Visual novels aren't exactly a genre we American folk do well with. It's one of those things where if bright lights aren't flashing and we're not saving the Earth from terrorism, we're not into it. Consequently, there haven't been too many localized visual novels aside from the Phoenix Wright games. Luckily for us, Aksys Games doesn't like the norm and localized Chunsoft's visual novel/puzzler, Zero Escape: Virtue's Last Reward.As I mentioned in that last sentence, Zero Escape: Virtue's Last Reward is a hybrid between a visual novel and a point-n-click style puzzle game. While that might not seem like the kind of combination that works, it didn't stop the first installment of the series, 999: Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors, from taking America by storm. It's the story of nine complete strangers who get thrown into a bizarre location and must make decisions that I wouldn't wish upon anyone. It's Saw meets Tokyo 10+1 in the palm of your hands.
I WANT TO PLAY A GAME
Premise, Premise, Premise - It's nice to see a new idea for a story. The original premise is quite simple. You play a character named Sigma who wakes up in a deadly situation. You and 8 strangers are trapped in a game of survival. On each of your wrists is a watch with the number 3 that records your points. As players complete puzzles they must choose to trust or betray the other strangers as you race to earn 9 points that will lead to your freedom. The twist is that any character who hits 0 points faces a cold death of lethal injection. At least, that’s the story they tell you. The real story doesn’t appear until much later.
Sound Check is Clear - The only thing more tedious than having to mash A as you wait for point B to lead to point C is only hearing an annoying clicking noise while you do it. Realizing this, Aksys translated the voices so that players could sense emotion from the characters around them. For those of you who prefer the original Japanese voices, those are still available for your listening pleasure as well. It's the kind of game that if you play it with the lights off, it sucks you in.
Hippedy Hoppedy - At any point in the game players can change where they are in the story. Get stuck at one point? Cool. Save it and go to another point in the story. Because the story branches in so many ways, you'll want to experience all of it. But wait, there's more. Depending on what you've already experienced when you story hop, the characters will act differently. Made a good decision that had negative repercussions previously? If you make a similar decision, you'll be reminded of it in eerie ways. It is to be noted that because this IS a visual novel, multiple endings are possible.
I Am Puzzled - Games with puzzles have this odd disposition.. They tend to fall into one of two categories. Category A are the easy puzzles that can be solved with relatively little issue. Category B involves puzzles nothing short of soul crushing masochism that's been written by the guys at Sierra Games. Zero Escape has found category C, refreshingly difficult. No puzzle is too hard, but you'll always feel good when you finally solve them. An even more genius addition is the ability to write down notes and then examine them when trying to solve a puzzle. It removes the need for an actual pen and paper and reduces time spent moving between clues and puzzles.
YOU WILL LOSE
Touch Screens NEVER WORK - No, I don't care what game you played that made you believe touch screens can work with the Vita, they can't. What's worse is all these hyper sensitive hit boxes that lead to your character reminiscing about how amazing a stream is for the thirtieth time before he walks across a bridge. It’s funny, the controls work fine when the player has to progress the story, navigate the menus, or make a decision. It’s when you have to move your character from place to place or examine a small object that things fall apart.
Inventory Management - Really small complaint, but there’s one puzzle I remember particularly well. Early in the game (or late if you’ve saved this story branch for last), you’ll find yourself in a bar where you have to mix cocktails to create the right beverages for the puzzle. The inventory management at that point becomes such a Charlie Foxtrot that it becomes a tedious task to constantly switch out drinks with martini glasses. This issue appears in later puzzles and pulls a slight amount of pleasure from the game.
More Personality in a Loaf of Bread - It's really sad when I can't be bothered to care about the characters in a visual novel. Yes, you’ve been thrown into a situation where any one of you can die at any given moment, but that makes the game very grey. Characters that could be very colorful and unique seem restricted by this design. Phoenix Wright, another example of visual novels brought to America, had very unique characters that I still remember to this day. Conversely, I doubt I’ll remember any of the characters found in this title past next week.Visual Novels Aren't for Everyone - Zero Escape sits as a very niche title. It provides a little bit of wiggle room by incorporating puzzles, but it IS a visual novel. While this isn’t a fault, it may not be something that a lot of players want to get into. It’s very cut and dry by design. If you pick up this title, you’ll be pressing the X key a lot to progress the story, and very little more.
Zero Escape: Virtue's Last Reward is a surprisingly air-tight game. It does a great job representing visual novels with its 5-star story, and puzzle sections that add welcome breaks in-between reading sessions. It's a bit unfortunate that the controls are a bit sloppy and that the characters are a bit on the bland side, but those are forgivable complaints. If you've been craving a new genre, or enjoy deep stories, this is the game for you. If you'd much rather shoot things in the head or play puzzle after puzzle, avoid this title as it has very little for you.
*This review was based on the PS Vita version of the game with a review code provided by the publisher.*