It’s most likely a no-brainer. For anybody who’s already invested the requisite sixty-or-so hours it takes to fully clear 999: Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors and Virtue’s Last Reward, picking up Zero Time Dilemma, Kotaro Uchikoshi’s conclusion to the Zero Escape trilogy, is probably a given. After all, this game came close to not even existing, completing its development cycle only after an extended hiatus. But while fans of this visual novel/adventure series have likely already made a beeline for the nearest game store, it’s not all roses. Although this third game in the series does fill in some of the narrative gaps in the time travel saga, it is also the least satisfying and most confusing entry.
Let me start by clarifying that I’m a big fan of each of the preceding games, particularly the first. Sure, escaping the rooms has always had its charm, but it’s been the series’ trademark lengthy, twisting narratives that have kept me so intrigued, requiring a certain suspension of disbelief and freely launching into hours of text, particularly during the games’ final acts. Even when fast-forwarding through previously read dialog or, in the case of Virtue’s Last Reward, jumping around the timeline to experience new events, the goal was always to uncover that one main story thread running through it all, to unearth the games’ hidden secrets of whodunit and how. This time, however, though the core principles are similar, the connective tissue that binds it all together has been purposely removed.
One of Zero Time Dilemma’s fundamental design philosophies is at the heart of its drastic shift in storytelling. Where previous games were rooted in constantly changing up its team structure based on what events had transpired, the newest entry splits its nine protagonists up into three constant teams right at the beginning. The groups never change or interact with each other, as each is isolated in a different area from the rest. In fact, players no longer assume the identity of one specific character throughout the whole game, instead jumping from team to team whenever the narrative does.
The setup is as follows: Nine people are locked in an underground bunker, forced into playing the Decision Game by a masked man calling himself Zero. Unlike in previous games, where characters’ deaths often happened as indirect consequences of player choices, this time around killing is the key to escape – the Decision Game will only end once six of its participants are deceased. To facilitate this process, teams are not only put into deadly situations themselves, but often given ways to kill off players on other teams. The result is a depressing exhibition of man’s inhumanity to man, and virtually every character, including the supposed heroes, will at some point commit atrocities towards his or her fellow captives. About half of the cast is made up of familiar faces from earlier games, like Junpei, Akane, Sigma, and Phi, while the rest are newcomers to the series.
The level of graphic violence can be quite off-putting. To be fair, the Zero Escape series has always had its fair share of brutality and cold, calculated murder, but as the hours tick by, it grows increasingly difficult to find many characters to connect with as the “heroes” of this story – sure, some are more likeable than others, but none are ever truly sympathetic. People are eviscerated, burned alive, melted in acid baths, dismembered by chainsaw, blown up, and beheaded; death via shotgun blast to the face counts among the less violent ways to die. For players who have come to know and love Junpei, Sigma, and the other returning cast members, seeing a more homicidal side of them is as disquieting as it is unavoidable.
With the ability to jump back and forth on the timeline in order to affect certain outcomes, the series continues to take steps away from traditional narrative continuity. But Zero Time Dilemma takes this premise to the utmost extreme, to its detriment. Being forced to jump not only from team to team, but also from timeline to timeline and even back and forth through time itself, can be confusing enough on its own. Yet the game is generally unwilling to make this process less disorienting; each story fragment exists in its own bubble, and there is no way to know throughout the bulk of the experience which timeline one has jumped to, or even at what point in time the events take place relative to others already seen. This is, in part, intended to create the same out-of-sync feeling experienced by the characters, who are injected with a memory-erasing anesthetic drug at the end of each fragment, and must deal with a world without context each time they awake again.
While it may ape the same feelings as those felt by the in-game characters, experiencing the game out of sync is an extremely frustrating way to follow a story, and takes an unreasonably long time investment of at least fifteen hours before things finally start falling into place. Not to mention the damage it does to the player’s ability to relate to the cast of characters. Once enough individual fragments have been unlocked and the overarching secrets start coming into focus, threads do finally begin to line up and connect, though by then it may very well be a case of too little, too late. While I appreciate a slow burn as much as the next person, spending 20 hours (of a 26-hour game, no less) waiting for the other shoe to drop is asking a bit much.Continued on the next page...