Developed by Chunsoft for 3DS and PSV.
So VLR is, in short, a choose your own adventure and an escape-the-room style puzzle game, sequel to 9 persons 9 hours 9 doors, about a group of 9 people (strangely) trapped in a facility and forced to choose who to betray and who to work with to escape. It flips the interactive fiction around a little so that to get the ‘true end’ you must play all the other routes.
Yes, I’ve started with the second game in the Zero Escape series, but I didn’t have someone who was willing to lend me the first game, and I didn’t want to buy it because I wanted to decide if the series was… how do I put this … terminally Japanese, before investing.
If I just explain quickly what I mean by a case of ‘terminal Japanese’, we all know how the JRPG’s and other J-games go, it’d be charitable to say that sometimes they have too much grind and are paced about as well as a barium enema going at half speed, and the writing teams are either explaining simple concepts like the entire audience are two year olds or tripping on lead-based paint.
I’ll be honest VLR suffers from both these problems. First the pacing: In a puzzle game that requires the player to not only be on the ball, but also have a reasonable level of knowledge, are concepts being explained to us in the simplest terms, and then again with a helpful diagram/metaphor, and then a third time using only two syllable words or less? Just in case we don’t quite get it yet. And why in a 30-40 hour game must we pad time by forcing the player to watch a 10-second door opening and closing animation every time a character enters or exits a room? This annoyance stacks up even more when you’re jumping around the plot lines, sometimes getting served information more than once.
Second the level of insanity. This is one of those plots that is impossible to predict, not so much because of its complexity, and more because it reads like the writing team did all their work while holidaying in Bat-Shit-On-Sea, while they were going through a phase of reading a lot of western philosophy and watching low budget sci-fi films.
But despite that, having all the qualities of something that should make me hate it, I just can’t, and I really think this is one of those games that needs to be played. That is despite the time I spent mashing the continue button, and blinking in confusion.
There are a few reasons for this, firstly the fact I still really wanted to play and find out more, even after maximum crazy had been reached. Seriously, I was jumping between story points eagerly, wondering about how much each character knew and how trustworthy each they were. More than that, I felt something for all the characters, for me bad writing is when you couldn’t give a flying rat for what happens because you don’t believe such a person exists. VLR side steps very well, I really liked some of the characters and really hated others, there was no apathy or shrugging from me, and I never completely disengaged thanks to the strong cast. I can guarantee you will continue playing even if it’s just to see the guys you hate get their comeuppance in one of the story threads.
The puzzles too, were quite nice, of course they’re not all going to go down well with everyone, and the final puzzle, which was basically playing minesweeper with your eyes shut, can go and die in a hole, but for the most part I found them to be equal parts frustrating and satisfying. My only major problem with the puzzle rooms was, quite a few times when I found myself stuck, I’d scratch my head for ages, only to hit the screen at random and open a cupboard I couldn’t see with an essential piece of info in. Basically, the 3D room interiors could have been better designed, if I’m stuck in a puzzle game I want it to be because I’m an idiot, not because I’m working with half the pieces missing.
Now I’m talking about it the 3D aspect of the game can go die in a hole too, it screwed with the puzzles and, I don’t know about you, but when I play Japanese games I take it as red that the art, specifically the 2d sprites you expect to see in Visual Novels, are going to be gorgeous. This game’s hardly hideous, but I think the art department had a big argument before production began, some wanted 2d sprites, some wanted 3d models, so sometimes we have one, sometimes the other. I’m not sure why, it just looks inconsistent and weird, especially when you get a dramatic 2D still following a 3D still. It was a touch disappointing and if art is a selling point to you maybe pass this by.
Since I seem to have circled back round to disappointments I can name a few more: the constant plot jumping really calls for some kind of recall list in the menu, there are at least 4 branches per plot, what kind of space-memory wizards do they think are playing this game? Another objective issue’s with the plot jumps, sometimes you’ll have to venture down paths you think are idiotic, which can be incredibly frustrating.
But I can blah blah blah all day about this frustration and that frustration, but when all is said and done, rather than putting down my pencil and paper (yes, unless you are the aforementioned memory wizard you will need a set for this game – a big point in its favour) and throwing in the towel, I gritted my teeth and pushed on because I was crazy curious about what madness was going to happen next.