For a while I did not think this game would see the light of day. Zero Time Dilemma’s planning started back in 2012 but the game was put on hold indefinitely due to the commercial failure of the series in Japan.
Thankfully, due to the demand of the fans, development resumed in 2015 and last month saw the Zero Escape series receive the final piece of its thrilling puzzle. Zero Time Dilemma completes this trilogy, following on from Nine Hours, Nine Doors, Nine Persons and preceding the events of Virtue’s Last Reward – resolving any mysteries that were left outstanding from the previous entries in the series. If you are a newcomer to the Zero Escape games, I would recommend that you go and experience the other games before jumping into this one as, although the game is enjoyable as a standalone title, you will not fully appreciate the goings on by going in blind.
Now, with Zero Time Dilemma (and the Zero Escape series as a whole) being all about the shocks and twists that get thrown your way during the tense and thrilling ride that is the game’s plot, I think it will be best to say here that you can be assured that this review will contain no spoilers – it would be cruel for me to ruin any of the game, it really is an experience that you need to go into without any idea of what to expect.
The first thing series veterans will notice about Zero Time Dilemma is that the story is now told out through fully-3D cinematic scenes, moving away from the visual novel narrative segments of the previous two entries. This change, matched with the addition of English voice overs in the game and the ability to switch the game’s subtitles off, sees Zero Time Dilemma aim to appeal to players who would typically be put off by visual novels and prefer a more ‘Western’ video game. This change of direction for the series works well, and apart from a few dodgy character movements and odd facial expression, looks great on the PlayStation Vita. It is clear that this change of direction has been inspired by the look of Telltale Games’ titles, albeit Zero Time Dilemma runs a lot better on the handheld.
I will be honest though, I did find myself missing out on some of the key parts of the story due to this new art direction because I got distracted at times whilst playing whereas with the visual novel approach you can choose to go through the dialogue at your own pace. Now you will need to make sure you do pay attention or you will be reading through the text log quite often – as I found myself doing. The overall voice acting and accompanying soundtrack is excellent though, combining with the brilliant storytelling to thoroughly emphasise and accentuate the tension and urgency that this particular situation would command.
The plot itself starts off quite straightforward. There are nine people taking part in an experiment to see the effects of prolonged isolation during a simulated mission to Mars. During this experiment, the nine people are captured by Zero and are imprisoned. Zero offers the nine a choice of heads or tails (the first of many in this game all about decisions) and picks Carlos, one of the group, to decide on the outcome that will decide the fate of the group – if Carlos wins the group are set free, if Zero wins he will force them to play a death game known as the ‘Decision Game’. To me, one of the hooks about the Zero Escape games is that they feel like a video game version of Saw (albeit better) with Zero having a personality and traits similar to Jigsaw – the motives and moral reasoning behind both also bear resemblance, and make Zero Escape a cross between a horror movie and a thriller.
In the Decision Game, the group are locked in a bomb shelter that is divided into three sections. Three people are placed into each section, making up three teams: C Team, Q Team and D Team. In order to reach the central elevator and escape, six passwords (X-Passes) are required to open the ‘X-Door’. In order to receive an X-Pass, a character has to die, meaning that only three people can make it out alive…
In a similar vein to the previous entries in the series, Zero Time Dilemma explores the theory of multiple timelines, or parallel universes, where when a decision is made an alternate universe is created where the opposite choice was made – these then make up the multiple paths that you will playthrough as you look to understand exactly what is going on and the reasons behind the whole ordeal. You will jump between each of the three teams in order to play through and unlock the fragments that make up the full timeline of events. Each of these fragments represents ninety minutes in the game world and each character wears a watch that injects them with a drug that induces memory loss once the ninety minutes is up. These sections are usually structured in the same format: starting with a cinematic scene, then moving to an ‘escape room’ before moving on to a decision.
These escape room sections act as the ‘gameplay’ elements in Zero Time Dilemma and throw challenging puzzles your way that will need to be solved in order to unlock the door and make it out of the room. This has been a staple of the series, and these escape rooms are now making their way into the real world – with many cities offering real-world escape rooms for you to try out! Back to the ones that feature in Zero Time Dilemma, and you will certainly be challenged by the rooms the game tasks you with escaping. Each of the rooms requires you to tackle them in a certain order, with each puzzle providing you with clues for the next one once solved. Some of the puzzles in the game will leave you scratching your head but they do not feel unfair – with your brain and your logic being truly tested!
One thing I will point out with the puzzles is that they seemed a little easier than the ones that Virtue’s Last Reward tasked me with. This isn’t a complaint, as the ones in VLR were really hard, but is something I feel should be mentioned. If you do get stuck, the characters do discuss possible solutions to the puzzles that you are currently tackling, throwing up the odd useful clue as to what you need to do to succeed. These puzzles range from asking you to rearrange a 3D object so that all of the sides join together to make a pattern, learning and deciphering a new decimal system using picture cards all the way to a room that rotates and revolves to reveal puzzle sections that were previously obscured.
Beating a puzzle will not only make you feel pretty damn clever, but it will also serve a purpose – generally, solving these puzzles are a matter of life and death, and then it comes to the decision point! The decision points throw choices at you that will really test your morale! Will you sacrifice others to safe yourself? Or will you push a button that you have been told not to press, not knowing whether or not the button will release you from your current predicament or seal your fate in a rather abrupt way. It is testament to how gripping the story is and how much you care about what is happening that you will go back and replay the same segment, this time making sure you choose the other option to learn what the other outcomes are.
It will take you a good fifteen to twenty hours to get through all of the fragments that Zero Time Dilemma has to offer, although it felt a lot quicker to me because of how involved you get when playing – time just seems to fly by!
As the final game in the Zero Escape series, Zero Time Dilemma feels like the perfect closure for fans. I found myself so engrossed with the game that I didn’t want it to end! The puzzles are some of the best yet in the series – and the story is so engulfing that you will want to play through all possible routes whilst not wanting it to end! Zero Time Dilemma is a game that I would urge you all to play, but I would recommend that you do play the other games in the series first. Now all that’s left to do is to hope that Aksys bring Nine Hours, Nine Door, Nine Persons to the PlayStation Vita so that you can all experience the masterpiece that is the Zero Escape trilogy on our favourite portable!