After writing this piece, I run the risk of drawing the ire of Zero Escape faithful. Not only for some on my thoughts on this game but also my backwards approach to playing the series out of order, and I’m okay with that.

Last year, I played Zero Time Dilemma, the final game in the Zero Escape trilogy, without playing any of the other games in the series. Continuing in this method of playing the games in reverse, I decided to give Virtue’s Last Reward a go. To sum my feelings about these two games in comparison, I would say that everything I liked about Zero Time Dilemma, I liked in Virtue’s Last Reward. And everything I hated about Zero Time Dilemma, I hate in Virtue’s Last Reward.

Much like Zero Time Dilemma, Virtue’s Last Reward starts off with a strong narrative hook that made me want to see everything through. And it is a very good thing that it has such a strong narrative hook, because otherwise I might not have stuck around to the end considering how many times the game had me the verge of giving up due to it’s frustrating plot developments, unlikable characters, and stilted dialogue.

One of my favorite Twilight Zone episodes is “Five Characters in Search of an Exit”. I only bring it up because Virtue’s Last Reward has a lot in common with that episode in its premise – several characters awaking in unknown place with no idea how they got here. Of course, Virtue’s Last Reward also has a heavy dose of the film franchise “Saw” in it, with the twisted games the individuals are forced to play and whatnot. But getting back to my Twilight Zone parallels, a more suiting title for this game would be “Nine Annoying Characters in Search of an Exit” because all nine of the characters are exactly that – annoying. The Zero Escape series really has a way to make me hate their characters unlike any other. If it’s their intention to make the characters unlikable then kudos to them, but somehow I don’t think that’s the case.

Out of all the characters, Sigma (the protagonist, whom you control) is the most likable by default. He was my favorite character in Zero Time Dilemma because of his level headed and concise personality that was supplemented by his occasional oddball humor. However, in Virtue’s Last Reward he is a total idiot whom I can only say is the best due to the atrociousness of his supporting cast. Going over exactly why I hate the rest would take too much time, but in short, they are an arrogant, selfish, hypocritical, obnoxious, and unnecessary secretive group of individuals – okay, Luna does not fall under these categories but to be honest she’s so bland that I always forget that she exists, and I guess Quark can get a pass as well, but this statement does hold true for the other six. It is possible for characters with these negative traits to still be likeable, they just to need embrace their jerky side. However, these character, apart from Dio (I guess that makes him the second most likable?) continually attempt to put up a front that portrays them as passionate humanitarians when they are all really out for themselves. A pessimistic thinker could argue that humans are just naturally greedy and manipulative when their survival is in jeopardy, but that still doesn’t make any of them more likable.

What drives me to physical anger is the fact that the game includes multiple timelines where just about all of these characters take turns abandoning everyone and get to skip away scot-free with a grin on their face, but anytime I try to get Sigma to do it, the rest of them gang up and forcefully stop him. But do they try to stop the others when they do the same thing? Occasionally, yeah, but the other traitors always somehow swiftly dodges any attack in the same repetitive, lazy fashion.

Eventually you do get to hear a sob story from each of the characters that tries to explain why they are so paranoid and self-centered, but that doesn’t solve my second problem with them, which is that they are all stupid. Not because they have low IQ’s – it’s opposite, in fact, as the game goes to great lengths to show you all intelligent everyone except Sigma is – but more that they lack common sense. The games they are forced to play would be very easy to manipulate, but the characters are too dumb to take advantage of it. Heck, they don’t even discuss the possibility of doing so. Instead of attempting to do anything productive, the characters spend a whole lot of time whining about how they are running out of time. And don’t me started on how insistent they on believing that because Zero (the host of their game) said something therefore its automatically true. Because, you know, why would the person who trapped them have any reason to lie? I mean, most of the time he is telling the truth but just automatically assuming so is still stupid. They are also too lenient on the characters that continually flaunt that they know more than they are letting on but refuse to elaborate. I’m sorry, but if I’m trapped in some strange facility and forced to play games that may lead to my death and there’s a stubborn old man who keeps hinting he knows something but refuses to say more because “It’s none of your business” then I’m going to beat the sense out of that old man until he decides it is my business. Yeah, yeah, yeah, the game’s ending eventually does explain why all of this had to happen – why the characters had to be dumb, why they had to be jerks, why they had to be vague. But, again, that doesn’t make it any less frustrating in the moment or the characters any more likeable.

I will say the writing of the character’s dialogue is good enough that at certain times I would start to question whether I should reevaluate my stance on the characters. I’d be like, “Okay, the character did something really stupid back in that other timeline, but now that I’ve getting to know them better, maybe they aren’t so bad.” But they would always blow it by it having the same character make another aggressively stupid decision and causing me hate them all over again. On the other side, the writing really suffers from overexplaining simple game mechanics, which leads to the stilted dialogue I mentioned earlier. It’s nice the developers want everyone to be on the same page as to how these “games” the characters are playing work, but this kind of handholding goes in the face of every other facet of the game. I mean, if a player is unable to use their natural intelligence to comprehend how to play the game without the character reiterating the rules every other minute, then how can you expect them to keep up with the complicated plot or figure out all the complex puzzles? Pick a lane and stay in it, game!

As much as I’m ragging on the visual novel elements of the game, the story did do a great of keeping me invested in all the intertwining timelines and left me what wondering what could have happened. Even though I already played Zero Time Dilemma and had a general idea of what to expect, there were still some twists I didn’t see coming. Although it is a slog having to sit through all the repetitive dialogue, not to mention the many door opening and map traveling sequences, the way everything is tied together is nicely done and worth it in the end. But in keeping with Virtue’s Last Reward’s need to frustrate me, one twist did require a huge suspension of disbelief to buy that it was kept secret so long. I also now realize that several plot threads that were left dangling in this game were not even mentioned in Zero Time Dilemma.

Even with those few positives, it still probably sounds like I unquestionably hate Virtue’s Last Reward. But there is another saving grace – and that is the escape the room segments.

Much like it was in Zero Time Dilemma, the adventure-style gameplay ended up being the portion of the game I enjoyed the most. So much so, that I solved all the extra puzzles to unlock the secret gold files and ended up with a platinum trophy for my efforts. The way you must scan the room for everything of note and then connect all the dots is an absolute delight. Every time I cleared a room there was a sense of immense satisfaction that came in the form of me getting to feel smart. The game’s many brain teasers are more intuitive than they were in Zero Time Dilemma, plus the controls aren’t as finnicky, which for all sense and purposes makes them more enjoyable. One criticism would be that there are way too many genic rooms filled with computers, which are generally weaker than the rooms with more unique themes, such as the lounge and rec room.

Tedious dialogue and unlikable characters aside, my experience with Virtue’s Last Reward wasn’t nearly as terrible as it could have been. I wouldn’t put Virtue’s Last Reward down as a game I thoroughly enjoyed, but I don’t regret playing it either, which, to bring this full circle, is about the same way I felt when I finished Zero Time Dilemma. That said, I’m fairly certain I’ve had my fill of the Zero Escape series now. Meaning - I don’t see myself going even further back into this series and trying out Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors.