Zero Time Dilemma is the third game in the Zero Escape series. These games always revolve around 9 people, who are stuck in a life or death situation and forced to play a game and make life or death decisions. Zero Time Dilemma is no different, but the stakes in this entry seem much higher. The deaths are more frequent, and more gruesome, and the mysteries are just as mind bending as ever. While the ending was a bit too abrupt and somewhat unsatisfactory, this game is a must play for any fan of the series.
I will also say, that while I won’t go out of my way to spoil anything, if you haven’t played 999, or Virtue’s Last Reward, I recommend tracking those down, and playing them instead of reading this review. I may be referencing themes that may hint at key plot points from those games. Playing those games with no knowledge, especially the first one, makes that game’s many insane plot twists all the more enjoyable. Plus, those games are both incredible, and are highly recommended, so you would be doing yourself a huge favor. Also, I played the Vita version of Zero Time Dilemma, and haven’t so much as seen footage of the 3DS version, which I assume is different, so keep that in mind as well.
The previous Zero Escape games have always been split into two different sections: A visual novel section, where a majority of the story takes place, and an escape section, where you solve puzzles to escape the room or situation you find yourself in. This game removes the visual novel segment entirely, for a cinematic game play experience similar to that of games like Heavy Rain, and the Telltale games, but without quick-time events. Essentially, you watch cut scenes play out, and make decisions when key plot points happen. It’s done well enough, though once you get far enough in the game, you’ll eventually realize that they reuse a lot of the animations. Almost like how the previous visual novels would only have a few different pictures for each character to represent their various displays of emotion, yet still much more complex. Still, it takes you out of the experience a tad when you notice that a reaction to something horrible happening is the same reaction to a different horrible thing that happens later. Especially when you feel like the second horrible thing warrants a slightly different reaction, based on the situation. However, like I said, it is mostly well done and for the most part, it’s not an issue, specifically when you’re too wrapped up in whatever crazy thing is happening to care.
Zero Time Dilemma starts with 8 people trapped in a prison cell. (Number 9 appears soon after) A man in a cloak appears before them, claiming to be named Zero, a familiar name for those who’ve played the previous games. He flips a coin and asks them to choose a color. If you choose the right color, you escape. If not, you’ll be forced to play what he calls “The decision game.” When you inevitably choose the wrong color, you are knocked out, and split into teams of three, each with its own leader. These are the three characters you play as in the game. When you wake up, you are then told through a video recording that only 3 people can leave, and only once the other 6 are dead. This immediately puts the stakes at far greater than any of the previous entries, as both the other games had everyone surviving as a possibility. You’re given a certain amount of time to play the first decision game. Choose which of the teams you want to eliminate. If your team is chosen by the two other teams, your team dies. Every team is in a different ward, so you’re unable to freely communicate among each other, and unless each team chooses a different team than the others, so that each team is only voted for once, one team will die. When you’re done making your decision, you are knocked out, and when you wake up, you’ll be somewhere else. This is also where you’ll find your first escape room. You’re tasked with escaping there, and then you must play another decision game, which normally involves making a decision that puts your lives, or the lives of others, in danger. After the second decision game, you are knocked out again, but this time, your memory is wiped, so you have no recollection of what you did, or who’s lives you may have effected in your last decision game. When you wake up, you’re informed who survived, and who is dead, and the game continues. The game follows this pattern for a majority of the game. Wake up, escape, decision game, memory wipe, repeat. Of course, it isn’t always like this, and the escape rooms and decision games are always different enough so that things don’t feel excessively repetitive.
Every time you are knocked out, you are returned back to the menu screen. Here you can choose between the three different teams. Once you’ve chosen your team, you can choose between fragments. Each fragment brings you to a certain time period in the game, and you play through that fragment’s plot, and pass through any escape rooms. These fragments are placed at random, so you can go at them in any order you want. Just like the characters don’t know what happened before their memory was wiped, you don’t exactly know what has happened or has not happened before the current fragment, and even more so what has happened to the other teams, other than whether they are dead or alive. Once you are done with a fragment, you can return to any part of the fragment, and make different decisions. As you unlock more of Zero Time Dilemma’s many mysteries, make different decisions, and complete more escape rooms, more fragments become playable, and previous fragments where you could no longer progress become available again, until you reach the end.
However, the Escape Rooms in Zero Time Dilemma do feel largely unnecessary in this game. In the previous games, escape rooms have served a purpose in the story, and even sometimes in the overall reason as to why they were trapped. In this game however, Zero just puts you into them when you wake up, and you are forced to leave them only because the characters desire to leave. No other reason. Escaping the room doesn’t lead to hints on how to leave the entire area, or to a path further to the grand exit. You just escape back to the room where you started. Over and over again. I’m not the biggest fan of puzzles in games, so I honestly wouldn’t have minded a Zero Escape game with no escape rooms. However, I might be alone in that regard.
The escape room segments here are very similar to the ones in the previous games. You are placed in a room, and must tap things in your surroundings using the touch screen, in order to interact with them. Doing this allows you to examine things, pick up items, or pull levers, among other things. If you pick up an item, you can examine it further in the item menu, which will occasionally give you a hint as to what to do with it. Like in the other games, you can also combine items to create new ones. This was cumbersome at best in the previous games, but was improved to be made much easier here, as you can simply drag and drop the items into each other to combine them. In the previous games, escape rooms were incredibly difficult, often requiring way outside of the box thinking, that goes way beyond what an average human being could figure out on his or her own. While that’s still here, it’s not as bad as some of the worst I’ve seen in the other two games, and doesn’t happen nearly as often. Also, if you’re having too much trouble, examining things a certain number of times sometimes gets the people in the room to help you out with a hint. However, sometimes that is not even enough. Because of all these factors, I found the puzzles to be more enjoyable. They often tested my brain without breaking it. Puzzles in the previous games often burnt me out, and made me want to stop playing the game all together, but I never got that feeling in this game. I’m sure those exist out there who want the greater challenge, but I’m content with the difficulty level of this iteration, and I hope it stays this way in any future sequels.
You’re likely familiar at this point in the series with the many plot angles these games take. One moment characters are having funny banter, and later on, you could hear about their troubled past. As the game goes on, you’ll learn more about each character’s mysteries, and form your own conclusions about who to trust and who not to trust. Like the previous games this one also plays with the game’s mechanics in fun ways that play with your perception of how time flows in the game, and how the characters in the game may be perceiving things the same way you do. Likewise, you also might run into a plot twist that feels just a little too insane to believable. As the game goes on each mystery becomes a bit clearer, but unlike the previous games, there’s never a point that feels like it’s leading to the end. Because of this, the ending feels abrupt, and while the ending shows what the future can hold, definitely hinting towards another sequel, it doesn’t lead into any sort of plan, or hint at how the characters will tackle this new obstacle. In ending the game this way, it doesn’t give what feels like a proper cliffhanger, nor a proper ending, and instead leaves it somewhere in the middle, making for an ending that can only be described as mediocre.
I compared Zero Time Dilemma with the first two Zero Escape games a lot in this review. I find it relevant in how the series has evolved so much over the years. Zero Time Dilemma is the greatest evolution of the series so far, and improves the game both mechanically, and aesthetically in many ways. It’s just a shame that the game’s ending, a mind bending highlight in the first two games, was so disappointing. Still, I recommend this game to any fan of the series. As long as you know what you are getting into, you’ll definitely enjoy what this game has to offer.