[suicide mention tw]
I am bad at puzzle games and terrible at anything involving math. Please keep this in mind as you read this review, it will be important later, I promise.
This game was actually one of the first games to be added to my 3DS library and was originally supposed to be one of the first 3DS games I reviewed here. Unfortunately, a bug that corrupted my save about a third of the way through every route in the game frustrated me so much that I put it down and didn’t pick it up again until now, now that Zero Time Dilemma is out.
If you haven’t played this game’s predecessor, Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors (999), the gist of the series is that nine people are trapped in a remote location by someone named Zero and forced to play a deadly game. It’s equal parts escape-the-room puzzle game and visual novel, and has a surprisingly good (if weird) story where characters frequently go off on tangents about quantum physics and philosophy. It’s really interesting, I promise! 999 was originally supposed to be a standalone game, and it apparently was a flop in Japan, so it’s kind of a miracle it spawned not one, but two sequels.
While 999 was mostly a self-contained narrative with a murder mystery, conspiracy theories surrounding the Titanic, and Morphogenetic fields, Virtue’s Last Reward tackles game theory, specifically the Prisoner’s Dilemma. If the Wikipedia link is confusing, that’s because most of the concepts in the game would probably go way over the heads of most people when explored in depth. In this game, you play as Sigma, a young man who is forced to play a deadly game with eight other people. The Prisoner’s Dilemma portion involves choosing to ally or betray other players to obtain bracelet points (BP) needed to open a door with the number 9 on it. Only those with nine points can open and go through this door. This might sound complicated, but in practice you’re basically choosing which character’s route you end up on and what sort of ending you get. The story is a roller coaster ride of twists and turns that manages to surprise even when you think you know what’s coming. If you haven’t played the previous game, you’ll be missing a lot of context and some plot points won’t have the same impact, but the in-game files you get for completing puzzles do an okay job of summarizing the previous game so you won’t be completely lost.
I would argue that Virtue’s Last Reward‘s story stands up on its own merits and the developers could have easily cut out the puzzle rooms and left the ambidex game and it would have been worth the money. Having said that, the puzzles themselves don’t have any bearing on the plot. In order to escape a room, the player requires a password to open a safe with a key. Players look around the room in first person and click on objects of interest. Each room has a variety of items to collect and combine, and a minigame or two related to the function of the room. For instance, the Lounge has you mixing drinks at the bar, while the Laboratory has you comparing seed specimens and dissecting a frog. Some puzzles require you to compare two sets of data. This might seem like a daunting task, but the game provides you with a memo function where you can jot down notes (or just use good old-fashioned notepad paper and a pen). Puzzles can be completed on easy or hard mode, the only difference between the two being that characters give you more hints on easy and completing all puzzles on hard gets you a special extra ending. You can also complete bonus objectives to obtain a second password for different colored file folders depending on which difficulty level the puzzles were set to, these files provide more background info on concepts in the game and some information on the events from 999. While I wouldn’t call the cast endearing, some of their decisions are kind of baffling, and even though this is one of the least “anime” games to come out of Japan, some of the characters still manage to occupy their stereotypical niche (like the perverted old man trope) they’re still an interesting bunch with plenty of secrets between them. Veterans of 999 will definitely see some familiar faces.
As I said in the introduction, I’m terrible at puzzle games, but even considering this, oftentimes it felt as if the puzzles required leaps of logic, particularly math-based leaps in logic, and even with a walkthrough, I found myself scratching my head and wondering how the hell they managed to arrive at the solution. Unfortunately, there’s no option to skip puzzles outright, although you can easily skip puzzles you’ve already completed by using the “Flow” feature, which is basically a flowchart displaying all possible routes through the game. The structure of the game encourages multiple playthroughs, as many routes are locked off until other routes are completed. While this means the game’s story is a more linear experience than the flowchart would suggest, it also safeguards against players accidentally spoiling themselves–unless you’re like me and looked up the solution and was promptly spoiled to hell and back–I should note that despite being spoiled on many of the major plot points, the game still managed to surprise me, and the finale left me eager for the third (and final) installment.
In terms of triggery content, while it doesn’t have as many horror elements as 999, Virtue’s Last Reward can sometimes be a bit bloody, particularly in one of the bad endings that is actually required to unlock other routes. One of the participants in the game, Quark, is a child, and while any deaths he suffers are implied, there is one particularly unnerving scene where he screams and begs the other participants to kill him. Speaking of which, the plot discusses mass suicide and at least one death in the game is a suicide, to say nothing of the stabbings and poisonings the participants suffer in many routes. Characters are sometimes injected with drugs or medicine and a couple of puzzle rooms are medical-themed. Usually I don’t remark on diversity in Japanese-made games, as it’s generally assumed the characters are Japanese (although IIRC in the localization, at least one of the characters is American). However, it’s worth noting that not only is Alice the only dark-skinned member of the cast (that we can see, because K is wearing armor that conceals his entire body) she’s also the most sexualized member of the cast (comparable to Lotus from 999). Apart from the game-breaking bug I mentioned (see below) the game also had a tendency to freeze or lag during dice puzzles.
Virtue’s Last Reward may seem like an unapproachable game for those who have difficulty with puzzles (especially math-based puzzles) especially when it goes off on one of it’s philosophical tangents, but IMHO, it has one of the most interesting narratives of any puzzle game I’ve played, and while the story alone is well worth your time, the puzzles can be somewhat challenging diversions depending on how you feel about math and comparing multiple sets of data at the same time. Since both 999 and this game are being ported to Steam, I would absolutely recommend picking both of them up before playing Zero Time Dilemma.
Note: The 3DS version has a game-breaking bug that corrupts your save file. To avoid it, do not save at any point during the PEC puzzle, or in puzzle sections in general, just to be safe. As far as I know, this bug isn’t present in the Vita version.