WARNING: copious spoilers ahead. I basically blow the whole plot wide-open below. Despite the fact that this game is now seven years old, you have been warned.
Disclaimer: this game was originally released for the Nintendo 3DS and PS Vita, but my first experience was with the Windows PC version. Yes, there is a lot of data copied and pasted from my previous review - this is very, very deliberate.
Elapsam semel occasionem non ipse potest Iuppiter reprehendere.
The second game in the Zero Escape series, Virtue's Last Reward (often abbreviated to VLR) is an interactive visual novel game created by Chunsoft - now Spike Chunsoft - and published by Chunsoft, Aksys Games, and Rising Star Games. Nine strangers are abducted and trapped inside a warehouse-like facility as part of the Nonary Game: Ambidex Edition. The strangers are told by an AI posing as a rabbit to escape the facility through the door marked with a 9, which will only open once. To pass through the door, the participants need nine "Bracelet Points", displayed on the bracelets affixed to their wrists; violation of this rule (i.e. trying to pass through the door with fewer than nine points), or any other rule, results in the bracelets executing the participant by lethal injection. The way to gain or lose points is to play the Ambidex Game, a version of the prisoner's dilemma. The player takes the role of Sigma, a college student; also in the game are the completely enigmatic and no-nonsense Phi; old, wise, and initially gentle Tenmyouji; pragmatic and blunt-to-a-fault Alice; not-so-brash youngster Quark; headstrong and fiercely protective Clover; a bulky amnesiac person stuck in a robotic suit, known as K; cocky and incredibly dickish Dio; and the soft-spoken Luna. Despite being poorly received in Japan when it was first released in 2012 on the Nintendo 3DS, the unexpected success of the game's prequel Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors in Europe and the US - as well as the success of this game in both markets - was enough to warrant an eventual sequel in Zero Time Dilemma. Later, all three games were ported to other major platforms.
I was first introduced to this game as I love escape rooms, and because I enjoyed 999. When watching the opening cutscene of the game I was even more hooked, as the flashy text that appeared utterly reeked of "Prisoner's Dilemma". In contrast to 999, however, I have to say I really do appreciate the puzzles. Instead of the "get key, use key, rinse and repeat" idea that was pretty much a recurring theme of 999, the puzzles are actually what I'd call puzzles. Logic, mathematics, and a bit of outside-the-box thinking - they're all there in spades. The puzzles are also a touch more complicated than the sudoku puzzles in 999 (although admittedly, and thankfully, the sudoku has disappeared from the Windows port of 999) and can now be done in Easy mode or Hard mode. What's more, a lot of the puzzles have two solutions - a very deliberate move on the writers' part, as the whole idea is to find two different rewards at the end of each room. The only problem I have with the puzzles is that they don't occur frequently enough, don't last long enough, and aren't abundant enough. Nothing wrong with them otherwise.
If, like me, you were hooked by the plot of 999 and wanted satisfaction that way as well, the game doesn't disappoint. Despite its slow pacing at times, the plot has enough to keep you on your toes. My main gripe is that often the sections in between escape rooms and prisoner's dilemma choices are identical, meaning it becomes a grind getting through them all. I saw Quark collapse several times, followed by his insanity, followed by Alice's insanity, followed by... everyone join in for the chorus! Yes, there are subtle differences between some of these iterations, but if you already didn't like a sequence of the plot (which, to be fair, most of you won't like Quark's sequence) you won't want to watch it another time, even for the subtle differences. This was treated similarly in 999 - there are six (or seven) endings and six (or seven) playthroughs are needed, meaning that one has to view certain sections of the plot over and over (though this does get rectified in the PC port). The addition of the flowchart does little to help since the same section appears at, say, six points along different branches. My aichmophobia did not like watching that section six times.
As much as I'd rather treat this game as a standalone and not make copious comparisons to 999, the latter is still fresh in my mind and the point of VLR is that it's a direct sequel to 999... so I'll get a bunch of them out of the way here and now. There's less of a sense of urgency in VLR. There's better choices of dialogue placements (i.e. puzzles no longer get interrupted for plot exposition or philosophical discussions). The puzzles are better, as already mentioned. It's easier to relate to Sigma than to Junpei, probably because Sigma was deliberately written that way. As you'll see below, the character design (or, rather, choice of clothing for the characters) seemed to get worse. The science-fiction involved in VLR was a lot less obscure than that in 999 and was a lot more relatable. Goals, especially those related to story locks1, are clearer (though not necessarily easier). The game is longer, multiple long playthroughs of 999 notwithstanding.
Another thing I liked about it was that it was a great big "fuck you" from director and writer Kotaro Uchikoshi. After seeing the reception of 999, Uchikoshi was told to make VLR lighter in tone. He was also told that someone old couldn't be a main character. And guess what - he did the exact opposite of both. Sigma is 67. And yup, the game is noticeably darker in tone once you've scratched the surface. Zero is a bunny-rabbit now, rather than a disembodied mechanical voice, but you see Quark's scene once and you'll probably get uncomfortable at best. The game even contains a note outlining (a slightly amended version of) Ronald Knox' Ten Commandments of Detective Fiction - it's worth noting that Uchikoshi has broken every single rule in a huge way. The guy loves subverting people's expectations.
