Anyone unfamiliar with the Japanese phenomenon of visual novels will likely be utterly bewildered by Virtue’s Last Reward. It doesn’t ‘play’ the way western tastes dictate a videogame should. Half of its structure comes down to reading through screens of text, populated by barely-animated reaction shots from an assortment of characters. The other half is a string of locked-room mysteries, each requiring a keen mind to escape from a series of ever-more fiendish traps. Yet, despite its unorthodox nature, and that the pacing of the story sections feels to drag at times, it’s one of the most engrossing efforts of the year.
Much of that comes down to writer/director Kotaro Uchikoshi’s exceptional story, a gut-twistingly tense saga of survival and betrayal with a sci-fi slant. When nine strangers awaken in a bizarre compound, all with no idea of how or why they’re there, they’re forced by a psychotic artificial intelligence (in the form of a rabbit, no less) to compete for their freedom. The game seems simple: teams of three must search out keycards, then use them to vote to ally or betray their teammates. The first to reach nine points goes free. However, as the contestants puzzle their way from room to room, the rules become increasingly complex and already-fragile alliances shatter when people start dying – all fingers pointing to one of the nine as the culprit.
Narratively, the game owes an undeniable debt to the likes of Future Diary, Battle Royale and Gantz, all featuring some sort of cruel, abstract game. Similarly, the art and character designs, by Kinu Nishimura, recall the best peculiarities of Japanese animation – a giant armoured figure, a creepy kid and a pair of girls who look fresh from the streets of Akihabara are just a few of the oddball sights in store. It’s the unpredictable directions the story takes, and the choose-your-own-adventure branching nature players engage with, that makes the game stand apart from its peers though.
Virtue’s Last Reward boasts the kindof utterly absorbing story-telling that will keep you up until 3am to find out what happens next, and a mental challenge outing for those who have outgrown Professor Layton.
Reviewed by Matt Kamen