Well here we are again, a story focused game that I have to try and describe without screwing up the enjoyment of it for my readers. Writing about why I love a game like this without any spoilers is like telling someone about a new color I saw in a dream. I know the experience was great, I just can't think of the words to accurately explain it. All that said, this should be interesting to write if nothing else, so here we go.
The Nonary game is back in Zero Escape: Virtue's Last Reward, from the makers of 999. Nine people have been kidnapped and forced to play a game with their lives at stake. Having never played a game in the series before I was kind of expecting something similar to a Japanese version of the Saw movies, but what I got focused a lot less on the gore and more on the characters in this incredible situation. The setup is simple. You play as Sigma, and he and his eight other incarcerated counterparts have been tossed into a strange underground complex. The focus of the story is something called the Ambidex game in which you choose to ally with or betray one or two of the other hostage victims and are awarded or deducted points based on what each of you chose without knowledge of the other, a puzzle similar in set up to the Prisoner's Dilemma. Play well and you could gain your freedom, but play poorly and you'll be severely punished. There are a lot of details left out of that explanation for obvious reasons, but that's the gist of it.
Surviving the game is divided into two different kinds of events, Novel and Escape. Basically Zero Escape is half point and click adventure (or touch and click-like noise in this instance) and half visual novel. Escape portions play out just like a point and click adventure. You're trapped in a room and need to explore your surroundings and solve puzzles to get the key to escape it, hence the name. Puzzles vary wildly with all kinds of different brain teasers many of which directly involve math or at least deductive reasoning. Using a balance to figure out the weight of three different objects with only one standard weight is a great example where the math wasn't too difficult but you have to think about how to make comparisons that tell you the weight of all three.
Just so we're clear, the above is not an example of something I needed to pull out a calculator for.
It's been quite a while since I pulled out a calculator while playing a video game, or kept a big pile of notes for later use. That feeling of success after you figure out something that at first seemed near impossible is always fantastic. Hunting around the room to find all the pieces you need to get to that puzzle is considerably less enthralling. That said, the color commentary from Sigma and the characters that accompany him as well as the things you find out about the Nonary game in general while exploring help to make it enjoyable as well, just not as much as the true blue puzzles. Touch controls are the name of the game for all this exploring and puzzle solving, and I almost never had issue while playing on the Vita. There were some puzzles that involved rotating objects that seemed like they could have made better use of the Vita's multi touch abilities, and the item management system was cumbersome once you picked up any more than three or so, but those complaints are minor.
But maybe you're not the puzzle solving type, or you are but get stuck beyond the point of enjoyment. At any time you can change the difficulty of any escape section from hard to easy. On this setting the other characters will basically baby you through the process and if you don't get a certain puzzle after several attempts with prodding hints they'll outright tell you how to do it. It made me feel stupid hearing the ditzy Clover talk to me like a toddler about how to solve a certain puzzle, but sometimes your head just isn't in the right place to think in the way a puzzle wants, and at that point you either have to put down the game and come back after a break, or push forward into the story with a system like this.
I think the developers made the right choice, because the story had me so hooked that I would have hated to be stuck or forced to find a walkthrough online from the Japanese release which might have spoiled the narrative by accident. The only penalty you'll receive for taking the easy way out other than being berated by your virtual companions is that you'll receive fewer secrets. Each room has a solution for getting out, and a far less obvious solution that gets you secrets about the game. Some of these are just reiterations of concepts explained in the novel sections, but others go further into science fiction explanations (which is always fun) or expand on a specific character. If you can find this extra solution on hard mode you'll get a full page of seven secrets, while on easy you'll miss out on a few. Not a huge loss, and losing the right to feel satisfied once I escape the room was always a much greater push for me to not switch the difficulty.
More than likely most of the rest of your time in Zro Escape is going to be spent watching events unfold. You get some choices every now and then during these novel sections that change the storyline and what room you'll be in during a particular escape, but most of it is passive. Some may hate that idea, but I enjoyed watching all of the characters and crazy plot twists that come with this type of game. Finding out why each person was in the game was always interesting, even for the characters I didn't like most of the time. Some of the reveals seemed a bit too obvious to me in their general meaning, but the details were still fun to hear even if I knew the basics of what they'd be saying.
Coming into Zero Escape I expected the type of game that would have great replay value, and to a point that's true. You could go through just playing out a single choice line and seeing how that goes and you'd play for a couple hours, but the true game comes from utilizing the flow chart given to quickly go back to certain points and change your decision and see how you can change your fate and the fate of those around you. This function was not only extremely helpful for seeing all that the game had to offer, but it was expertly implemented in ways I won't soon forget. My first non-game-over ending was reached after 18 hours, but it took another 9 hours for me to get through every character ending and be truly satisfied that I'd found out everything I wanted to know about the world of Zero Escape. I still have a few more secrets to obtain in some escape sections, so you can probably tack another couple hours onto that if you're a true completionist. It's certainly not the longest game in the world but few games have left me as satisfied and yet wanting more upon completion.
If there's one part of Zero Escape that's below par it would have to be its visual presentation. Animations are few and far between, used only for the most important action sequences, and you'll see a whole lot of talking torsos during the novel sections. The talking torsos express the emotions and immediacy of a given situation quite well so it's not a large complaint, but I would have loved to see either more animated sequences or more still shots to ogle. Other aspects of the presentation, however, match the high quality of the overall package with some fantastic voice acting for the localization and a Japanese track available for purists. I just wish the initial antagonist had some more lines since his constantly changing pitches and creepy demeanor were some real freaky fun.
So there you have it. A review alluding to what I love about Zero Escape without directly telling you why I found the story so interesting. How it twists and turns and the true mind-melting revelations will have to remain a secret so they can hit you like they did me, but trust me: they are there, and they are magnificent. For those wondering, if you've never played a game in this series before it's nothing to worry about; I was in the same boat and it was rarely a factor in my enjoyment. So go out and get Zero Escape if you're down to tax your brain and then have it blown onto your living room wall. No worries, your jagged, hollowed-out remains of a skull will thank you.
This review is based on a PlayStation Vita copy of Zero Escape: Virtue's Last Reward, provided by the publisher.