Virtue’s Last Reward is the sequel to 999, and is a visual novel which features ‘escape the room’ puzzles. Again, nine people awaken to find themselves trapped and forced to take part in an experiment called ‘the nonary game’. This time, things seem to take place in the future and the ringleader is a psychotic A.I. in the guise of a rabbit. A lot of the elements of the game will be very familiar to people who played 999 first and some of the revelations will carry more weight, as a few characters from that game make a return here. New is that you will be forced to either work with or against the other players to ultimately escape. Suffice to say that to betray makes more logical sense, but is – of course – not nice or virtuous. The decisions you make, spin the story towards one of many different outcomes.
VLR is more straightforward about its branching paths than its predecessor. There is an overview of the various branches you can follow, showing you where you are currently and allowing you to jump around. You can go back to a previously made choice and take the other option. In fact, you will need to. You will often run into a roadblock that you can only bypass by knowledge gained from another path. The game is fairly blunt about this, throwing up a conundrum and then giving you a ‘to be continued’ screen that can only be revisited and bypassed after finding a solution elsewhere.
A big part of the fun is that not only do you start to compile more information the more you play through the various decisions and their consequences, but that the gained knowledge also bleeds into your alter-ego. This is confusing for him, as he knows things he shouldn’t, based on just his singular path through the story. This is also a crucial component of the overall plot. Your experience will likely consist of a mess of beginnings and middles, which stall on a cliffhanger or a dead end, ultimately followed by a row of more substantial endings. The latter all reveal something important about one of the characters, though there is only one ‘true’ ending. It is here that most of the big mysteries are explained.
It’s not as easy to guess where the ‘true ending’ is hiding as it may seem at first glance, looking at the schematic that shows the paths. In the overview, two story threads run longer than all the rest of them, but other strands will start to unroll as you go. You will not be able to reach the true ending quickly, in any case.
You pretty much have to go through all your branching options to get the most out of the story, which is both the point of the game, but which also has a downside. The recurring part where you have to choose to either ‘betray’ or ‘ally with’ other players, loses its moral significance when you will ultimately have to pick both options anyway. Most often, your option to ‘betray’ will seem out of character. Your alter-ego will generally be puzzled himself, wondering why he made that choice. In the end, you don’t so much alter what you experience, as the order you experience things in. All the threads start to blend together in your mind and form one cloud of knowledge and story.
The game does take a lot of time to experience fully. You can thankfully zip through all previously seen scenes like you’re fastforwarding a videotape and won’t have to do any ‘escape the room’ puzzle twice. Even so, VLR will easily keep you busy for 24 hours or more. My patience started to wear thin near the end, and I simply looked up the solution to the last few puzzles. By then I just wanted to know what was going on and then to move on to something else. There is significant time wasted by seeing oft-repeated animations of doors opening and closing when people enter or exit a room. Also used too much are the sequences with dots blipping around a map to show the lay-out of the rooms and the route characters are taking. Often this is not really interesting, nor useful. But the ‘true’ ending does satisfy and is worth getting to, even if it is convoluted and doesn’t quite explain everything, despite really trying to. It does go on a bit.
The puzzles are fine and I enjoyed them a lot more than the ones in 999. They are imaginative and require some note-taking and mental gymnastics more than just ‘combine this object with another one’. Occasionally things get a bit too obscure, when the game seems to expect you to read the mind of its designers. In any case, the puzzles are not the main event here.
The characters are odd and interesting, voice-acted in Japanese and subtitled in English. I did run across some typo’s but the writing is good enough, if remarkably cheesy at times. (Example: “Grief cracked open like an egg and rage clambered out, hot and angry and screaming.”) Unfortunately, the game does have a sexist and somewhat creepy streak. Two of the female characters run around in bikini-like outfits for reasons that are never made clear. And your alter-ego comes on to them in a juvenile and leery way a few times. These bits could (and should) have been culled. Probably it’s a cultural thing.
In the end, Virtue’s Last Reward is a pretty unique storytelling experience well worth your time, even if it gets a bit too greedy with it. Be warned that the franchise wants even more of your time in the future. A sequel is clearly hinted at, its set-up already clear, but because 999 and VLR disappointed financially, this final part in the trilogy may not get off the ground. Thankfully, the way VLR leaves things allows you to fill in most of the remaining blanks with a little imagination, so you can still feel satisfied when you are – finally – done with the game.