Monday, June 10, 2013

Zero Escape: Virtue's Last Reward - The Best "Book" You'll Play on 3DS/Vita

Platform: 3DS, Vita   Genre: Visual novel, puzzle   Release: October 23rd, 2012 (NA)
How does one write a review for a game whose main appeal is its intriguing and twisting plot without spoiling said plot? Since book reviews are a thing, I guess it's possible, so I'll do my best to explain why anyone who enjoys a good story needs to buy this game.

What is it?
Zero Escape: Virtue's Last Reward is a visual novel with puzzle segments that are reminiscent of Myst interspersed between the dialogue. It is a sequel to 9 Hours, 9 Persons, 9 Doors (DS) which followed the same format of storytelling combined with gameplay. While the plot of Zero Escape doesn't directly continue from that of 999, it is advisable to play 999 first as there are a few references to it.

The story is presented as text accompanied by animated characters which appear over mostly static backgrounds, a step up from 999's character portraits. Also a step up, the dialogue is voice acted, quite well I might add, in both English and Japanese. [Note: The European and Japanese versions do not have English voice acting.] The voice acting is not present in the puzzle segments of the game, but since the majority of your time will be spent in the novel portions, it isn't too big of a deal. Along with the generally solid English voice acting, the English translation is exceptionally good and does a fantastic job of taking the original dialogue and making it sound natural in English. After playing Zero Escape, you won't be able to help but notice how much other game translations fall short in comparison.

So what's this story about?
Similar to 999, Zero Escape puts you and a bunch of strangers in what's called the "Nonary Game". It's a game of life and death, trust and betrayal, in which everyone is attempting to escape through the door marked with a "9". The method of escaping differs from that in 999 in that now you'll be competing for points after each puzzle segment by playing a game based on the prisoner's dilemma. In this game, you have to choose whether to ally with or to betray the person you get matched up with. Betraying can get you out faster, but only if they ally; allying and being betrayed results in you losing points. If everyone chooses to work together, everyone can escape, but that isn't easy to do with a bunch of strangers, some of whom may even be responsible for abducting you in the first place.
Each of these choices to betray or ally splits the storyline, resulting in 24 endings which range from bad to good to best. Thankfully, you won't have to start from the beginning each time you want to see another ending; the game offers a view of the branching timeline which lets you skip to any point you wish and see how things would have played out if you had chosen differently. At first, it seems that this removes any sort of negative consequence for choosing "wrongly", but you'll find that it's a very welcome addition and an absolute necessity if you wish to see the true ending.

Even if I describe the basic concept of the story, I can't really do it justice. What you know at the beginning of the game is hardly anything compared to all the mysteries and twists that you'll find out along the way to the end. Every character has a story and each clue toward finding out who is responsible for abducting you all and what their motives might be brings up more questions and surprises. By the end, I can assure you that almost all of your questions will be answered, although it leads to a sequel which is in the works. Still, even with a tie-in to a sequel, Zero Escape's ending is fairly conclusive and not at all unsatisfying.
And... puzzles?
Oh yeah, there are some puzzles. Each puzzle segment has you using various objects and clues you find around the room to solve things. In the 3DS version, the touch screen is used to examine objects and interact with the various challenges. The puzzles vary in difficulty, but are usually just challenging enough to be satisfying without resorting to being unfair. Each puzzle segment also has a second, secret solution which unlocks supplementary notes on various details relating to the plot which are often interesting or amusing. If the puzzles prove too difficult, you can switch to easy mode at any time (hard is the default) and the characters will give you hints. The game keeps track of which puzzles you've solved on hard though, so you'll want to stick to hard mode if you want bragging rights (not that anyone can stop you from going to GameFAQs).
Even the instruction text can be clever. (Source)
The puzzles do feel a little tacked on to the story at first, as if to force it into the gaming medium, but they offer a nice break in the action and, like everything else, are explained by the plot.

3DS or Vita?
I have only played the 3DS version, but there were a few glitches worth noting. For one, there were a few instances where the game lagged, particularly when interacting with puzzles. The times when the game lagged weren't especially complicated from a processing perspective, so it's strange that this would occur. There were even occasions during my 30+ hours of playing where the game froze entirely, which could have been devastating if I hadn't saved recently. Worse than that is the saving bug, which seems to occur in particular rooms after not having saved for a long time and results in the corruption of the save file. If this happens, you'll be forced to start over from the very beginning. It's a nasty glitch, so for that reason alone, I'd recommend going with the Vita version if at all possible. Otherwise, be sure to take precautions to avoid the glitch in the 3DS version.

The final word:
If you enjoy good stories, particularly suspenseful scifi ones, you need to play 999 and Zero Escape. It has a better story than most books I've read and the abilities offered by being playable on 3DS and Vita to make decisions, interact with the puzzles, and to see and hear the characters, make it clear that what they call "games" can and do offer an effective mode of storytelling in ways that would be impossible in other mediums.

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