Huge thanks to our guest Nerd, Peter Spezia (you can catch him in our E3 Press Conference reaction videos) for this great review!
Life Is Simply Unfair
No game franchise tackles the complexities of the multiverse theory better than the Zero Escape series.
For those unfamiliar with the concept, multiverse theory is based on the idea of alternate universes. For example, if I flipped a coin, let’s pretend that it turns out to be heads. How would the world be different if it were tails, instead? Similarly, suppose that you have two routes (A & B) of equal distance and time to take on your drive home from work. You always choose to take Route A, but for some reason you decide “I’m going to choose Route B today.” When you get home safely, you turn on the news and learn of a horrific car accident that took place on Route A during the time of your commute. Would you have been in peril if you had taken Route A, as usual? Furthermore, what was it that actually inspired you to make the decision to select Route B today, of all days?
What results is a narrative video game experience that perplexes as frequently as it entertains. Zero Escape: Zero Time Dilemma‘s core gameplay consists of solving “escape the room” puzzles, where players must seek a way out of a locked space. A 360-degree area can be explored through point-and-click mechanics, as items will be picked up, occasionally combined, and then used elsewhere to progress further. By solving diabolical puzzles and using logic, escaping each room is a rewarding process that provides the player with a critical choice which will have significant ramifications on the continuation of the story and its extended cutscenes.
These choices are what create the multiple histories that support the game’s explored multiverse theory. It’s a relief that players can navigate every possible outcome, especially when one of the first selections is a cruel one with drastic effects. Zero Time Dilemma explores nine characters who are imprisoned and separated into three groups of three – Team C, Team Q, and Team D – who must play the “Decision Game,” a creation of the mastermind named Zero, if they wish to escape alive. The Decision Game truly begins when each team must select which of the other groups they would like to execute, by using limited communication between each team. Will trust be established by everyone, or will there be a betrayal? After all, if a team receives two votes, all three members of that team will immediately be killed by Zero, which is a big head start to the six fatalities that are needed for the remaining players to escape the containment facility. This creates four possible timeline splits to start the story – Team C executed, Team Q eliminated, Team D murdered, or all three teams survive. It only gets wilder from there. Who will make it out alive? Let the games begin.
Knowledge Is Power
Zero Time Dilemma concludes the Zero Escape trilogy, started in 2010 with 999: Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors (DS) and continued in 2012 with Zero Escape: Virtue’s Last Reward (3DS/VITA). For all intents and purposes, this third game is a bit of a miracle. Series director/writer Kotaro Uchikoshi was grateful at the then-titled Zero Escape 3 reveal in July 2015 to say that making the game was only possible due to the support that the franchise had in the West. Fans were eager for resolution to major cliffhangers that were established at the end of Virtue’s Last Reward (VLR), as well as follow-ups for characters that were established in 999. As a result, the game plays out like a love letter for those that were concerned that such a conclusion would never come.
It cannot be stressed enough that a learned experience of 999 and VLR’s plots and characters is essential for appreciating and understanding Zero Time Dilemma.
Uchikoshi may claim that new players can approach this series’ final game as their first exposure to the franchise and enjoy it, but I sincerely doubt it. Knowledge of characters, past events, explored metaphysical concepts, and how the games are connected to each other is absolutely necessary. Without it, players can easily get lost and not comprehend why big things are happening, much less pick up on the small, rewarding references for series veterans. Even after the game got its hooks in me after a slow start, I had several instances of self-reflection where I questioned how much I would enjoy what was happening, if I didn’t already have personal investment in the characters and the universe.
This is because Zero Escape is a series that asks a lot of its players. It expects that you know the inner workings of previous characters and concepts. Out of Zero Time Dilemma’s nine protagonists, players are intimately familiar with four of them, while also acknowledging the existence of a fifth. Junpei is the lead character in 999 and Akane is his close childhood friend, but their relationship has frayed since the first game’s events. Additionally, Sigma is the key protagonist in VLR and Phi shares a unique friendship with him, as both carry a deep wisdom that goes beyond their age. Meanwhile, experienced players are aware of Diana’s overall existence through her tangential reveal in VLR, but are curious to learn her full role in the over-arching story. While the game tries to debrief new players regarding why these characters matter, the explanations fall flat in conveying the magnitude of just what these characters went through and what they mean to the Zero Escape universe.
