This review is part 2 of a series where I look at the entire Zero Escape franchise. If you haven’t read part 1 where I talk about the first game, 999, I suggest you do that before reading this one. Some spoilers for 999 will also be in this so you may want to play that first if that bugs you. This review will be split into two sections: the first section will be a spoiler free review of Virtue’s Last Reward (VLR for short) and the second will be a spoiler section where I discuss certain points in greater detail.
Spoiler Free Section
I was pretty hype for the second game in the Zero Escape Series, Virtue’s Last Reward, after 999 I was looking forward to what the community generally holds as the best game in the Zero Escape trilogy. I booted the baby up and what greeted me was a pretty jarring transition coming from 999. The first thing that was immediately noticeable was the switch from 2D to 3D models for the characters. The second was that the main character you play as in VLR didn’t have any voice acting.
Even expecting the art style switch this experience was immediately off-putting and only compounded by the lack of voice acting with the protagonist. However, I was able to move past both things after playing some. It just was a bad taste in my mouth initially since it was so dramatically different than the first one.
Part of what made this transition particularly bad was that the female characters in particular have bad character designs. Largely Clover and Alice. Clover has always had an overly pink fashion sense and I can at least get that, but Alice was half naked and it really felt like hard pandering. I never really got over this.
On a different subject, yes, these are in fact the same Clover and Alice from the first game. I was actually glad to see them and thought it was a cool nod for VLR to include. This isn’t the only callback but it is definitely the one you’ll notice pretty quick. While some of these made more sense in the story than others, I still appreciated them.
I’m getting slightly ahead of myself though. Obviously Virtue’s Last Reward is a sequel to 999 but you might be wondering exactly why a new Nonary Game is taking place when it had seemed like everything was over. That’s a big part of what you eventually aim to puzzle out as this time around, things are actually pretty different. You still have a visual novel sections with the occasional escape room but now you have the inclusion of this, “AB Game.”
The AB Game is just the prisoner’s dilemma and it is perhaps the crux of the entire story. In this version of the Nonary Game, aptly called the, “Nonary Game: Ambidex Edition,” you’ll be put on teams with the various characters to go through different colored (chromatic) doors. Each team is comprised of a pair of players and a solo. Then you play the AB Game where the pairs play against the solo. You have to determine if you are going to betray the other person(s) or ally with them. What the heck does that mean?
Well here’s how the prisoner’s dilemma comes into play. If you both ally, you get +2 points. If either one of you betray, the betraying party gets +3 and the ally party gets -2 points. Lastly if both parties betray they get a whole zero points each. If you get 9 points you can open the number 9 door and leave at any time. It only opens once but in theory everybody can make it through because you don’t have to open it once you have 9 points.
Obviously, everybody should just choose ally every round. Guess what? They don’t. I’m fine with that because, again, somebody among you is Zero. You are told that by an AI built by Zero at the very start. So naturally, the first round is going to likely have mixed results. However, as you play and the characters discover things about themselves, it makes no sense that none of them play the AB Game logically.
Part of what drove me nuts about that is just how obvious it was which people were the problem when it came to the AB Game. You only need one person per group of three to vote so…. the characters are just really dumb and make bad choices when it comes to this game. That’s why it is the crux of the story. Worse of all, it just feels kind of tedious to do the AB Game after you’ve done it a few times.
999 started to feel like it had some tedium after the 10 hour mark but VLR has it beat because, oh my, the flow chart is HUGE. Not to spoil anything, but it is even bigger than it looks on a fresh start. It has a ton of endings, a lot of them don’t really even add anything, and it definitely starts to feel like checking boxes after awhile. Especially so with the numerous locks.
This isn’t to say that the story or experience was overly negative but it didn’t make for as tight and fun experience as 999. Some stories were pretty touching like Quark and Tenmyouji’s while others offered a fair bit of intrigue. Outside of the hour of ending that sets up the third game (which at the time of VLR’s creation wasn’t even going to be made) and the egregious cliff hanger, this was still a pretty great story at its core.
For a lot of folks they aren’t going to have any idea on EARTH what’s going on for large segments. Well, I’d like to say that except if you have played 999, and really you should have, then you are going to sadly be able to guess a lot of things far too early. This is a bit dependent on what routes you initially take but unless you literally bounce around wildly and don’t play with any methodology, you’ll undoubtedly be one step ahead of the story for a majority of its plot reveals.
If you pick up on certain things like I do, then you’ll only have one twist that manages to sneak past you by time you reach the end game. That’s pretty lame but 999 was the same so I can forgive it for that. VLR has some pretty wild twists though so for some folks there will be some pretty mind blowing moments.
The last thing I want to touch on is the puzzles. Right away they are a lot better than 999’s. In this regard VLR really stepped up. A majority of the puzzles were challenging but solvable. I do, unfortunately, have some complaints about some of the puzzles though. Namely, the clock puzzle, a combination lock, and an end game puzzle.
The clock puzzle involved colors and a digital clock. Not too bad except the colors were really similar and the clock numbers you formed for the solution didn’t always make numbers. This meant you just had to guess for some of this puzzle which means it was a pretty bad puzzle.
The combination lock was also bad because I easily solved it but it wouldn’t accept my answer. I even checked against a guide after brute forcing the combo various ways for over an hour. Turns out this was a problem of perspective since the solution actually needed to be input into a totally different row of the lock vs where it clearly implies you should put it.
For the end game puzzle, that was the worst of them all. It was just really picky about how you did the solution. Worse was that every single guide online had the WRONG solution for the puzzle since they changed it, and only this one, for the PC release. What made me mad about this one the most was that after solving it, the other end game, “difficult” puzzles were stupidly easy. I have no idea what the design philosophy was supposed to be here but that whole room was a mess.
