As with any industry, it can be tough being a "little" game. Without the massive marketing budget behind you, if you're not Call of Duty, Fifa or Grand Theft Auto, the odds are spreading the word won't be all that easy. If you don't have the blockbuster franchise, even letting people know you exist can be a challenge - which means many of the most creative, original, and, at times, moving games you can play can vanish beneath the surface with nary a whisper.
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One such game is Virtue's Last Reward, a slower-paced, story-heavy 3DS and PS Vita game that definitely needs more love. Despite having everything we look for in a game - puzzles, a gripping story, and a decent sense of humour - sales have sadly been pretty low across the board, even in its native Japan. But why does this matter now, we hear you ask? Because although a sequel was announced in 2012, the game's producer took to Twitter last week to announce the game had been put on indefinite hold, as it wouldn't "be a profitable venture". And that's taken the wind out of our virtual novel loving sails.
But we've never been ones for just sitting around sulking. As part of the problem seems to be visibility, we decided to do what we must, because we can, and put together this - an article that explains why you should give Virtue's Last Reward a go. Recommended as part of our 3DS Christmas guide last year, there's even a demo up for download on the Nintendo 3DS eShop/Playstation Store if you're a bit hesitant - so why not do yourself a favour and set it to download now, before reading on to find out why it deserves a place in your library.
Done? Good. Now here we go:
Great story and characters
When he wakes up in a sealed metal bunker, surrounded by eight strangers and with an odd bracelet secured around his wrist, college student Sigma knows he's in for a heck of a day. Without any memory of how he got there, things soon take a turn for the bizarre when it's revealed that the captives are all there for one reason, and one reason only - to play a rather sinister 'nonary' game, with the sole objective being to open a door with a number 9 on - a door which is the only way out of the complex, that only opens once, and for nine seconds only. But what seems like a strange way to spend an evening soon turns into a deadly game of trust and betrayal, in a plot that wouldn't be out of place in a Saw film.
After waking up in the complex, each of the captives notes that they have a strange timepiece attached to their wrist - which, along with being a stylish fashion accessory, will either be their way out, or a key to an early grave. Scattered around the complex are a number of coloured doors, each of which leads to a room that contains a puzzle. By working together with your fellow captives to complete the puzzles, you'll be able to earn points. As soon as anyone reaches 9 points, the final door will open, and those who have 9 points will be free to leave. So far, so simple right?
If only. You see, Virtue's Last Reward is a game of trust and deceit, as rather than automatically awarding people with points for completing puzzles, what you get, and whether you get anything at all, depends entirely on a post-puzzle vote. After completing each room, your team splits up, as you each head into a private booth, where it's up to you to choose whether you want to "ally" with or "betray" your partner(s). The key here is trying to predict what the other person's going to do - should you both choose to ally, you'll earn two points each. If you both choose to betray, you'll both earn nothing for being cheating scumbags. But if you choose to betray an opponent who wanted to ally, you'll swipe up 3 points, getting that much closer to your freedom, while the one you betrayed will lose two for their naivety. And should the points shown on anyone's bracelet dip below 1, a needle inside will pop out and inject them with a deadly poison - in other words, they die. As does anyone who breaks the rules, such as trying to sneak out the number 9 door without enough points.
All of this is explained to you by Zero Jr, a snarky, sarcastic AI rabbit, who's as hilarious as he is terrifying, as he presides over the first few hours of the game. Slowly working away at everyone's conscience with accusations and snide comments, he chips away at everyone's mutual trust, making way for a tidal wave of suspicion, murder and betrayal, exacerbated by each round of the ally/betray game. Soon you learn that each character has their own reasons for being part of the game, and their own back story to match - a grandpa, a bubbly pink haired girl, a little kid and a circus ringmaster to name but a few - and getting to know them, their motives and how they all fit into the larger picture is as big a draw as the need to escape. You see, each one has some connection to the nonary game, the folks behind the whole enchilada, and the strange goings on in the complex - and in order to learn the truth, you'll need to gain their trust. We don't really want to go into too much detail here as we don't want to spoil anything, but take our word for it - once you start playing, you won't want to put it down until you've solved it all.
It's sense of humour
Despite the game's rather grim setting and story, at times it can be surprisingly funny and upbeat. For example, Zero Jr., the lagomorphic AI nonary game overlord, seems to be on a mission to fit as many rabbit-related puns into his lines as possible - "Lettuce check the numbers on our bracelets", "I carrot help you" and "not voting is not a hoption" to name but a few. As you get to know the other captives, you'll come across a surprising number of funny scenes and anecdotes, from the mysterious shorts of obfuscation found on a robot, to antimatter reactor coffee machines, and more swimsuit-related events than we care to remember. Add in the fact that there's a reference to 80s cartoon Captain Planet thrown in, as well as what seems to be a quote from Tenacious D's 'Wonder Boy' song, and what seem like a horror game actually has a great sense of humour.
And it's not just punchlines - along with jokes and references, there's also a fair amount of innuendo in places, which helps to lighten the mood somewhat, as well as being something of a rarity in games. A particular highlight is the dialogue between Sigma and Clover, as Sigma tries to persuade Clover to pull a switch in a way that sounds anything but wholesome. We don't want to spoil anything here, but it definitely raised a smile. In fact, pretty much any scene that involves an extended conversation with innocent (and naive) little Clover ends in hilarity and awkwardness.