Since players previously controlled the actions of Junpei and Sigma, Zero Time Dilemma throws a curveball by having players direct the actions of three newcomers who act as leaders for each team. Carlos leads Team C and is an American firefighter with a younger sister who means the world to him. He is partnered with Junpei and Akane, which tortures experienced players who can only observe their at-odds relationship that contrasts 999‘s emotional payoff. At the helm of Team Q is the aptly-named Q, a frail child whose face is covered by a helmet. Q has amnesia, which – trope aside – works well for new and old players to identify and sympathize with him. His partners are Mira – a busty beauty whose bluntness puts her in uncomfortable situations – and Eric – Mira’s devoted doormat of a boyfriend whose temper tends to gets the best of him. The trio of new characters grounds players by exploring the dynamics created by those who have no connection to the events of 999 and VLR. Finally, players direct Team D’s decisions through Diana, whose sweet, pacifist nature is a moral pillar in a dark and morbid game. As she partners with Sigma and Phi, we see how the characters from VLR have strengthened their resolve for their mission and for each other, which opposes the result of Junpei and Akane’s fallout. The dynamic of a team leader alongside a duo with an important relationship is echoed across each team, but it is most effective when the player is aware of what these relationships actually signify.
Parts Of A Whole
It doesn’t help Zero Time Dilemma‘s case for newcomers that its story is told differently than both 999 and VLR‘s. Whereas the series’ first two games told linear stories along each of the branching timeline paths, Zero Time Dilemma opts for a fragmented experience where players can choose segments in any order, only to discover the fragment’s place in the overall timeline’s flowchart upon its completion. While this makes sense in the context of the game’s narrative, it can be a bit of a struggle early on to complete such disjointed events without much connection to the overall plot. Fortunately, after enough pieces are put in place, everything starts to connect, with some shocking truths to boot. Unfortunately, to ask a series newcomer to jump in at this point without much personal investment is a tough request, as it is a languid, slow burn with little initial enjoyment. Yet, those who stick with Zero Time Dilemma are rewarded in spades with the storytelling that Uchikoshi has refined over the two previous, excellent installments.
Since at least 75% of the time spent with game will be spent viewing cutscenes, it’s important to elaborate on such a critical component of Zero Time Dilemma. Previously, 999 and VLR‘s story sequences played out similarly to many visual novels, with button presses advancing bits of text. The addition of voice acting in VLR was appreciated and well-cast with thoughtful direction, though it was not used throughout the game. With the shift to full cinematic cutscenes in Zero Time Dilemma, some advantages and disadvantages quickly become apparent. Players can become more easily engrossed in these sections that play out with film-like timing and editing, which certainly saves on the button-pressing fatigue. For a game that puts players in such cruel predicaments, blood and gore that existed in 999 – and was mostly subdued in VLR – pleasantly returns in a big way here. The cutscene direction excels most when it comes to the viciously violent actions in the game, as it uses the psychology behind films such as Psycho – gruesome events are most effective when they are off-screen and in a viewer’s imagination. Musically, the game’s soundtrack is mostly strong, though a bit reliant on motifs and themes from the previous games. Additionally, the option for either English or Japanese voiceover is a welcome choice for a Japanese-designed game.
However, the earlier point about Zero Time Dilemma being a kind of miracle is reflected in the tighter budget that must have been present during development. The English voiceover and localization is mostly on point, but the animation in the 3-D character models – which occasionally comes across as rough around the edges – is only lip-flapped for Japanese dialogue. This makes for a coarsely dubbed experience, but a limited budget explains this. Other cutscene and visual disadvantages are simple but numerous nitpicks. The character models could be better, but are limited for compatibility across 3DS, Vita, and Steam. Some choices for camera shots are unusual. Characters who used to be brunettes now have purple hair. A few cutscenes wear out their welcome and could have used some trimming. More money and more time could have fixed some of these issues, but it did not significantly diminish my game experience.
A Decisive Shift
Players can expect to complete to complete the full flowchart, and thus the entire story, in about 18-20 hours. Some extra time may be needed to find all of the documents and clues hidden during the room escape sequences, but collecting everything makes Zero Time Dilemma a simple game to complete on the achievement or trophy front. Replay isn’t especially necessary, unless you are particularly curious to see how the foreshadowing was laid out for some of the game’s biggest twists. Personally, I know that I am looking forward to watching my friends play the game just for this. Specific plot elements hit exceptionally hard, especially for fans of the series. While there were moments where I simply could not believe what was happening, my experience never hit the mind-bending peak that VLR bombarded me with in its third act. Without spoiling anything, the game made several bold choices with its narrative, but once you piece those all together, the plot resolves itself about as you would expect.
That said, I am so relieved that I exist in a timeline where I could play Zero Escape: Zero Time Dilemma. A little more than a year ago, the idea of Zero Escape 3 seemed like a pipe dream. Now that it is here, the miracle was totally worth having Kotaro Uchikoshi finally resolve his brilliant trilogy on his own terms. It isn’t without its faults, but it is a fitting conclusion to one of the best examples of storytelling in games.
At the very least, buy this game for its deconstruction of one of Hollywood’s most popular films that relies on time travel. Whatever happened to the other M, who grew up rich?
Life is simply unfair. Don’t you think?
Guest Reviewer: Peter Spezia
- Unparalled game storytelling
- Wicked puzzles, crueler choices
- Cutscenes improve the visual novel formula
- English dubbing is subpar
- Unwelcoming for series newcomers