When an essentially low-profile publisher strikes gold with a localized game that comes from a well-respected—and now, sadly, defunct—developer, delivering a follow-up that stays true to the out-of-the-blue distinguishing attributes of the original and willingly appeases the fanbase is nothing short of a daunting task. Yet, with Zero Escape: Virtue's Last Reward, the spiritual successor to the surprise underground cult favorite 999: Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors, released for the Nintendo DS in 2010, the well-meshed team of Aksys Games and Chunsoft have breached uncharted territory once again, sifting shards of valuable treasure from precarious creeks. The many thrills of Virtue's Last Reward, a cleverly subdued, largely image-and-text-based adventure, originate not from sequences filled with dozens of explosions, fistfights, or bullets flying haphazardly to and fro, but from the kind of quiet, Hitchcockian terrors that can illicit several ounces of flop sweat without you even knowing it. The game is a triumph of bomb-under-the-table tension, and though it has a number of recurring trivial flaws, is among the most unique handheld titles 2012 has to offer.
Just how much Virtue's Last Reward will resonate with players depends, for the most part, on their tolerance for being pulled into fiercely claustrophobic situations and uncomfortably squirming their way out. The game's opening hours, during which you play as a young college student named Sigma, are filled with the kind of bizarre, sci-fi/horror vibes that populate the earlier films of Terry Gilliam (12 Monkeys), David Fincher (The Game), and, to throw some love to the Land of the Rising Sun, Takashi Miike (Audition) and Kiyoshi Kurosawa (Pulse). After escaping from a doomed elevator shaft with a mysterious woman, Sigma finds himself in a labyrinthine storage facility along with several other individuals who come to realize that they're prisoners and playing pieces in a deadly chess match orchestrated by a weird, ominous rabbit-like creature. The system is dubbed the Ambidex, and it consists of ever-evolving puzzles, calculated decision-making processes, sudden character betrayals, plot twists, and enough genre-bending mind-fuckery to adequately occupy two games. You take a wrong turn, you die; there's not much of an error margin or space for silly mistakes in Virtue's Last Reward. Thankfully, as with 999, Chunsoft gives wisely on-their-toes players enough leeway to be able to plan ahead, hoping for the best and preparing for the worst, per usual. Although much of the game's rug-pulling is unavoidable, the fates of most of the characters is very much in your own hands. In fact, its character interactions spawn such a realistic vibe that at times Virtue's Last Reward very nearly functions as an intermediate course on modern psychology and sociology.
Successful progression through the game hinges upon prevailing in both the classic enigma-solving and story-focused dialogue segments. The former, as is to be expected, begins at an easy level of difficulty but quickly ramps up after the first act comes to a close. Those who played through the unarguably enslaving 999 will have a significant advantage here, knowing how Chunsoft has a penchant for casually screwing around with players' judgments and lampshading countless anticipated tropes. Virtue's Last Reward is almost more of a choose-your-own-path graphic novel than it is a full-fledged video game, and thus lives or dies by the strength and ingenuity of its writing. Writer-director Kotaro Uchikoshi is a veteran when it comes to this type of tricky material, and his script is thematically sound from start to finish. The words of his characters, even under the most batshit of circumstances, manage to feel authentic; their emotions oftentimes drawing from the swelling stresses of the player. The game keeps you guessing until the very end, and even then there's still a lingering vapor trail of ambiguity that provokes much head-scratching, chin-rubbing, and post-narrative roundtable discussions aplenty.
It's here that Virtue's Last Reward reveals itself as a superior product when compared to its predecessor. Where 999 required multiple restarts to unveil its different outcomes, Virtue's Last Reward presents all of its endings in a neat and credibly compact package, complete with visual aids by way of flowcharts that allow for necessary backtracking at several key junctions. Furthermore, Virtue's Last Reward overhauls the good-but-not-great graphical interface of 999 to an immaculate degree, utilizing every inch of the Vita's large touch-sensitive screen. In addition to a squeaky-clean overlay, navigating menus and cycling through text-heavy segments is a breeze, simplistic and fluid. Aside from Gravity Rush, this may be the most efficient, substantial use of the hardware to date.
Where Virtue's Last Reward occasionally falters is in the small, seemingly insignificant details, which is of course where that despicable devil likes to do his business. Due to the game's length and scope, however, Lucifer shows himself whenever the opportunity arises. Sigma, although well-rounded, typically feels like a supporting character rather than a lead protagonist. This isn't necessarily as a result of poor writing, but because he's surrounded by such a distinctive assortment of scenery-chewing secondaries. Another minor qualm is with the absence of voice acting in certain passages that would have greatly benefited from it (the getaway portions, for one). Lastly, unlocking the hidden safes that contain bonus archive files that assist in alleviating some of that aforementioned climactic obscurity can be a real chore; even those who consider themselves 999 masters might find uncovering secondary solutions to previously decrypted conundrums a bit of a hassle.
Nevertheless, Virtue's Last Reward is Chunsoft and Aksys swinging for the fences and scoring a solid triple. They make many marked improvements from what 999, an already very good game, laid out, leading to an end product that serves as both a much-needed addition to the must-have area of the Vita's scant library and a fitting swan song for the dearly departed Chunsoft. Fan of the genre or not, this is a riddle worth unraveling.