Release date: June 28, 2016
Developer: Spike Chunsoft
Publisher Aksys Games
To start our review, if you’re already a fan of the Zero Escape series, then I recommend that you stop reading beyond this paragraph. Zero Time Dilemma is very much a new Zero Escape game, despite some alterations to the formula. I won’t spoil anything in the review, but I do recommend going in knowing as little as possible if you can help it. If you enjoyed Zero Time Dilemma’s predecessors, then you’ll feel right at home here, even with the slightly revised formula.
It’s tricky to review the third game in a story-heavy visual novel/puzzle series. If you’ve never heard about Zero Escape previously, it’s important to know that Zero Time Dilemma follows two other games – the first being Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors released in 2009 on the DS, and later on iOS as 999: The Novel. The second game, Virtue’s Last Reward, released on 3DS and PS Vita in 2012. The stories in all three games are directly linked, and given the complicated and interwoven nature of the individual and overarching plots, you’ll want to play both of 999 and Virtue’s Last Reward to understand most of what’s going on in Zero Time Dilemma. To quickly describe what makes these games unique in a sentence is how they incorporate pseudoscience and sci-fi ideas with something reminiscent of a Saw-like horror atmosphere, all while playing with the conventions of the visual novel genre as a key story conceit. If that sounds at all intriguing – and if you aren’t opposed to a lot of reading – then you should play through the series however you can.
It’s also worth noting that if you plan on playing through the different games, the 3DS version of Virtue’s Last Reward is infamously buggy and has several save file corrupting glitches, so it’s worth reading up on how to avoid these beforehand. To my surprise, the much more technically ambitious Zero Time Dilemma had none of those issues on 3DS, at least in my experience with it.
The scenario in Zero Time Dilemma is very similar to its predecessors; a group of characters are captured by a person called Zero and are forced to play a game made up of life-or-death decisions in order to escape. This entry differs in a few significant ways. It still follows the same structure where you have story sections, followed by escape the room puzzles (and these are as fair and well done as the best ones in Virtue’s Last Reward), which is then usually followed by you making a key decision where the story will branch out into several paths. One of the biggest differences that I immediately noticed was the way in which story sections are presented.
Rather than the 2D character portraits and text boxes of 999, or the 3D character portraits and text boxes accompanied by voice acting in Virtue’s Last Reward, Zero Time Dilemma goes all the way and presents its story sections as proper cut-scenes. I wasn’t sure how I felt about this change of direction at first, until I realized that it’s really just a natural evolution of the series’ presentation. The character animations are pretty stiff and lip sync consists mostly of mouth flap. When I considered that these cut-scenes are basically as if characters in Virtue’s Last Reward were posed with some basic animations and framed in more interesting camera angles, I actually found myself preferring the new style. Upon watching a scene again, you can still skip through each character’s line as if it was text in a box. The pacing of voiced dialogue is a lot more convincing when it’s presented as a cut-scene without text boxes. I never feel like I’m babysitting the A button to have voiced dialogue flow naturally. I still prefer 999’s silent text boxes accompanied by 2D art, but between this presentation and the somewhat awkward middle point in Virtue’s Last Reward, I prefer this, stiff animations and all.
The second biggest change in Zero Time Dilemma is the nonlinearity of the narrative. The new structure can be kind of jarring at first, though I later realized that this feeling seemed intentional on the game’s part. The idea behind the nonlinearity is that the characters are periodically injected with a memory-erasing drug and each fragment in the new “Fragment System” plays out as its own smaller episode within a larger branching timeline, akin to the other entries in the series. Seeing the way that each fragment fills holes in the overall timeline and piecing together the sequence of events is often its own reward. Of course, it’s not as straightforward as I might make it seem, but when is it ever that simple in this series? There are no elements to the game and narrative design that aren’t given consideration into how they fit a larger idea.
Series writer Kotaro Uchikoshi returns with what I think is some of his best work yet. I’ve always appreciated his crazy and imaginative ideas and his interesting incorporation of paradoxes and pseudoscientific theories as major elements of these games, but the writing around them could get long-winded. Those elements are still present and they’re still just as intriguing, but the writing around it is concise and stronger for it. I suspect that the tighter script was partly born out of a necessity to lower the workload on the team having to animate cut-scenes, but whatever the reason I’m glad to see this change for the better. Zero Time Dilemma really feels like the most refined Zero Escape game in most respects. The plot is dense, maybe even more than Virtue’s Last Reward, and by the end there’s a lot to unpack.
Sometimes the English voice direction feels off – like they have the wrong intonation for a scene – but the writing is strong enough that it never bothered me very much. Of course, the Japanese voice track is accessible at any time for those more bothered by that kind of thing. Also, the 3DS version has no 3D support, which is unfortunate, but the engine used feels like it’s already pushing the hardware pretty hard, so it’s understandable. Even without stereoscopic 3D, I think it still looks really good for a 3DS game.
If you’re reading this and have already played 999 and Virtue’s Last Reward, then Zero Time Dilemma is without a doubt something you should play. Despite some changes from the first two entries, it’s more of the Zero Escape series that you’ve probably been waiting for. For others who haven’t played any Zero Escape games, this one, along with the other entries, are essential for anyone who enjoys a good visual novel and puzzle game. Just make sure that you’re familiar with the plots of the first two entries of the series or you will be completely lost in Zero Time Dilemma. It’s somewhat rare for games in the genre to ever leave Japan, so when they do (and when they’re as good as the Zero Escape series), it’s worth experiencing them.