Text is the most prominent factor in this sequel to Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors (999); there's no shortage of it, and the text is captivatingly illuminated by other pieces of the game's presentation and methodical style. Through convincingly human dialogues, monologues, and asides, Zero Escape: Virtue’s Last Reward makes a strong case for an experience that values internalization and light participation above recognizable control and decision making. Text, and the characters and myriad situations it shapes and plays with, is the method used here to achieve this unique relationship. Virtue's Last Reward builds around writing that is confident at length, and very good.
Like 999, Virtue's Last Reward concerns the mysterious kidnapping and gathering of nine individuals to play the Nonary Game, a devious machination operated by unseen forces, hinged on trust but laced with the temptation for betrayal and deadly consequences. As a twenty-something student named Sigma, you become acquainted with the other eight participants in the intricate and menacing game, and the coincidences of this particular group's identities break down. Through extensive scripted conversations, both one-on-one and in larger groups, the characters’ relationships, behaviors, and motivations come to light, and these details take the menacing situation into even darker places. The quality of the writing, and the meaningful personification and character dynamics it allows, create a well-paced tension throughout each story avenue. A few minutes' talk can swing the momentum of a story beat into unexpected territory, and Virtue's Last Reward is skilled at plunging its vague allusions and the overall confusion of the situation into horrifying clarity with impeccable timing.
To suit the manipulative nature of its situation, Virtue's Last Reward punctuates the flow of the text-driven story with an equally devious brand of puzzle rooms. Though they take place in distinct sectors of the game's enigmatic setting, make decent use of the system's stereoscopic 3D and touch screen, and can contribute to the series' overarching fiction, these "escape" segments often come off as distractions. The puzzles simulate the complexity and dread reflected in the narrative proper, but they also interrupt the game's superior realization of these qualities through text and story. Even with all manner of contrived situations and precise, empirical solutions, the puzzle rooms fall short in delivering the caliber of close, consequential involvement that makes the other sections succeed.
Industrial in its tone and setting, the game positions itself as unavoidably grim. That is not wholly inaccurate. Terrible tragedies and wrenching revelations come with any decision. But these occurrences, even as they twist the knife and the heading of the story, are another chance to further explore the plot. Choice, though required by the rules of the game and the narrative, is not the prime tool of Virtue's Last Reward. The resulting path for any decision is splayed out in detail, and VLR encourages experimentation in each divergence. The game may even decide for you, if the present timeline is linear. In this way, instances of choice become less an arbitrary, throwaway game mechanic, and more a fitting representation of the narrative threads that Virtue's Last Reward ties together so well.
Under the guise of a video game, Virtue's Last Reward unfolds an intricate story in which your participation is consistently worthwhile. In spite of the interruptions caused by its less engaging puzzle segments, this game stands out as an exceptional narrative experience unlike anything else on 3DS.