Imagine two scenarios:
In scenario number one, you find yourself waking up kidnapped with eight other people you’ve never met. You soon discover that you’re taking part in some twisted, deadly game, and will likely be killed if you don’t play your cards right.
Scenario number two is the one in which you’ll find yourself playing a videogame version of the same life-and-death contest. The catch, however, is that to get anywhere, you must constantly restart the game from the last branching path to find slightly different outcomes and different pieces of the puzzle. And each time you do this, you have to listen to others talk and talk and talk—going on at length about something they could have better described in a single sentence.
While the first scenario definitely has promise, the second represents the gist of the last thirty hours I’ve spent tapping my way through text in Zero Escape: Virtue’s Last Reward on the PlayStation Vita. This is a game theoretically about making fast, important decisions to avoid death, yet it’s one of the slowest and most overwritten adventure games I’ve played. If this sounds at all familiar, you may have heard of its predecessor, 999: Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors on the Nintendo DS. If you haven't, you're not really missing anything integral to the sequel. There are some reappearing themes and characters, but the only real benefit to playing the original game first is some extra fan service.
Remember the “choose your own adventure” books that appealed to you as a child? If you reached a dead end but weren't happy with the treasure you found, no worries—simply try, try again! As an adult fan of video games and horror, however, this choose-whatever-you-want strategy does little to add tension in what should be (for all intents and purposes) a suspenseful game. Once you find an ending (good or bad), you’re given a narrative tree where you can simply head back to the point where you branched off to try something new. The result is a story with nothing really at stake, and it only takes a tap on the touch screen to try for a more inviting ending.
Granted, once you see a few endings, you’ll definitely be involved—you’ll learn far more about the characters and their motivations, adding some enlightening perspective. But it’s a slow churn. The game doesn’t give you any initial reason to care about the characters or what’s at stake for them, and if you happen to get one of the “wrong” endings the first few times through—where there’s no big reveal—then you might find yourself indifferent to the game’s suggestion to slog through it again. My first ending involved seeing others die as I died myself, and I hadn’t learned anything compelling about the characters at that point.
Of course, this is a game, so it does let you play occasionally too. It’s not quite as interactive as your typical adventure game, though, with distinct separations into “Novel” and “Escape” (puzzle) sections. And the “Novel” portion is where you’ll be spending the majority of your time. While the story does contain an occasional choice on your part, keep in mind that you’re in for a lot of reading, and like it or not, you may have to tap/button-press your way through half an hour of text before getting to any decision-making on your part.
It all begins when a young university student named Sigma wakes up in a warehouse, along with eight other edgy, upset, and bewildered guests. You're soon informed by an A.I. rabbit (with an obnoxious gameshow voice and some sort of A.I. multiple-personality disorder) that someone named Zero has brought you here to play the “Nonary Game: Ambidex Edition.” In this game, everyone has a watch they cannot remove. Each character’s watch has a certain number of points displayed; if the number reaches zero, the watch will shoot needles into the wearer, releasing drugs to swiftly kill them. Anyone whose number reaches nine can exit through a large door, along with any others fortunate enough to survive to that point. The door can only be opened that one time, however, so depending on who makes it in the end, the remaining characters are stuck in the warehouse, seemingly forever.
One particular thought experiment—The Prisoner’s Dilemma—is what drives the point totals in this twisted game. In case you’re not familiar with it, this dilemma basically boils down to the question: Do you betray your partner to make things easier for yourself? Sometimes the rational choice isn’t clear. In Virtue’s Last Reward, you go into a voting room to make “ally” or “betray” votes with the people you are currently trapped with. After escape rooms are explored, you’ll find yourself back in that voting room again, seeing who’s up next to be penalized or rewarded.
It’s never really clear whether allying or betraying is the “right” thing, or if it’s something that eventually will lead to a “real” ending. For example, you gain the most points for choosing to betray if the other party chooses to ally (a total of three points for you, while the opponent loses two), but you also get a decent amount for allying (two points) if the other character decides to ally as well. There are other pairings that lead to different amounts of points, and it all boils down to silly, overwrought conversations of "I chose betray because I thought you were going to choose betray", etc. In the end, it feels like a game much more about strategy (or guesswork, at times) than ethics. Most of the time I felt it made no difference if I just opted to choose something random.
And unfortunately, these votes aren’t as tense as they could be—by the time characters stop yapping about whatever choice you should or shouldn’t make, you’re not very likely to care anymore. The game is timed, but only for the characters. Meaning, you’ll continually listen to lengthy conversations about how everyone is running out of time, while you sit idly by wishing the game actually felt like it.
It’s a pretty varied group, at least: within the nine, there’s an excitable child named Quark with a ridiculous hat; the mysterious Phi, who seems smart and trustworthy yet won’t tell you anything; and the enigmatic “K,” a thoughtful, collected man with bizarre all-body armor and no recollection of who he is. Naturally, these characters don’t really trust one another. At least not at first. There are times when people decide to split up or band together, but most of the time it feels like they’re bickering or running off to find someone who’s gone missing (this happens a lot).
There are some twists and surprises, many of which you will not see coming. If you think you have an idea of who the host is, how the game is going to play out, or who the characters really are, you’re in for a fun surprise. And while all the little anecdotes and found objects may seem like red herrings at the time, you can expect every bit to fall into place somewhere in the story. Still, the overall tone of the game feels a little like the campy horror classic House on Haunted Hill with Vincent Price, but more sci-fi and more mathematical, with a lot of talk about antimatter, lunar eclipses and thought experiments.Continued on the next page...