Zero Escape (ZE) is easily one of the best games I've played since, well, its prequel 999.
Strictly speaking, you don't have to play through 999 (that's 9 Hours, 9 Persons, 9 Doors) on the DS to enjoy Zero Escape: Virtue's Last Reward (ZE), but you absolutely should for two reasons. First, like any pair of games, books or movies, experiencing the originals and then the sequels makes both experiences more complete and rewarding. Second, 999 is a stunning achievement and my favorite handheld game (surpassing Hotel Dusk).
ZE shares not only gameplay mechanics and elements, but also storyline and characters from 999. Once again, you play a young male, in this case Sigma, who was abducted and wakes up in a mysterious room with a girl he doesn't know. Turns out her name is Phi, and she's got a bit of a sass attitude. Sigma, Phi, and seven others, including a few characters from 999, are all trapped in a facility and are made to play the Nonary Game, Ambidex Edition. It's similar to the Nonary Game from 999, in that each "player" has a bracelet with a number on it and the goal is to survive and escape through the door with a 9 on it, but this time around things are more complex. It's explained on more than one occasion through lengthy Novel sequences, but the Ambidex Edition of the Nonary Game is derived explicitly to test the boundaries of trust and betrayal between the players. As with 999, this makes for an addictive and fascinating plot, rife with constant paranoia and surprises that will stick with you long after you complete your first hour of play or your first play-through.
There are multiple endings, over twenty in fact; 999 sported six, almost all of them 'bad,' meaning things didn't go well for your character. ZE makes keeping track of your choices throughout the Novel portions of the game easier, thanks to a Flow chart that you can pull up at anytime. This is one new feature that makes playing the Nonary Game a little more convenient, as does the Memo, Archive, and Log features that are available with a simple swipe of your thumb in the lower left corner of the screen. Here, you can draw, with multiple colors, memos or notes for yourself, which is very helpful in solving the numerous puzzles you encounter during the Escape sequences. The Archive and Log are meant to keep you informed and on the right track, although don't expect much help from those or the NPCs you may be stuck with during an Escape, especially if you haven't tapped the Easy button. ZE is the type of game that might make you feel stupid and frustrated at times with the ambiguity of some of its puzzles at first, but I've yet to resort to switching away from the default Hard puzzle mode. As you might guess, taking a break from the game and revisiting it, and then solving those difficult puzzles, is hugely rewarding.
Puzzles are a major portion of the gameplay, it makes up roughly half, or probably more, with the other half dedicated to the Novel sections. During the puzzle, or Escape scenes, the goal is to 'solve the area' and figure out how to open the safe so that you can get the key to open a special door. Via touchscreen and standard buttons, you are free to explore the room by panning left/right, up and down. Just about every object is 'tappable' meaning you just tap on it and Sigma or another NPC, if he's with one, will have something to say about it. You can pick up and combine objects, and use any objects you find to interact with something else in the environment, such as putting a memory card in a terminal or water in a bowl, etc. Navigating the ZE world in first person works very smoothly with either touch or buttons. Personally, I use L & R to pan around, and then the front touchscreen to zip through (reading each word mind you) the dialogue and to explore items.
The Novel sections are fully voiced with Japanese or English audio (you choose every time you load a savegame). Sigma, your character, doesn't speak, but the others have distinct voices and personalities, kind of like a typical reality TV show, only 100x cooler. That's not to say you won't have characters you like and dislike -- Clover and Luna get on my nerves like you wouldn't believe, but even they aren't as annoying as Zero III, an AI rabbit that is around too darn much during the first two or three hours of play. On the other hand, you have interesting characters like K, Dio, and -- the old guy who's name escapes me right now. As you progress through the game, both Novel and Escape scenes, getting to know these characters and deciding if you should trust or betray them is nothing short of fascinating. As with 999, this is a special game in that it gets you so engaged in trying to figure out what the heck is going on and who you can trust. Expect the hours to fly by as you play. In the last week or so, I went through multiple sessions full charge to dead battery runs on my Vita.
The Vita version, for what it's worth, does appear to be the superior version when compared to the 3DS one, not only in the graphics department, but also in the game's integrity. From what I've gathered in reading online, the 3DS version has a serious bug where your savegame can be corrupted, forcing you to restart. Apparently there is only one save slot too, where the Vita has four. As with any game that supports multiple save spots, I use at least two, just in case I need to backtrack for some reason. Thankfully I haven't needed to, but note that if you're on the fence about which version of the game to get, I'd strongly recommend the Vita version and I do consider this game amply good enough to be considered a system seller.
Talking about ZE is somewhat tricky because, as mentioned above, it's such an engaging game that you should take every precaution to avoid spoilers. Being on 'this side' of the article, I don't want to risk spoiling anything for you. The plot, and its many twists and surprises, are just too good. I'd also point out that each Escape scene has a secret code that you can unlock by solving additional puzzles to get more backstory info. With so many endings, you can expect to spend well over twenty hours trying to get to the bottom of the Nonary game.
As for flaws, in all honesty there aren't many. I mentioned earlier how some of the characters -- especially Zero III -- are annoying, but you could probably say that about any group of nine or more random people. I did think Zero III had the opposite of his intended effect, though -- rather than being scary, he/it was just grating. Second, and I touched on this earlier, sometimes the puzzles can get pretty frustrating and the AI won't offer much help (that is, by default). Additionally, while backing out of a puzzle, your probably going to trigger Sigma's dialogue about how he doesn't know what he's doing wrong, etc. Tapping the screen or a face button to skip through those lines can add slightly to any frustration you might be feeling. These two gripes are just that -- pretty damn minor in the grand scheme of things, but something I wanted to mention regardless.
That said, ZE offers about everything you could want in a great videogame. You get an experience that wouldn't work in a book, or movie, or any other kind of media. You get a story and characters that you're likely to remember long after playing. I still remember some rooms, events, and endings in 999 over two years later, while I would struggle to recall as much from other, lesser games I just finished a couple of months ago. I would have never though that one of the scariest games I have ever played is an animated first person adventure, and that it's sequel is practically every bit as good. If compelling, thought-provoking games are interesting to you, look no further.
To the summary...