A ringmaster, belly dancer and geriatric wake up in a locked room. Sounds like a bad joke, but this is no laughing matter. Turns out they're contestants in a game of survival, a curious blend of Saw's murderous machinations and Golden Balls' trust exercises.
You remember Golden Balls, right? It was the ITV game show in which players tried to guess if their rival would shaft them for a jackpot. Well, Virtue's Last Reward is like that, only with less Jasper Carrott and more lethal injections. A happy middle ground, then.
Virtue's Last Reward fits into the visual novel genre, a kind of digitised Choose Your Own Adventure rarely seen outside of niche Japanese boutiques.
For 95 per cent of the runtime, involvement is limited to tapping A to scroll through dialogue exchanges. Is that a little too interactive for you? Talk can be switched to automatic scroll and viewed like a movie. Just don't blame us when future generations evolve into a race of thumbless freaks.
Input in 'novel' sections is limited to crossroads where you chose between a left or right door, or whether or not to betray or support a fellow contestant. Each decision takes you down a new branch of the story, towards one of more than 20 possible endings.
Hands get more to do in the locked room puzzles that comprise the remaining five per cent. These are self-contained point-and-click adventures that ask you to retrieve a password to a nearby key-containing safe. Mixing light object combination with Layton-esque logic exercises, these are perfectly pitched palate cleansers - never too obscure that you resort to tedious pixel prodding, but tricky enough to guarantee mental satisfaction. As good as they are, though, they can't top the storytelling in between.
Better Read Than Dead
For a story with such prescribed outcomes, it's amazing how quickly the trust game gets under your skin. Being betrayed cuts to the core, while doling out the betrayal makes you feel like an absolute rotter.
The real revelation comes in replaying the adventure; repeatedly trying to beat the game develops your knowledge of the world and its characters. Facts ascertained in one version of events might inform your perception of others. Sympathies shift, pennies drop and, in some extreme cases, fates can be rewritten.
And VLR has a genuine intelligence to go with its structural smarts. Chunsoft's yarn veers from Asimov's Laws of Robotics to Schrödinger's moggy, via Alan Turing and Einstein. There's a fair bit of college-grade philosophising going on, but considering most of the games industry is still stuck in playschool, the developer's ambition is to be applauded.
That the writer manages to pack chewy brain food into a wholly accessible, and often very funny, series of mini lectures is all part of the appeal. How many other games can accurately claim to make their players a tiny bit smarter?
Admittedly, intelligence and narrative structure are hardly the sexiest compliments. On the average gamer's list of priorities these things sit just below 'title menu design' and 'instruction manual paper stock', so it's great to see someone bucking the trend. Virtue's Last Reward is smart, compelling stuff. For gamers looking for something deeper - in the philosophical sense - this 3DS gem is nothing short of essential.