Virtue’s Last Reward (Available on Nintendo 3DS and PlayStation Vita)
ESRB Rating: M
Number of Players: 1
Publisher: Aksys Games
Release Date: October 23rd, 2012
Parent Talk: Virtue’s Last Reward is absolutely not for children, not only because of the violent content, but also because of its difficult puzzles and emphasis on storytelling. VLR is a “visual novel” game, meaning that you have to read pages upon pages of text to advance the story. The story is dark and twisted, which should satisfy fans of mysteries and thriller movies. It’s not as overtly violent or gory as M-rated action games, but the game has a dark tone that permeates the entire narrative.
Plays Like: VLR is very similar to other games in the visual novel genre, especially 999, its Nintendo DS predecessor. Phoenix Wright and Professor Layton are also quite similar, because of the emphasis on puzzle solving and reading text.
Review Basis: Completed every story route, received a Platinum Trophy, and completed the previous game in the series.
3DS vs. Vita: There are no significant advantages in either version of the game. The 3DS obviously offers 3D effects, though the Vita offers a better audio and visuals. The Vita version’s biggest strengths are probably Trophy support and three save files. The 3DS only offers one save file. Some may focus on the fact that the 3DS has a stylus packaged in with the system, which makes writing notes and solving puzzles easier; however, you can easily purchase and use a stylus to use on the Vita.
The Great: An excellent story. 999 excelled because of its strong characters and compelling narrative. It wove an intricate plot with multiple story threads and many different endings. Characters in that game were far from one-dimensional clichés; they had complicated back stories that required exploring. VLR offers substantially more than its predecessor. Each of the characters is unique, and that’s not just a reference to the visually striking character designs. It’s impossible to guess what’s going to happen next, which is essentially t any compelling mystery novel. The fun comes with trying to see what comes next and figuring out how to proceed.
Advancing the story isn’t as simple as just hitting the “confirm” button though. Each section of the game has an elaborate puzzle that must be solved, but the game encourages the player to be absolutely thorough in exploring the plot development as well. At certain parts in the story, there may be a “block” that the player can’t advance through without first going through one of the other story routes. This not only adds significant longevity to the game, but it also requires the player to think more about how the story evolves.
For your own sake, please do not read strategy guides that explain the story—that would absolutely ruin the experience. Like 999, VLR is a dark and twisted story. Nine people have been forced to participate in a bizarre competition called “The Nonary Game-Ambidex Edition.” In this game, characters must either choose to “ally” with or “betray” teammates in order to survive. To complete the game, a participant must accumulate at least nine points and then open up the number nine door. You can get points more quickly by betraying teammates, but then you’ll sacrifice trust, which is difficult to get back. If you choose to ally, you can reach a mutually beneficial outcome, but that’s only if you know your partner will also choose to ally.
Depending on the player’s choices, characters will be put into different groups, making each round full of anxious tension. Each choice will open up a different story route, but it’s difficult to know which is the “correct” route to choose—a diabolical dilemma. If you fail to get enough points before someone else does, they will leave the facility, leaving you trapped…forever. Also, you can’t risk being too gullible either, because if your point total reaches zero, then you’ll die. Similarly, do you want to be responsible for the death of another character by taking away his or her points? This game is an exercise in moral dilemma.
+ Interesting characters. The character designs are bizarre, but they certainly are memorable. Every character has a uniquely defined personality and a complicated back story. Figuring out their motivations and deciding who can be trusted makes the narrative even more intense. Each route focuses on a specific character, but that doesn’t mean you won’t learn anything new about certain characters in other routes as well. Like 999, the story plays with your expectations.
+ Homage to 999. Playing 999 will properly set the stage for VLR, but it is not a requirement. In other words, the story can be understood and enjoyed on its own. The stories between the two games are unmistakably linked, but that may not be apparent even to those who have played the first game until much later in. The stories and characters from the first game are still important, but they are purposefully kept hidden and vague until much later in the adventure. This clever misdirection is meant to keep players guessing and wondering where the story will go, rather than pigeonholing this game as a blatant sequel.
+ Tense music. The music perfectly sets the stage for the tone of the narrative. My personal favorite track is “Blue Bird Lamentation,” which perfectly punctuates a more melancholy piece of the game’s narrative. Fans of 999 may even recognize some familiar music as well, in the song “Ambidexterity.”
+ Excellent voice work. There is a significant amount of spoken dialogue in this game, and it’s actually good. Really good, in fact. Character dialog can either be set to Japanese or English, but in either case, the voices perfectly match the characters. The performances are great and there’s hardly any poor or overacted lines at all.
+ Challenging puzzles. At its core, VLR is most certainly a puzzle game, even though it is wrapped in a lengthy narrative. Each section has a difficult puzzle to discover and master. However, these challenges aren’t just simple math or logic problems. Like 999, the puzzles are often contextual and have significant length. Players must explore a room or series of rooms in search of clues. Hints gained from these bits of cryptic evidence are then applied in a series of smaller puzzles, each of which usually yields some small reward: a key, a new clue, some directions, etc.
Many of the puzzles require a unique form of input and sometimes they make interesting use of the system’s features. For example, in the Vita version of the game, certain puzzles may use touch screen input or motion controls. Some puzzles simply require you to input clues found in the room, while others require you to be a little more creative and come up with new solutions. After solving the puzzle, you will receive a code which will unlock a safe. Doing so will not only net some rewards, but will also open up the path forward. However, some puzzles have multiple solutions, and uncovering them may bring added rewards. Finding the hidden passwords will give the player more treasures from the safe. This adds significant replayability.
+ A well-developed world. One of the hallmarks of a great game is a rich, well-developed world. This can be done through intricate environments, but it can also be done by giving the player that the game world is larger than it appears, making the game appear more than just one adventure. In VLR, the hefty amount of notes and files left behind in the safes make for interesting reading material and help expand the game’s “world” far beyond what is expected. Some of these notes are trivial. Others explain mundane character activities, scientific principles mentioned in the puzzles, story elements from the previous game, story elements not mentioned explicitly in VLR or 999, back story, etc. All of these come together to make an established canon that immerses the player into a compelling, through-provoking world of mystery and intrigue.
+ Every character is ridiculously intelligent. A great mystery story uses the right amount of misdirection—using vagueness and confusion to addle the audience at first, while slowly revealing more and more clues to reveal the puzzle. When things come together properly, the characters in the story should come to realize the truth at the same time the player does. If the player has everything figure out right away, the story has failed. However, here, the characters are so incredibly articulate and intelligent that it’s almost ridiculous. They all have some passing knowledge of academic schools of thought and complex scientific principles, which makes the dialog less believable. It pushes the game further into the realm of science-fiction. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it can make the game hard to follow.
-Minimal animation and movement. For most of the game, you will be looking at static screens filled with text. There isn’t much of a sense of movement. Even in tense scenes, most of the story scenes are played out via short animated segments, followed by text. Many of the scenarios described are either implied in the text or glossed over. That’s not to say that everything is lifeless, though. During exchanges of dialog, characters move about slightly, rather than just sitting still like portraits.
This should be one your “must have” list for 2012. No matter which platform you own or choose to play it on, Virtue’s Last Reward should be experienced. It’s difficult to pigeonhole the game into a genre, especially because terms like “puzzle game” and “visual novel” are nebulous at best. The compelling mystery story, the interesting characters, and challenging problem solving alone make it one of the best handheld games of the year.