General spoiler warning: Virtue’s Last Reward is the sequel to 999; the central concept of VLR is built around the plot twist of the first game. Since I cannot discuss any meaningful element of VLR without bringing up that twist, be warned that this will be spoiling that earlier game. (Surprisingly, I’ve managed to avoid meaningful spoilers for VLR itself – which, being a visual novel I can praise without narrative spoilers should itself be taken as a sign of its quality)
Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors started off with a killer concept and transcended to something else entirely with the revelation that the whole thing was a psychic experiment drawing information from alternate realities. The problem with this system was that only two of the paths really mattered, and they had to be completed in a specific order to reach the true ending. By acknowledging this concept from the beginning, Virtue’s Last Reward is better able to implement mechanics to make these various realities connected.
The big thing here is the inclusion of a flowchart which fills in as you stray down the various paths. The player can jump to key moments – the first game required starting from the beginning each time, which could get rather tedious even with a skip dialogue feature. Additionally, the puzzles down each path are completely unique. Where 999 had only two meaningful endings, VLR hides secrets down several paths. Basically, it’s a total overhaul of the first game, to the point that rereleases of 999 now include their own flowchart. It’s hard to explain the joy of experiencing a story with multiple canon endings.
By making each path count, there’s simply more time to make all these concepts and characters matter. Each of the nine characters, including the protagonist, are harboring some major secrets. No one is here just to spout off psychological concepts and game theory – they certainly still do that, but there’s a lot more going on as well. Which path you take first can completely change your perception of other routes; no two players will really experience the same narrative until it’s all tied together at the end.
Another key change is the addition of meaningful decisions. In 999, all you really had was which door to choose and making sure to hear a few important conversations. In addition to the doors, the characters of VLR are constantly forced into a game implementing the Prisoner’s Dilemma. Each character starts with three points, and they will be released if they manage to score nine – whoever escapes first will seal everyone else inside. If their score hits zero, they are immediately executed. If they choose to ‘ally’ with each other, those involved gain two points. Both betraying results in no change, while being betrayed results in losing points while the traitor gains more. This gives the player more meaningful influence over the paths while also providing a better read on what these other characters represent. Who appears too trusting, and who will predictably stab everyone in the back? The game makes sure to play a few neat tricks here and there, just to keep the player alert.
The escape room segments continue to be a fun way to break up the tedium and stop this from being a traditional visual novel. They also help add to the Saw-inspired atmosphere. Most come for the story, but simply having the player actually interact with these puzzles is a convincing method to get inside the head of the protagonist. Otherwise, he would simply be a character you sometimes command, which can shatter the illusion of player-protagonist connection. This game wouldn’t work if you didn’t feel personally betrayed by these characters at key moments. This feeling is emphasized by the Prisoner’s Dilemma segments occurring between those who solved these rooms together.
I’d prefer not to dive into any more details – this is simply a brilliant narrative structure with tons of effective twists. The entire Zero Escape series feels like a key example of how video games can tell narratives in a way other mediums cannot, and Virtue’s Last Reward is the highlight.
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