Zero Escape: Virtue’s Last Reward Review for PlayStation Vita
This game was reviewed on the PlayStation Vita.
Did you ever read the Choose Your Own Adventure series of books as a child? If yes, did you ever consider the theoretical scientific implications of the books, particularly in relation to the multiple universe theory? I can’t imagine many of you answered “yes” to that, but to explain myself, imagine if one page in the book asked you to make a yes or no decision. In the rules of CYOA, a “yes” answer takes you to one page, whilst a “no” takes you to another. Now, let’s say you choose the “yes” response. You turn to the page indicated, carry on the story, and eventually get to one of the multiple endings. The multiple universe theory, though, is based on the idea that either answer creates a new universe, so that in one universe you select “yes”, and in the other you select “no”, and in each universe you live with the varying repercussions of the decision, however slight the differences may be.
You’re probably asking yourself, what does this have to do with videogames? Well, in terms of Zero Escape: Virtue’s Last Reward, quite a lot. In order to explain the mechanics of the game, this review will contain some mild spoilers, so stop reading now if you want to go in with entirely fresh eyes.
For those of you still with us, Zero Escape is based on the idea explained previously, that different decisions create new universes and that each of these universes have different outcomes. A spiritual successor to 999 on the Nintendo DS (also developed by Chunsoft), Zero Escape will certainly make your head hurt at times with its explanations of the quantum mechanics theory lying at its heart, but the journey (or journeys) is well worth it.
Zero Escape contains a main cast of nine characters, including Dio (a circus ringleader), the ancient Egyptian-themed Alice, and the Elderly Tenmyouji. Players, though, view the game through the eyes of Sigma, and the game starts with a brief series of flashbacks explaining Sigma’s side of the events leading up to his incarceration in Zero’s warehouse. This is quickly followed by a confused awakening in what seems to be an elevator. Also in the room is Phi, an emotionally distant young woman who seems to know more about you than she should.
The twenty minutes or so you spend in confinement with Phi allow you to experience the two main aspects of Zero Escape’s gameplay: first, the visual novel, and second, the point-and-click puzzle. You’ll be spending a lot more time with the novel side of the game than the puzzle portion (unless you’re truly terrible at puzzles), so if reading really isn’t your thing, then perhaps Zero Escape isn’t for you.
Once Phi and Sigma manage to escape from the elevator, they find themselves in a large warehouse, amongst a group of seven other participants in what turns out to be the latest incarnation of the Nonary Game, which will be familiar to players of 999. For those who haven’t played 999, the Nonary Game essentially groups participants into three, and sends them into a locked room to solve puzzles in order to find the key, escape said room, and progress through the game.
New to Zero Escape is the Ambidex portion of the game, in which players return to the elevator mentioned previously, and vote against each other in an attempt to gain 9 Bracelet Points (the currency needed to unlock the warehouse and escape). Explaining the full details of the game here would take far too long, but understand that it’s based off of `The Prisoner’s Dilemma’ by Merrill Flood and Melvin Dresher.
All characters in the game (excluding Sigma) are fully voice-acted though, and for the most part, while bucking the trend of most English voice tracks in Japanese-made games, the acting is well done, with characters conveying emotions, suspicion and malice convincingly. There are a couple of annoying moments though, with Zero, the villain, and Quark (a child participant in the game) being the main culprits as their banter tends to be repetitive in nature.
Zero Escape can be controlled on the Vita through either the face buttons or the touch screen. The face buttons are easier to use during the novel sections, while the touch screen proves more useful during the puzzle areas. The puzzles were surprisingly logical in Zero Escape, and whilst there were a couple of instances with obscure instructions, or being unsure where to go next, there were no instances where you had to make a mental leap just to tie two particular objects together, or having to try fitting every item in your possession into a particular object. To keep the gameplay varied, almost every room contains a mini-game that uses the various capabilities of the Vita, such as the touch-screen to rub off a piece of a picture, or the tilt-controls to move blocks around. The tilt-controls were the one aspect of Zero Escape that I had issues with, as they were often unresponsive and it was easier to use the face buttons instead.
Each puzzle room is by default assigned to a ‘hard’ difficulty, which in reality isn’t all that hard, although there is an option to switch the difficulty to ‘easy’. This doesn’t change the puzzles themselves, but instead prompts the NPC characters to give you more clues and hints related to the puzzle that you’re stuck on. Changing the difficulty doesn’t punish the player to any real extent or change the story; rather it affects the bonus files that can be found in each puzzle room. These files contain story information that can expand upon what is learnt through the course of the game, but most of the entries contain information that can be found naturally by progressing through each of the game’s storyline branches, meaning that whilst they’re not crucial to find, they are useful when you inevitably get confused by what’s going on in a particular narrative.
The stories branch off at various points in the game, mainly after an Ambidex Game section or before entering a puzzle room. The Ambidex Game is essentially a choice between allying with or betraying your fellow contestants, and this decision boils down to pressing the corresponding button on a screen.. Depending on the choice you make, the story can go off in different directions. Similarly, before entering a puzzle room, you get to choose who you want to partner up with. This dictates which room you’ll enter, and opens up a different story section based on your choice, usually relating to whichever character you decided to match up with.
By the end of the game, your story Flow screen will almost resemble the root system of a plant, with the story branching out in multiple directions, and various different outcomes. This Flow screen comes in particularly handy to keep track of what’s going on in the game, and it allows you to jump from one storyline to another at will. This might seem as if it would only confuse matters further, but it is necessary for when you hit a “To be continued” wall in a particular narrative. When you get a “To be continued” wall, this often means that you need to progress further along a different story path in order to learn information that can be used in the previous path. Sigma (and certain other characters) is able to retain information gained from other narratives and so, for example, if you discover who planted a bomb in one timeline, you can jump to the other timeline and stop them from planting it before it kills everyone. It’s difficult to wrap your head around the progression without seeing the game fully played out, but it becomes much easier with access to the Flow screen, which clearly highlights which storylines still need to be explored and which ones you now have enough information to continue on with.
One potential problem with having several different story threads is that certain elements are repeated over and over. For example, in almost every storyline a certain character develops a potentially fatal illness, and the player needs to sit through the same series of dialogue over and over again, as various NPCs discuss cures. Thankfully, the developers saw fit to include an option to skip through dialogue that you’ve already seen, as if the game is playing through on fast-forward. This saves a lot of time for the player, as some of the dialogue tends to go round in circles before getting to a useful point. For the majority of the game, though, each character is well-written and mysterious, and it takes until the final end-game to really understand what’s been going on and just what each character’s motivations truly were.
Zero Escape: Virtue’s Last Reward can’t really be pigeonholed into one particular genre as it isn’t dominated enough by brain-scratchers to be labelled as a puzzler, and there isn’t really a genre-description for a game which is basically an interactive novel. Being as unique as it is, I can’t recommend Zero Escape highly enough for those who are interested in a well-written and well-crafted mystery, with enough sci-fi elements to compare it to literature such as Neal Stephenson’s Anathem. The gameplay aspects, while minimal, are well done, and the storyline keeps you guessing right up until the end, even if particular aspects of it will leave you scratching your head as you wrap your mind around some of its more theoretical concepts. Seeing everything in the game will easily take a player upwards of 25 hours, although most of this will fly by while you become as trapped in this world as the Nonary Game’s participants are.
Zero Escape: Virtue’s Last Reward scores a time and space bending 4.75 out of 5
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