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Game Review: Zero Escape: Virtue’s Last Reward

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Posted April 3, 2013 by Niall Gosker in Visual Novel
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Rating

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Overview

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Platform: ,
 
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Release Date: November 23rd, 2012.
 

Pros:

Deep, mature, engrossing story. Great performances from voice actors.
 

Cons:

Puzzles just get in the way. Production values could be better.
 

The second entry in the Zero Escape series tells a delightfully twisted tale, one strengthened by a host of broad general improvements.

by Niall Gosker
Full Article

Virtue’s Last Reward is the sequel to the DS visual novel 999: 9 Hours, 9 Doors, 9 Persons. Perhaps the most pleasant outcome of the previous generation of handheld devices was the influx of visual novels titles to the West. Phoenix Wright and his compadres had been popular in Japan for some time already, but it wasn’t until Nintendo’s (initially odd) dual-screen piece of hardware that the series would come to the West and find a massive new audience, in multiple languages. The success of the localisation of the Ace Attorney series, combined with Nintendo’s ever increasing mission to pull in non-gamers, led to even more word-heavy titles like Professor Layton, Another Code, and Time Hollow. The Zero Escape series, of which Virtue’s Last Reward is the second entry, is part of that same gang. With the surprising popularity of the original, this sequel sees an increase in production values and some very smart, broad tweaks but fans may be disappointed to hear that it concerns itself more with setting up a larger universe than telling a completely satisfying, contained story.

VLR has a terrifically engaging narrative full of suspense and shock.

Like the first, VLR sees a group of diverse characters thrust into the Nonary Game, a life and death ordeal of trust and betrayal run by a mysterious man calling himself ‘Zero’. Gameplay is broken up into two distinct sections: novel and escape rooms. The former is where much of the plot is pushed forward and where many of the dramatic moments play out. The latter features the series’ trademark logical puzzles, which must be solved in order to escape and push the Nonary Game forward.

The enjoyability of these segments will vary wildly from player to player. Those who find abstract puzzle-solving appealing will surely get a kick out of decoding the game’s many obtuse obstacles. This writer found them more of a hindrance than anything else. The reason for playing any visual novel is to become engrossed in a story, and certainly VLR has a terrifically engaging narrative full of suspense and shock. The puzzle interludes take you away from the game’s strengths and feel like a blockage that needs to cleared as quickly as possible, but not in the way the game intends them to be. If you know exactly how to navigate your way through them, they can be over in minutes; in that respect, they aren’t a huge barrier to overcome. But they do evoke an irrepressible sigh on each occasion they pop up, like an unwanted sideshow. If these puzzles embraced more traditional adventure game mechanics that tied directly into the story, they would be immeasurably more enjoyable.

The novel sections showcase Virtue’s Last Reward’s true talents. The narrative is deep and complex, as are the majority of the characters who accompany the player through this twisted journey. A fundamental concept of the Zero Escape series revolves around multiple playthroughs with branching paths that determine which of the many possible different endings you’ll arrive at. These endings aren’t optional but rather, mandatory must-see affairs that tie everything together. The reason for this approach is very cleverly incorporated into the context of the story itself and like many of VLR’s mysteries, it slowly reveals itself as more and more of the timeline is fleshed out.

A more equal balancing of the visual and the novel elements would have been beneficial.

The progression from 2D sprites to 3D polygonal character models is always cause for concern but here the transition has been handled very well. Neither personality nor style are sacrificed. The other major production change is the addition of voice actors, which is risky move; bad VO can break a game’s dramatic power, especially one where the story is such a huge crutch. Thankfully though, the voice actors are well cast and well directed, providing convincing performances that add significantly to each scenario’s gravitas. It is a little disappointing that the developers didn’t go further in their polish and shine; there is very little animation and much of the action is told via text. A more equal balancing of the visual and novel elements would have been beneficial. It is a little too long for its own good too, an average playthrough clocking in at around thirty hours. Menus are often clumsy to navigate, lacking in response and appealing UI design. And even though it offers tools to offset the grind of multiple playthroughs, there is still some unnecessary fat that could have been trimmed.

Despite the story existing very much to set up the events of the third and final game in the trilogy, there are many great moments in Virtue’s Last Reward that stand firm and tall in isolation. Hopefully with the concluding instalment, Chunsoft can elevate the series to the height it absolutely deserves to reach.


About the Author

Niall Gosker

He can believe it's not butter. When not being overly picky about his choice of toast spread, Niall can usually be found rewatching 24 yet again.

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