if you like reading and solving puzzles and are looking for one of 2012's best told stories, then you should get VLR.

User Rating: 9 | Kyokugen Dasshutsu ADV: Zennin Shiboudesu 3DS
A couple of years ago I was surprised by a relatively unknown DS game called 999: Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors – a visual novel, adventure game that was developed by Chunsoft and published by Aksys Games. As a videogame, 999 did not do much in terms of gameplay. It was a visual novel, after all. So what little gameplay sections featured were the typical, point-and-click adventure, puzzle segments of finding clues and items and coming to a conclusion to escape the situation the characters found themselves in. What dragged me towards the game was the compelling and well-scripted story that managed to captivate and pull me into its world of stress, tension and thriller. It was addictive. Technically, this should not make a fantastic videogame, yet it was done so well that it ended up as one of my favourite games of 2010.

What is disappointing is that 999 never managed to make it to Europe, even though it was declared a success and paved way for this sequel. 999 is region free on the DS, so if you find yourself interested in Virtue's Last Reward, then I highly recommend you try finding a copy of999 before playing this follow-up. Virtue's Last Reward can be played on its own, and it is still exciting and rewarding, but there are links to the first game that will not appear as shocking to the player unless you have the knowledge of the last game's story.

The set up for the sequel begins with Sigma returning to his car after a long studying session at college on early Christmas Day. As Sigma starts up the engine a strange gas is released into the car that knocks him out. With his last conscious breath, Sigma sees a strange figure wrapped in a coat and wearing a gas mask looking at him through the back window. When Sigma wakes up, he finds himself in a closed-off room with an unknown, white-haired woman. They come to the conclusion that they must escape this room. In doing so, they meet up with seven other people and it is soon known to them that they must play a disturbing game called the "Nonary Game Ambidex Edition," run by an unknown person called Zero and his AI rabbit, Zero III, who can't help but tell rabbit jokes – furry funny.

I do not want to give too much away, because the game is all about the story and I would hate it for anyone to find out too much information and have their time with the game tarnished because they already knew something. There is nothing better than picking the story apart yourself as it unfolds in front of you, and believe me, you will do that with Virtue's Last Reward. The game is just incredibly gripping, and the only other title that has kept me as tightly attached to my screen to see what happens next is Telltale's The Walking Dead that had its finale just recently. It also helps that the translation is top-quality from beginning to end and is filled with a rollercoaster ride of emotions, scaling from humourous to heartbreaking moments.

From a gameplay standpoint, Virtue's Last Reward is split into two sections: novel and puzzle. Novel is – as you can guess – where the story is told. Each of the nine people have a bracelet attached to their arms that shows a colour, a number representing their BP, and if that person is paired with another contestant or is solo in the upcoming round. BP plays an important part in the story, so we will leave it at that for an explanation. The colours of the number are important to the dialogue choices, because at certain parts of the game you have to pick a character that mixes their colour with yours to open certain chromatic doors and carry you to the next part of the game. These are the story branch-off points that take the player down various endings. To give you an idea on how much you will be doing this, there are 24 endings in the game, and you need to find 9 specific ones so that you can unlock the true ending, which you need to do to get a satisfying conclusion and most of your questions answered in the game's crazy finale.

One thing Virtue's Last Reward does over its predecessor is that it makes seeing all these endings much easier to accomplish. Once you have reached an ending, the game allows you to pick a part of the story you have already played and then change your desired outcome to branch off down another story pathway. Any text you have already read can be automatically skipped and the game will stop at any text you have yet to see, allowing for a player to see all the endings without much fuss or repetition. The game is long, as well. It took me 45 hours to see all 24 endings and find all the secret files in the puzzle sections. Never did I feel bored throughout my time with the story or its well-developed and distinguished characters. Although, if I had to be negative about something, then it is that sometimes finding the secret password for the golden files can be tricky.

The puzzle sections come into play when you move through a new door into an escape room. The idea is that you look for clues and items within the confined space and figure out how to find the unlock password and use that to open the safe and get the key for the exit door. If you have played something like Phoenix Wright, then imagine the investigation scenes of that game and you have an idea how Virtue's Last Reward's puzzle sections work. These areas of the game can be challenging, and the developers knew this, since there is an easy mode for people who might struggle and just want to see more of the story. Additionally, there is another secret password to find in each of these escape rooms that when entered into the safe will unlock a golden file that gives you information about topics featured in the game. You can read these whenever you feel like, but do be careful, as I did find that some files told me elements of the story that I had yet to come across – some of you might see these as light spoilers if you read them before hitting their topic in the plot.

Taking part in the puzzle sections are really the game's only proper interaction, as everything else takes place during the novel sections. After each puzzle is complete you will find yourself having to come back to the main area to take part in the Ambidex Game, where you have to vote Ally or Betray against the character who you decided to take with you through the coloured doors. The game makes sure you know that this is heavily based off The Prisoner's Dilemma. If both members ally then you gain two points each. If one betrays an ally voter then the betrayer gets three points and the ally voter loses two. The idea is that you want to get to nine points to safely get out of this horrible game, but if you end up with 0, then it's over for Sigma. The player is forced to watch the results on a screen, making for some very tense few seconds as you see if you were correct or not in trusting your "friend." As this gets further on into the story you begin to see some scenes that will make you go "what the hell…" It's enthralling storytelling in which every character has their own secret and agenda.

Improvements aplenty have been made in this sequel. Characters are no longer sprites, but 3D models that animate during dialogue, and are good enough to portray their emotions and body language. Animated shorts for cutscenes could do with more work, as the models in those scenes look a bit on the plain side, like FMV from old games. There is now voice acting during most of the key parts of the story, although for some reason the UK release only has the Japanese audio track, while the Americans saw both Japanese and English voiceovers. It is a shame that there is no audio option for us tea drinkers, as I hear the English voice work is rather good. In regards to the 3D effect, this is one game where I disabled the 3D completely, as it added nothing to the game. The thought of spending 8-10 hour sessions a day with poor 3D is probably not very healthy for my eyes.

From the start of this review you probably already knew if this game was for you or not. Visual novels are a niche market, but if you like reading and solving puzzles and are looking for one of 2012's best told stories then you can do no wrong with this game. Virtue's Last Reward is a quality game that will surprise you. It will make you want to speak about it to people months after you have finished it. They aren't many game stories that make you do that, but the ones that do are normally exceptionally well-written with stimulating plots and shocking twists. Virtue's Last Reward covers all that, and for me, is a title I could not stop playing till I finished it. A remarkable tale that is one of my top 10 games of 2012.

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