999: 9 Hours, 9 Persons, 9 Doors was one of 2010's hidden gems, and the first in the Zero Escape series of visual novel games from Aksys Games. It was a peculiar release, in that it put more emphasis on the story than on the gameplay, which resulted in a totally unique experience on the DS that Stateside users were not accustomed to seeing. While the events that took place in 999 didn’t always work out for everyone in the game, if you endured the brain-bending puzzles and multiple story lines, players were rewarded with the true ending and an overwhelming sense of self-satisfaction. Virtue's Last Reward is the second entry in the Zero Escape series, and it picks up a year after 999, with an all-new twist on the already twisted Nonary Game.
To say there's a lot going on in Virtue's Last Reward would be an understatement. Sigma, the game's protagonist, awakens in an elevator, and has no recollection how he got there, or what he is doing there. He is joined there by another character, Phi, and together with her they need to figure out how to escape this strange scenario. After a series of puzzles the two spill out into a warehouse to find that they are not alone, and are instead accompanied by seven other "players," all trying to escape, but no one really knowing why. The group is then addressed by the facility's host, an A.I. rabbit, who explains that everyone there is a participant in the Nonary Game: Ambidex Edition, and then goes on to explain the rules. This version of the game has players trying to acquire "Bracelet Points" (or BP) by teaming up to find keys to enter Ambidex rooms (the "elevators" they just escaped from) so that they can vote on whether to ally or betray their teammates. BPs are awarded depending on the combination of choices that the entrants make. Whoever reaches nine points first wins, and gets to exit through the number nine door. Alternatively, if your point count reaches 0 you die. Also, there's a deadly virus on the loose.
The gameplay in Virtue's Last Reward is very similar to its predecessor – it's a visual novel with an abundance of puzzles. This means that most of the "game" is actually played in between long periods of exposition. As the teams break up, they have to work their way through rooms in the mysterious facility to find cards to enter the Ambidex Rooms, and that is where player's problem solving skills are put to the test. Each time Sigma enters a new room he has to figure out how to find the password to access a safe that holds the key to the exit door. Layered on top of the gameplay is a branching story line that takes you through upwards of 20 different endings. If that sounds confusing, it is. In fact, it's so confusing that the developers at Spike Chunsoft included a flowchart that allows you to jump from one storyline to another making everyone's life so much easier.
Virtue's Last Reward is very different from any game that you've ever played before (unless you dabbled with 999), and so you need to approach it as such. While some people may find the abundance of story an overwhelming amount of reading, the story is the best part of the game. Following nine people through a series of multiple different paths, watching how each person responds to certain scenarios, and reacts to the others is an exceptionally executed experience. As you learn more about each of them and the Nonary Game, you are allowed to jump around to the other story arcs with this new information and move closer to the true ending of the game.
On the other side of the game are the puzzles. Sigma and his cohorts find themselves locked in a series of different rooms throughout the game, and they must get creative to escape each of them. Each room is a deviously crafted box that the three participants must explore to find clues in order to piece together how to open the safe that contains the room key. Some rooms are easier than others, but anyone that is looking to dive into Virtue's Last Reward had better bring their thinking caps, because some of the challenges are nearly impossible. With clues that loosely connect, and occasionally convoluted tips from your teammates, Virtues Last Reward could serve as a Mensa application. That being said, these puzzles fall right on par with the rooms in 999, and offer the same sense of satisfaction if you are able to solve them on your own.
Virtue's Last Reward isn't your average game – while it most commonly resembles the point-and-click adventures of yesteryear, just with a whole lot more reading, it's actually a whole lot more than that. The story becomes so engrossing that replaying it multiple times (you're allowed to skip the parts you've already seen) is less of a chore and more of a desire. While some might find the challenges a bit too frustrating, others will revel in the glory of piecing together the solution to each room, while trying to figure out everything that's going on around you. As long as you're comfortable enduring a game that’s more reading than action, and are okay with adult situations and conversations (this game does not go light on the profanity), then Virtue's Last Reward is an absolute must play – just do yourself a favor, and work your way through 999 first. It may sounds like there's a lot going on in this game - and there is – but if you stick with it, through all of the puzzles and all of the reading, you'll be rewarded with one of the best portable games of the year.