Life is simply unfair, don’t you think?
A man is strapped to a chair with a revolver pointed to his head. Three of the six rounds are live, but there is no telling which will fire next. Refuse to pull the trigger and the nearby incinerator is set ablaze with a woman inside. What do you choose? Decisions like this are at the heart of Zero Time Dilemma, the fitting conclusion to the Zero Escape trilogy that brings the inventive puzzles and stellar storytelling to a fulfilling end.
Longtime fans of the series know what to expect from a Zero Escape game: what looks like a simple puzzle and visual novel game soon turns into a complex story featuring mind-boggling concepts like telepathic communication and alternate realities. This time around, nine participants of a Mars test colony are kidnapped by a mysterious figure known as Zero and forced to play the Decision Game. Six of the nine characters must die in order for anyone to escape the facility, and this kind of pressure pushed relationships, trust, and compassion to the forefront and had me invested in the characters and their situations. Your progression through Zero Time Dilemma follows a repeated formula known as a Fragment, consisting of a cutscene between characters first, then an Escape the Room segment, and finally a decision that will split the timeline you are currently pursuing.
At first the new fragments system, which makes you play parts of the story in a random order, felt confusing and out of place. Ultimately though, it made for a more interesting form of storytelling as you piece everything together with the handy timeline chart. The nine characters are split into teams of three and each group is separated from the others, allowing for closer interactions between characters. This, however, comes at a cost: new characters like Mira and Eric have little interaction with older, returning ones.
Escape the Room segments add a nice break between the lengthy cutscenes and decision sections scattered about Zero Time Dilemma. There’s a palpable sense of discovery as you scavenge for clues and items to guide you towards your next step. Puzzles are still mostly self contained and are simply a means to unlocking something within the room, but they are a highlight: ranging from simple challenges like aligning all the correct sides of a 3D object to harder puzzles that ask you to decipher a hidden message using playing cards. The biggest change comes in the rooms themselves as some are more interactive than ever. One asks you to rotate three different portions of the room in order for the puzzle sections to become visible. While I found myself enjoying all of the puzzles and their unique challenges, I did get stuck in several situations where I would scour a room until I randomly happened to tap on a hidden or obscure location to find the object I needed. I’d much rather be stuck on a challenging puzzle than aimless pixel-hunting.
The tension is genuine, as you never truly know the outcome of each choice you make.
Rather than breathing a sigh of relief, completing particularly hard puzzle rooms, instead left me with a sense of dread (the good kind) and curiosity as I didn’t know what crazy decision I’d have to make next. At one point I cleared a room only to reveal a button labeled with a warning not to press it. Will pushing it open the locked door and allow me to escape? What if it’s a trap, and not pushing it will open the door after waiting a short while? The tension is genuine, as you never truly know the outcome of each choice you make. Whether I ended up with a game over or a new branching path, my decisions almost always felt consequential. Decisions range from picking one of two options to inputting your own answer, but there are a few decision segments where you have no input and an outcome is randomly selected. Replaying decision sections to get your desired outcome only to see the same result can become tedious, especially if you plan to see every conclusion.
Zero Time Dilemma sees a much-appreciated return to the darker tone of 999 (as opposed to the comfortable feel of Virtue’s Last Reward) as the different paths you take will lead to some gruesome scenes. Multiple endings are once again used well, leaving you with scenes where characters turn on each other and find dangerous weapons like shotguns and chainsaws. The gore is in full effect, but it’s not often used for shock value. Instead, it increases the weight of your decisions.
A Tale of Two Handhelds
After Virtue’s Last Reward transitioned the series from 2D sprites to 3D models, Zero Time Dilemma takes another step forward by introducing fully animated cutscenes, with varying results. Character movements are stiff and robotic, and this is clear from the very beginning. The voice acting is excellent and effectively conveys the emotions of the characters at hand, but it’s hard not to notice the poor lip syncing and at times odd facial expressions. However, the new animations bring the characters to life and effectively amp up the dramatic portions, and the compelling story is more than enough to make up for the lackluster animations.
The technical limitations do not end there, at least if you’re playing on a 3DS. That version takes the graphical quality down a notch to compensate for the less powerful hardware, relative to the Vita version. Frame rate drops are noticeable, especially when multiple characters are on screen or any environmental effects like water or fire are on display. While the Vita version has the graphical edge, the 3DS allows you to use a stylus for note taking, something you’ll probably find yourself doing quite often. (You could also just use a notepad, I suppose.)
Zero Time Dilemma wraps up several loose ends from 999 and Virtue’s Last Reward,
Those looking for a satisfying conclusion to the trilogy should find comfort in knowing that the 25 hours spent in Zero Time Dilemma will wrap up several loose ends from 999 and Virtue’s Last Reward, even if some are simple updates on characters from the past. Despite its ability to ease new players into the world of Zero Escape, I have to stress that the previous two games in the series, 999: Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors and Virtue’s Last Reward, are must-plays before jumping into Zero Time Dilemma. Not because the experience of this game will suffer – rest assured that it will catch you up if you’re a newcomer – but because you’ll spoil major plot points of the previous two games in a matter of a few quick exchanges between characters, making them less fun to return to afterwards.