Overall, VLR should have been a big step up from 999, and in a lot of ways it still very much is. Unfortunately, the problems with the series really stack up and wear on you after a bit. On top of the 20-30 hours this is going to take to 100%, it just isn’t something you can overlook. For sure worth your time if you enjoyed 999 but don’t expect to take a lot more breaks with VLR and have a guide handy for parts of it, you’ll absolutely need them.
Again, the trailer is included above and you can purchase Virtue’s Last Reward bundled with 999 on PC via Steam for $44.99. The price may be a little high since VLR really requires you to purchase the third game which is separate but if you ever see these titles on sale I’d pick them up ASAP because despite my complaints with VLR, there’s still a lot to love here.
This marks the end of the spoiler free section of the review. If you want to bail here feel free but I still have some more things to talk about below which I’ll be doing for folks who don’t care or have already played the game. If you do jump below please let me know if you plan to check out any of the Zero Escape games and if you wished more VN’s would do innovative things like this. Lastly, I’m going to link my Ko-fi stuff here instead of the end and, as always, thank you for taking the time to visit and read today!
Alright, I have a few more complaints and some praise to dish out for VLR but to do so I have to talk about a few specific moments. I’d like to start off with the bad bits and end on the good bits because I don’t want to make it sound like I hate this game or anything. I’m just frustrated with it.
The top complaint is with the ending. I spent 30+ hours on the game only for the end to take an hour setting up this whole mission where I was going to have to stop the Radical-6 virus from getting out from the Nevada test site. That sounded cool but as you go through all the loops necessary to prep for that and get some story the game unceremoniously ends. I was beyond confused when that happened because it was just so abrupt.
This is particularly puzzling since a third game wasn’t even going to be made for the Zero Escape series based on sales. Why have Akane gear you up for this mission in the last hour of the game if you aren’t even going to do it? No obviously the third game did eventually get made and it seems like that’s what you go do in it, but man, that was frustrating to no end. It’s like the plot really started ramping up and then it hits you with that, “go read the manga” ending anime is always doing. I just hate that.
While I’m on the subject of plot, how many of you have read the book titled, “The Secret?” Probably not a lot of you, but that’s essentially the plot of VLR. While 999 felt grounded and plausible, VLR just feels like it has to constantly one up itself. First you have the Radical-6 virus, then you have it set on the moon so that virus makes sense, then it turns out you are Zero all along! It is just kind of silly since the plot boils down to, if we wish hard enough maybe we can stop this bad thing from happening. I like that it built off of the Morphogentic Field Theory of 999, it just didn’t feel like it earned everything it was aiming for here.
Quick mention that it was really disappointing that Dio ended up being the only real villain here. How obvious could he be? Also his name is Dio, which is a pretty common bad guy name but… whatever I guess.
For my final complaint this has to boil down to inconsistencies in both the narrative and game mechanics. Firstly, if you take certain routes on the flow chart, you can actually sequence break the game. I had this happen and while it didn’t end up ruining anything, it lead to me being confused because Phi referenced actions I hadn’t yet taken.
Additionally the lack of a VA for the main character was a bad move. I knew pretty fast that I was Zero. It didn’t help that it gave me the ten tenants that a mystery is supposed to follow and went about breaking all of them. It was kind of obvious. Not having the main character voiced was a mistake that made the game feel inconsistent in its narrative. I get that this is for the big reveal that you are, one, old, and two, Zero, but it really lacked the impact it should have had.
No plot holes though. Characters constantly point out that you are an old man, but it is easy to miss if you aren’t paying attention. The fact that they never show your face, just your arms and jacketed torso, is also a pretty big hint. Again; impact. I’m sure this blew some minds but not mine.
As to mechanics, it was baffling that a big part of the game actually required you to play with a pen and paper handy. Well, you can use the in-game memo feature and dedicate a page to storing the vital passwords needed to progress, but I didn’t even realize until late game that the memo would remember things even across saves and jumps back to different points on the flowchart. When it came to the end, it was just really tedious to have to have all these passwords in order to defuse all the bombs. I understood the computer one, but it just felt a bit extreme here since literally no other part of the game requires you to store information long-term like this.
Puzzles suffer from this too. For example there was one that sticks out particularly for me since the solution was so baffling. It involved a clipboard and flash drive when you are in the room with the antimatter reactor. The clipboard has color coded words and the flash drive is a specific starting color. It appears like you are supposed to decode the colored words on the clipboard but NOPE, instead you combine the clipboard and flash drive together in order to get a new flash drive. How? There were more puzzles like this too. VLR generally had great puzzles compared to 999 but the fact that some are literally just combine x with y for no reason puzzles like the point-and-click games of yesteryear is beyond me.
Again, I have to reiterate that a lot of these things are fairly minor complaints in the grand scheme of things but they really add up. If you are going to spend 30+ hours in a game like this then the last thing you want is for the game to be frustrating.
Credit where credit is due though. Despite the fact that I figured a lot of the plot out in advance, I appreciate how they worked Junpei and Akane into this plot. It could have easily felt cheap or pandering but it actually made sense. Most of the plot is like this, meaning it makes sense, and has a good flow. There aren’t any plot holes, even when it feels like the game is making some pretty massive ones. It’s nice that it was able to play with the perception of events and keep things so consistent throughout the entire game.
It’ll take me awhile to get to playing the third game because after this I need a break. I did enjoy VLR but it has me feeling a bit burned out on the franchise instead of invigorated to immediately continue into the final game. Don’t worry though, I’ll be back into it after a few days of rest and part three will come ASAP!*
*future me here, I have the review for the third game up now. Give it a read!