number of independent developers are continuing to discover, deliberately eschewing the popular perception of what a game "should" be can, more often than not, result in an incredibly compelling, memorable piece of interactive entertainment.

Such is the case with Virtue's Last Reward. I can't wait to see how the story continues, and I hope beyond hope that Uchikoshi continues to have the opportunity to do what he does best in the future.

JPgamer is USgamer's regular round-up of topics regarding Japanese games, published every Wednesday. You can read previous installments here.

This article may contain links to online retail stores. If you click on one and buy the product we may receive a small commission. For more information, go here.

Comments 15

Comments on this article are now closed. Thanks for taking part!

  • Avatar for Timobkg #1 Timobkg 4 years ago
    I really enjoyed 999, with the exception that few choices had a meaningful impact and that the path you end up on is arbitrary.

    This sounds even better, particularly the ability to return to a choice you made without having to replay everything.

    But what happened to the character art? 999 had beautiful 2D characters full of details and personality on the DS, while this, on the more powerful 3DS and Vita, looks to have replaced them with mannequins with wigs. I'll take beautiful 2D over bland ugly 3D every time.
    Sign in to Reply
  • Avatar for brionfoulke91 #2 brionfoulke91 4 years ago
    This game has one of the best stories I've ever seen in a video game. The writing is fantastic, the characters are very interesting and likable, and the situations and twists are extremely compelling. This game would have an amazing story even without the flow chart, but the way it uses the flow chart to both give you choice in how the story unfolds and also tell the story in a unique way is very clever and praise worthy.

    The puzzles are all well crafted too. I was able to figure out all of them without having to cheat, even if a few of them are pretty tricky none of them feel unfair.

    Glad to see this game getting more coverage. It's one of the best games of the current decade, and more people really need to play it.
    Sign in to Reply
  • Avatar for bullet656 #3 bullet656 4 years ago
    I really enjoyed this game. Having not played the original yet, I really want to get it. But I don't know if I'll be able to get past the fact that ill have to play through the same story again and again to get to the different paths. VLR made this relatively painless with the tree diagram and the ability to jump to different segments.

    Does 999 at least have the fast-forward feature that VLR has?
    Sign in to Reply
  • Avatar for Godots17thCup #4 Godots17thCup 4 years ago
    I love these two games so much. It's such a shame that Chunsoft apparently doesn't feel the same way.Edited December 2013 by Godots17thCup
    Sign in to Reply
  • Avatar for ShadowTheSecond #5 ShadowTheSecond 4 years ago
    Virtue's Last Reward was definitely one of my favorite games of 2012. I picked up 999 shortly before (cheap on Amazon), then got Virtue on the Vita. Excellent story and puzzles, and perhaps even better than 999--no easy feat to accomplish.
    Sign in to Reply
  • Avatar for PK-Strawstorm #6 PK-Strawstorm 4 years ago
    The 3DS save bug whyyyy. Lost all 19 hours of my progress and ended up just reading the story online after that.
    Sign in to Reply
  • Avatar for Kuni-Nino #7 Kuni-Nino 4 years ago
    It was one of the best games of last year because of its story. You know how some people say "I play games for the plot" and you just write them off as lunatics because you believe videogames aren't capable of telling a coherent story, let alone a good one? Well, I played VLR for the plot. It was good. Damned good.

    I actually hated the puzzles because they got in the way of the story! I needed to know what Schrodinger's Cat was!
    Sign in to Reply
  • Avatar for Arrowned #8 Arrowned 4 years ago
    @bullet656 999 does indeed let you fast-forward through text you've already seen before on the same save file, making replaying a save relatively painless, though obviously not as painless as VLR and its "hop back and forth at any time". When you get to anything new in 999 text-wise, the fast-forwarding automatically stops instantly.
    Sign in to Reply
  • Avatar for Dogislander #9 Dogislander 4 years ago
    Great stuff, Pete. I would suggest you try to avoid Easy Mode since something is unlocked later on if you make it through the whole game in the standard mode. Those supplementary documents are SO fun to figure out, since they usually require some lateral thinking on the original puzzle's premise.
    @Kuni-Nino-I continue to be disappointed by gamers who have zero interest in the stories of games. So many of the great game coming out of Japan invest so much into developing characters with clever dialogue and interesting relationships. Many reviewers these days just seem averse to games that have *gasp* dialogue and characters that are a bit more than ciphers (Parish seems miserable with anything coming out of Japan that isn't Nintendo or a roguelike...)

    I wish more gamers could just calm down and give themselves the opportunity to immerse themselves in a genre that embraces story and personality, be it an RPG or a text adventure. Broaden minds, people. Pettiness and impatience are qualities that many gamers should have grown out of at this point...Edited December 2013 by Dogislander
    Sign in to Reply
  • Avatar for bullet656 #10 bullet656 4 years ago
    @jareljones06 Thanks for the info.
    Sign in to Reply
  • Avatar for pjedavison #11 pjedavison 4 years ago
    @Dogislander I'm glad to hear there are other people who feel like me! I love game stories, and they're the main reason I stick with a lot of games -- games that are, in some cases, mechanically flawed but narratively compelling. I don't put much stock in the whole blanket assumption that "games have bad stories" or "games have bad writing" -- sure, there are plenty that aren't Shakespeare, but not everything NEEDS to be Shakespeare. So long as it's entertaining for one reason or another, I'm not too fussy.

    Off-topic, but I reached the final dungeons of Final Fantasy XIV the other day; a suitably Final Fantasy-esque conclusion to an impressive story -- particularly in the MMO space -- and one of the random people who was in the party was all "I haven't read a word of text in this game, lol." I felt a bit sad for him. Then I watched all the cutscenes to make a point. I can't help feeling those dungeons and boss fights would have lost something without the narrative context.
    @Timobkg I prefer the 2D art, too! VLR's 3D character designs aren't that bad, and they're quite well animated, but yeah, I would have preferred they either stuck with higher-resolution 2D art, or perhaps the approach that the new Ace Attorney game took, which successfully transplanted the series into 3D while still maintaining the look and feel of the original.

    Oh well. It's the words that are important in this one, anyway. And they're super-compelling words.
    Sign in to Reply
  • Avatar for Stealth20k #12 Stealth20k 4 years ago
    Great article. I love VN's glad more people do now
    Sign in to Reply
  • Avatar for Murbs #13 Murbs 4 years ago
    Easily one of the best games I've played all year. Shame it came out in 2012 so couldn't have made my GOTY list on Eurogamer :-(
    Sign in to Reply
  • Avatar for Arrowned #14 Arrowned 4 years ago
    @Dogislander To be fair, the stuff you don't unlock in easy mode can very easily be unlocked without starting an entirely new file... just by turning off easy mode, going back to that puzzle room, restarting the puzzle, and entering the safe codes you'd already gotten from the last time you came through here. Kind of cheap, but oh well.
    Sign in to Reply
  • Avatar for griffinvacheron53 #15 griffinvacheron53 4 years ago
    Pete, the story gets crazy awesome the deeper you get, actually it's quite amazing. In my personal opinion the cross referencing between all the different timelines exceeds anything in 999. Late in the game, a character will say something, for example, and you will have been conditioned to think "what is he/she up to?" The brilliant part is, sometimes there actually will be something behind their words, or sometimes you will have been reading into it too much. But when you guess right, or your instincts are right, it's amazing. Also, there are a number of twists that you most likely will not see coming, and very few of the are "ass pulls," or cheap twists. Enjoy the rest of the game, I look forward to your impressions when done :D
    Sign in to Reply