You wake up in a sealed metal bunker, surrounded by strangers, an odd bracelet secured around your wrist. You're told that there's only one way to escape: earn a certain number of points by participating in a deadly game with and against your fellow prisoners. But who can you rely on? Can you pick out allies from enemies? Would you be willing to betray the trust of others to cover your own back, to break out as soon as possible?
This is the problem at the heart of Zero Escape: Virtue's Last Reward, a game that weaves visual novel and puzzle rooms together in an engaging and dark tale with elements of the Saw movies, murder mysteries and sci-fi. It's the sequel to DS' 999: Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors, so if you've played that you'll know what to expect: a bit of gore, tough puzzling, some horror and more than a hint of paranoia. Unfortunately 999 was never released in Europe, but fear not as Zero Escape: Virtue's Last Reward isn't wholly reliant upon the prequel's storyline. There are some references back, and if you've played the previous game you'll get more out of it, but it's perfectly understandable without prior experience of the series.
As college student Sigma, you've been abducted and dumped in a mysterious facility with eight other victims, few of whom know what's going on. You soon learn that you've been selected by an unknown person, Zero, to take part in the Nonary Game: a trial of morality, mortality and intelligence.
Everybody has been fitted with a watch-like object, and the aim is to build up nine points in order to open the exit. Every round assigns each player a new colour and status; everyone is either a solo or pair player, the former working alone while pair players of the same hue must work together as one. Using this information they have to split off into groups of three to open up colour-locked special doors. A blue pair and a red soloist, for instance, can team up to unlock a magenta door.
These fluorescent openings lead to various rooms around the facility, each of which is rigged with puzzles that must be solved so that the prisoners can move on to the most significant part of the game: the point-scoring section. Each person earns points by going head-to-head with the captive(s) they've most recently had to co-operate with, pair versus solo, in a voting game reminiscent of the Prisoner's Dilemma.
The pair and solo player choose to either 'Ally' or 'Betray' their opposite number, and points are assigned depending on how their responses line up. If both sides pick 'Ally', all three in that group win two points. If both decide to 'Betray', nobody gets anything. But if one selects 'Ally' and the other 'Betray', the trusting party loses two points while the traitor swipes up three.
There are some nasty catches to consider, too. If any person's points drop below one, they're “penalised” with a lethal injection. The all-important exit will open to anybody with nine points or more, but anybody who tries to sneak through with less will meet the same penalty. Crucially, the escape route will only open once, no matter what.
The voting game is a balancing act between gaining points towards the goal without killing anybody by knocking their points too far down, while also trying to stop others from elevating too quickly so that they can't leave before everybody is ready. Of course, some of the participants don't care for either of these issues and are only looking out for numero uno.
You're herded through the early hours of the Nonary Game by Zero Jr., a creepy AI rabbit which is just as hilarious as it is terrifying. Zero Jr. introduces the numerous rules and snaps out sarcasm in about equal measures as rivalries and partnerships begin to form and you start to learn more about the characters. The lagomorph lends the Game a playful cruelty, and the voice actor is absolutely perfect for the role, dripping with malice and superiority.
Before long Zero Jr.'s torment gives way to a wave of suspicion, murder and betrayal, and thankfully the human characters are strong too – and despite the subject matter, it can be quite funny as well. Each comes from a totally different background and harbours a unique motive, all interesting in their own ways. The voice acting similarly remains excellent throughout; it's entirely in Japanese, with the translations only delivered through text, but it's of fantastic quality and bleeds emotion. Shinji Hosoe's score teems with menace and tension, full of subtle, atmospheric pieces and bursts of techno in all the right moments.
The anime art style is easy on the eyes, and the bright, stylised 3D character models fit in surprisingly well with the more realistic environments. It's a bit lacking in animation, however, and any video clips, though used effectively, are sadly only a few seconds long at most.
Zero Escape: Virtue's Last Reward is split into two main gameplay types: story sections with little user input aside the odd decision, and puzzle rooms. If you're not a huge fan of reading in games this isn't a title for you, as the story is the dominant factor here. What these parts lack in interaction they make up for with gripping plot that covers plenty of ground, from quantum physics to desperate survival attempts. This is a game that's as keen to teach you about Schrödinger's Cat as it is to show you the jabby end of a knife.
There are times where the writing takes a turn for the overwrought, but for the most part it pulls it off. Most interesting is that there's not just one way through the game: most of your decisions result in a branching storyline that leads to one of over 20 endings, good or bad. Several of the branches feature the same basic events, but how they play out depends on which story strand is followed.
There's a useful system that lets you jump back to any point in the story at any time and marks clearly where the paths branch off. You can also quickly skip through any scenes that you've already seen previously, so it's not arduous to go back and uncover new sides to the story. This ease could dampen the emotional weight of some decisions, but cleverly memories of events from the numerous timelines also blend in at certain moments; to get the true ending, it's essential to play through, learn and do everything you possibly can. You might want to grab a notepad to keep up with it all – there's a huge number of twists and turns, and the in-game memo area, which is consistent across all branches, is cramped unless you have tiny handwriting. It took us just under 30 hours to unravel the full mystery.
The puzzle sections take up a decent amount of that time. The aim is to locate a password for a safe so that you can leave, which usually involves involves hunting around a 3D room for items and solving three or four puzzles in succession. While the set ups are generally well thought out, some puzzles do take a turn for the obtuse which can interrupt the game's flow – though if you're having real difficulty, you can turn the brainteaser challenge level down to receive more hints. There are optional tasks to find secondary passwords to unlock secret files too.
The controls aren't incredible in puzzle rooms: using the stylus to turn and look about can be oversensitive, causing you to overshoot targets, while the Circle Pad option is slow. It's nothing you can't get used to and never significantly impedes play, but it would have been nice to see some sensitivity settings. There are also a few sliding block puzzles that can be solved by using either stylus or gyroscopes, but frustratingly you can't switch off the motion controls as far as we can tell. If you're playing on a rocky bus, prepare for your blocks to fly everywhere. They're not very frequent, but they can be annoying when they do turn up unless you stay completely still.
Zero Escape: Virtue's Last Reward spins one of the year's best yarns, tackling various topics with maturity, intelligence and even a little humour. Its smart puzzles can be a little fiddly, but if you have any interest in story in games whatsoever and can deal with its murderous subject matter, this is a must play that will keep you engaged for dozens of hours.