Given the amount of talking, thankfully the voice acting is serviceable, though expect some cheesy overacting. Except from the protagonist, a silent persona who isn’t given the voiceover treatment, presumably to allow easier character identification for the player. Sigma, however, is very much a personality all his own anyway—he’s irritable, perverted, and likes to make cat puns. When so many of the game’s conversations involve him, it kills the flow of dialogue to hear one side and read the other most of the time. For an interesting change of pace, there's a great option to choose the original Japanese voices for the other characters (with English subtitles) every time you load up a save.
The game’s best dialogue comes near the end of each character’s story, which explains their fascinating origins. These thoughtful tales border on moving, but there’s little reason to care about the characters until then. For hours leading up to these grand finales, they haven’t been developing in any way that would make their lives interesting to you. They’re too busy either getting annoyed or making jokes at the expense of other characters. The latter creates quite the tonal dissonance. When you hear Clover—a strong, serious female character—giggle several times about how she thought a room labeled “pantry” said “panty,” you’ll wonder why all characters seem to share the exact same (read: the author’s) proclivities for potty humor and puns, particularly under such supposedly desperate circumstances.
To get through the massive amounts of dialogue, the game has three options: Stop, Skip, and Auto. The skip function lets you fast-forward sections you’ve already seen; the auto function progresses the story at its own pace so you can sit back and enjoy it; and stop allows the less patient to breeze through text by pressing a button or tapping the screen.
In between all the reading is a series of escape-the-room puzzle sequences. Unlike the narrative-based portions, where the lack of graphical fidelity is made up for with storytelling, these environments do little for the imagination. As you move your way through infirmaries, pantries, gardens, and medical labs, there’s very little aside from the occasional quip from a character to draw you into the scenery. On the Vita, you can navigate these barren, sterile 3D environments using the analog stick or touch screen. I found the touch screen much more efficient and responsive. Using the stick means pushing a cursor all the way to the right or left to simply look at a different part of the room; with the touch screen it’s a simple swipe. You can also use the touch screen to see a 360-degree view of the items you collect, which can be used and combined with other objects.
These "Escape" sections all involve a larger puzzle with several minigame challenges within. Unfortunately, they’re relatively uninspired in their variety. You’ll encounter a handful of slider puzzles, a good number of measurement and scale-sliding puzzles, and quite a few word problems involving a simple elimination process with the information you have. I wouldn’t describe many of these puzzles as very fun or engaging, but they do at least tie in with the themes of science and the game’s heavy-handed approach to explaining its topics by detailing mathematical formulas and processes. When solving puzzles, you won’t need a solid understanding of mathematics, but you will perhaps like a calculator nearby. It also might be a good time to switch to analog controls if you’re using the touch screen—I kept accidentally selecting and rotating the wrong blocks in one puzzle.
Puzzle-solving is made more frustrating with the clumsy “memo” function, which gives you two screens to jot down info as needed in several different colors. Great idea in theory, but the small Vita touchscreen (lacking a stylus) makes for difficult entry, especially considering the bulk of the puzzles require you to remember patterns of numbers and letters. Even with my small hands, I found myself erasing and writing over and over. Alternatively, you can use the Vita's screenshot functionality to just take a picture of the area, but this requires accessing a separate application on the Vita just to see it.
Once you complete one of these rooms, you’re given a safe key to exit, though you might want to search for the optional secret file before you leave. These dossiers contain interesting facts about the game, secrets about the characters, and personal details about the author (randomly, one of these documents describes his fetish for swimsuits). If you have trouble in any of these escape rooms, not to worry—there’s an easy mode available at any time that offers more hints. Once you make the change you can’t switch back to hard mode, but the only penalty for choosing it is a loss of some of the non-essential file info.
Outside of the escape rooms, the characters occasionally work through dilemmas on their own, but if you’re a fan of recent decision- and character-based games such as The Walking Dead, you’re likely to be disappointed here. Instead of featuring poignant, urgent decisions involving life-and-death, Virtue’s Last Reward ruins the immediacy by forcing you to sit through these discussions of algorithms and minutiae. You simply watch the characters hem and haw about the decisions they’re making, then in the end you merely select options they’ve come up with from a menu. For example, early on the group is told that they can only enter specific chromatic doors that match the information on their watches. The game pulls up a Venn diagram, has the characters hash it out for ten minutes or so, and then essentially brings things back to you to say, "alright then, okay". It’s like being forced to watch a PowerPoint presentation at a meeting that doesn’t apply to you.
Still, this game is far less tedious to play through multiple times than its predecessor. A replay tree makes it much more intuitive this time around to jump to that last wrong turn, with a clear delineation of different routes you can try. And if you do play this game, you'll want to make sure to keep replaying it. After reaching one of the game’s major endings, it gives you a unique perspective on the motivations and feelings of some of the characters, giving you renewed incentive to find out more. The choices of “ally” or “betray” continue to feel pointless, but the final endings add a lot of story content and help create much-needed empathy for your fellow captives. Unlike in 999, you don't have to start over each time—you’re simply selecting a spot where you want to try something different. This doesn’t make the game’s exposition less tedious, of course, but it does make for quicker playthroughs.
The intro to Zero Escape: Virtue’s Last Reward asks you the question: Why do people betray each other? The game succeeds in addressing and answering this query, but you’ll need to wait quite a while to find out. If you don’t have the time or patience for this dialogue-bloated yet intriguing mystery, you may find yourself betrayed (or at least bored) by the tedious chatting and rote puzzles. But if you do, you’re in for a reasonably rewarding experience, one ending at a time.