The characters: I gave them vague descriptions at the start because, again, that's all you get unless you explore the depths of the game (and I'm not keen on spoiling the game that much...) - the characters largely choose to reveal nothing about themselves for various different reasons, not least of which is trust (which is very much the central theme of the game). And, of course, it all comes out eventually. Some of it comes out with all the subtlety of a brick, but there are some still rather well-constructed twists in the characters' backstories, as well as the main story. As for the characters' design: as with Lotus in 999, I'll go ahead and make the gripe about two characters' designs: Alice and Clover. Yes, this is the same Clover as in 999; yes, her design (and in particular her outfit) has had an update and there's basically no reason for it. It didn't feel like an "empowerment" move so much as a "the dev team want to make 3D boobs and they want to make them jiggle if the character so much as breathes" move. Similarly, much like in 999 there were sections of dialogue that I questioned - for example, one (other) character's breasts were brought up in a way that I felt was completely unnecessary. Compared to the elevator dialogue in 999 which was a) skippable and b) comic relief done fairly well2, there was no point to that piece of dialogue and it could have easily been replaced.
999 was a science fiction game. VLR takes it up to eleven (major spoilers in this paragraph). Immediately on entering the game one realises one is in for a sci-fi ride: first with a seemingly flawless AI, second with wireless bracelets that jab muscle relaxant into you, third with automatic bracelet scanners. It doesn't end there, either - turns out you've been on the moon the whole time, and you've contracted a virus that slows your thought processes down to the point where you think the moon's gravity is equivalent to Earth's (until Phi jumps in the air). Further, 999's major theme of morphogenetic field theory returns in this game and brings with it an even more in-depth exploration of multiple-universe theory - although a couple of characters have the ability to access the morphogenetic field, Sigma and Phi have the ability to send their consciousnesses not only to different universes, but different points in time - the entire game is about training their consciousnesses to do so. While it's a fascinating idea, it's not fully discussed and deconstructed until Zero Time Dilemma. All that matters at this point is that Sigma and Phi have been chosen (because of their abilities) to stop an outbreak of the aforementioned virus, which so far has played a part in killing 75% of the Earth's population (which has hit a fairly realistic eight billion). Also, revelations in the endgame give you a robot (well, several), a man with cybernetic arms and a bionic eye, antimatter bombs, a 22-year-old man in a 67-year-old body... I know technology is fast evolving but I'm not sure we on Earth are having any of that by 2070. Unfortunately.
As a small afterthought, the game's staff have made some other marked but small improvements since 999. The biggest gripe DS players had with 999 is that to obtain the true ending, players had to play through everything at least twice. This was rectified in VLR with the addition of a flowchart - players could return to any point of the storyline they'd seen before and play from there, often by making a different decision at the split points. The same feature was only added to 999 in the remaster. The team also made sure to avoid using the same, or similar, plot tricks that were used in 999 - the biggest one I noted was that two characters wore their bracelets slightly differently to everyone else in 999, but in VLR the same cannot be said.
- Graphics: 7/10 It's clear that the dev team were new to making 3D models, but the remainder of the graphics were good.
- Sound: 8/10 I've long preferred Japanese voice acting over English, but the English dub is passable. The soundtrack is also rather good, as with 999.
- Playability: 8/10 It's an inversion of 999 in that the dialogue is more repetitive, but the puzzles are substantially better.
- Lastability: 9/10 Once you've seen one ending, the chances that you'll go back for others (whether you're a completionist or not) is rather high.
- Plot: 8/10 By necessity, the plot's pace varies throughout the multiple playthroughs. It's worth it in the end.
- Overall: 40/50 = 8/10 A good addition to the Zero Escape series.
Have a nice tragedy.
1 What is a story lock? In games like these, the story branches based on the decisions you make. The game exploits this idea and plants information in one branch which is used to continue the storyline of a second branch; if the second branch is visited first, the game "locks" and prevents further progression until the first branch is played through and the information is gathered. There's an in-universe explanation for this usage of story locks in VLR, just as there was in 999. In the latter game, there were three story locks in place - not explicitly mentioned or named as such - which necessitated you to go through numbered doors in specific orders and make specific choices when you went into these rooms. They were noted with key and padlock icons in the flowchart section of the remaster. In VLR, there are ten.
2 I maintain that it was done well in 999 because, despite the dialogue being one-sided, the whole thing was another part of dragging up the ship-tease between Jumpy and Kanny. It did tap into the stereotype of men thinking about sex and making innuendo jokes more than women, but it was slightly less unnecessary than in VLR. The aforementioned conversation in VLR isn't even funny.