Mega replay value
In a word, Virtue's Last Reward is massive. The game's story branches in several different places - based on which coloured doors you go through and whether you choose to ally with, or betray your friends - leading to 24 possible endings, 9 of which are based around a specific contestant. Thanks to the game's handy flowchart, you can jump between various points in the game's story and replay them, perhaps choosing a different option to see how things pan out, saving you having to play all the way through the game again just to choose a different option in a conversation. Better yet, even if you choose to jump back in time, you'll carry over some of the information you gained on your previous play through, which can help you get past various sticking points, such as logging into a computer, stopping other characters leaving the complex and much more. We've currently spent around 45 hours playing through the game, and only now are we approaching getting all the endings, so if you're the sort of person who wants to discover everything you'll definitely get your money's worth.
Much like the puzzling Professor Layton (who is also referenced in the game), racking your brain is a large part of Virtue's Last Reward, with each coloured door hiding several distinct puzzle rooms behind it. Akin to your average point and click title (such as Monkey Island or Sam & Max, for example), you often need to search the place and pocket anything remotely useful, using combinations of items to solve each of the puzzles and get the key you'll need to escape.
Sometimes mixing chemicals, sometimes cracking codes and sometimes solving riddles, each room is often comprised of several smaller puzzles that all come together to give you a single solution at the end, and nearly always requires some serious head-scratching to proceed. For example, early in the game you may find yourself in the compound's infirmary, and after a little search round you come across two small keys. Using these keys, you can unlock a cabinet next to the wall, which has a number of blocks inside, each of which has a variety of shapes and symbols drawn on. It turns out these blocks are essentially a slide puzzle - all you have to do is shift them around until they sit on top of the correctly coloured spaces on the grid. As always though it's easier said than done, as you can't move them individually - you have to tilt your 3DS to slide them around, requiring a fair bit of forward planning (or lots of blind block shuffling) to find the answer.
If you're feeling particularly clever, each safe has another alternative password that will net you a golden binder filled with all sorts of secret supplementary information that helps to flesh out some aspects of the game's story and characters - but each will require you to solve a harder puzzle, often one of the previous puzzles but with a different answer, to find the combination.
Kind of educational
Despite the story's sci-fi, horror and mystery overtones, at it's heart, it's actually a rather believable tale - and that's at least partially due to it's many references to the science, superstitions and theories of the current times. In fact, once you finish Virtue's Last Reward, you'll likely feel somewhat smarter than you did when you started, and not just because you managed to figure out all of Zero's puzzles. With references to everything from robotics and computers to the mythical existence of ice-9 to quantum physics, you'll be able to call on your Virtue's Last Reward knowledge the next time someone casually asks how much energy a kilogram of TNT would produce (4.184 million joules). And just so you know, butter is even more dangerous, weighing in at a whopping 30 million joules per kilogram!
There's also an insight into an interesting thought experiment that forms the basis of Virtue's Last Reward's ally/betray game - known as the Prisoner's Dilemma. As the 'malnourished harpy' Phi explains, if two criminals committed a serious crime, were arrested and held in separate rooms for questioning to prevent them communicating, what would happen if a detective visited each criminal and gave them the following proposition:
"If neither of you spills the beans, you both get two years. If he clams up and you confess, you'll get one year and he'll do fifteen, but if you keep quiet and he gives up, you'll do fifteen while he does one. So I bet you're thinking, 'Well, what if we both rat the other guy out?'. Pretty simple pal: you both get ten years."
So what do they do? Obviously, the best choice for both parties is to both stay quiet and serve the two years, but as neither of them can talk to the other, they have to rely on trust and trust alone. The lure of leaving quicker could be a strong temptation, so one betraying the other in hope of an early escape is a potentially more likely result - yet is also the option with the biggest risk involved. In the case of Virtue's Last Reward however, the most logical option isn't always the best choice...
They might make a sequel
Technically the second part of the 'Zero Escape' trilogy, Virtue's Last Reward sadly didn't sell too well in it's native Japan - even though it enjoyed moderate success in both the USA and Europe. The sequel to 999: 9 Hours, 9 Persons, 9 Doors, which was released for the DS in both Japan and America, but sadly never made it over to Europe, both games followed a similar, dark plot, although this one saw 9 people trapped in a sinking replica of the Titanic, with just 9 hours left to escape, and 9 numbered doors to open before them. A favourite amongst importers, it was a cult hit - but sadly, nothing else.
In 2012 it was revealed that a third and final instalment in the series was already in development, and was set between the two previous games, but just a few weeks ago, news hit Twitter that the game had been put on hold indefinitely, deemed to be an unprofitable venture. The sad news was announced by the game's producer Kotaro Uchikowshi, who has since been looking into other ways to get the game funded - helped by a group of fans going by the name of 'Operation Bluebird'.
Following in the footsteps of many more recent crowd-funded games, Uchikowshi-san apparently considered Kickstarter as an option, but the limited success of Japanese developers on the system may be putting him off. Still, it seems the team are still determined to make a third game happen eventually, and while many of the possibilites discussed on Twitter may just be conjecture - such as using the profits from a future profitable game, or hoping a passing millionaire will chuck some moolah their way, he promises that "ZE3 will definitely be released somehow, someday!"
So, this is equal parts a plea and a serious recommendation - buy Virtue's Last Reward and play it. Recommend it to everyone you know. Heck, even import 999 and play that too. Join the Facebook group, follow Kotaro Uchikowshi on Twitter, and maybe, just maybe, we'll get the third and final game.