Zero Time Dilemma review
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.
In an attempt to keep abreast of events, a flow chart similar to that used in Virtue’s Last Reward returns, though the convoluted time system is, at times, a bit too sophisticated for a simple chart to keep up with. Further complicating matters are a handful of scenes that feature a random element of luck to influence their outcomes, such as firing a gun loaded with only one bullet. There is no way to control the result of firing it, and in order to experience each possible outcome, these sections may need to be replayed a number of times, hoping for a certain result. A number of dead ends have once again been included, requiring a password or combination obtained in another timeline to proceed. This time, however, these puzzles aren’t as well-clued as before, and it’s easy to forget which fragment featured the required information, forcing some pointless replaying. In fact, the Zero Escape games have really strayed far away from the “choose your own adventure” design philosophy; rather, every choice must be made at least once, every possible permutation exhausted. When all choices must be picked at least once, there is really no choice at all.
Though the story aspects come with a few more caveats than previous entries, the puzzle room sections are top-notch as usual. There are a total of thirteen rooms to escape from, a slightly lower number than before. During the first two-thirds of the game, as players are still discovering new story fragments and trying to piece together the narrative, each team will become trapped in a different room once per fragment. Each room is unique, and the developers largely manage to avoid retreading familiar ground. Puzzles range from exotically creative ones like a room that cycles through multiple appearances at the flip of a switch, to devious mathematical puzzles involving different numerical base systems. Most players will probably clear the last of these at about the 18 or 19-hour mark, leaving the remaining 6 or so hours entirely to cinematics and dialog. Apart from the room escapes, a few entirely different puzzles involve finding the passwords and codes hidden within story fragments to be able proceed past roadblocks in other segments. A notepad option still exists to scribble down important info, but Sigma’s convenient knack for remembering and storing passwords automatically from the previous game has not been carried over.
The game’s pacing is also somewhat inconsistent. The stakes are high, violent acts occur everywhere one looks, the tension can be cut with a knife…and yet the teams regularly find time to distract themselves with trivial conversations about seemingly inconsequential topics. At other times, a character may react in a way that is either illogical or completely over-the-top. It’s these moments, more so than the pseudo-scientific story content, that too often break immersion. I am generally a fan of well fleshed-out worlds rich in minutiae. But some of these scenes, primarily taking place in the first half of the game when many important revelations have yet to be made, can verge on being quite boring. What’s worse, the big twist at the end – there’s always a twist in these games – feels like a real cheap shot, more of an omitted fact the player should have been told (but wasn’t) than an actual clever surprise.
Zero Time Dilemma’s technical aspects are a bit of a mixed bag as well. Gone are the still images and character close-ups during dialog. Instead, the entire game is presented via fully-animated cinematics, complete with voice-overs. The animation offers no frills on its own; even for a handheld console it could hardly be called impressive. The cast of characters, with the notable exception of a young boy who has a giant helmet-like orb locked around his head, are realistic and lack many of the exotic costumes and designs from previous games. Returning characters have also undergone some redesigns. Surprisingly, however, even the 3DS version this time does not support any actual 3D. The environments do help to stave off boredom; for an underground survival bunker, the habitat features some posh digs, each room having its own theme. Like in past games, escape sections involve using the touch screen to maneuver around the room, zoom into areas of interest, and interact with items and objects while the movements are mirrored on the top screen. For series veterans, it’s business as usual.
The game is once again fully voiced, this time lacking the text-only protagonist of the last game, since there is no true player character. Though not setting itself apart in any way, the voice cast is mostly fine. There are no absolute standout performances, but then again the script can be a bit dry. A major criticism has to be leveled against the vocalization of Zero, however, whose modulated voice has been pitched into such a low register that it is nearly impossible to follow his dialog without subtitles enabled. Having the major villain in constant danger of being utterly misunderstood can’t be a good thing. The score mixes the old with the new, bringing back some trademark musical cues from previous games to stand alongside original compositions. If you loved the music before, it’s still all there.
It’s hard to either condemn or recommend Zero Time Dilemma. It gets some key areas right, but falls short of the bar in others. Two criteria that are critical to playing the game are patience and a desire to see the conclusion of the tale set up in the first two games. Since it deals with time travel and alternate realities, this was never going to be the most transparent of stories, though as confusing as it is for over a dozen hours, the narrative does eventually start to attain some semblance of sense. And yet it’s questionable whether this game is truly the necessary conclusion many series fans hoped it’d be. The story ends, yes, but not without some ambiguity and a tenuous connection at best to the events that have already happened in the in-game future.
Even getting to that point is a process of slogging through frustrating narrative design, redeemed only by the engaging puzzle room sections. The director has gone on record stating that this game will appeal to fans of the series as well as newcomers. Personally, I don’t see any appeal here to those new to the fold. While the game offers challenging escape puzzles, it relies too heavily on an established fan base putting up with its storytelling shenanigans. The previous games offer current events the some much-needed context that simply can’t be found in this entry alone. As for series veterans, the disappointing narrative structure really takes away from what should have been great satisfaction in finally seeing the story through to its end.
Although several welcome elements return, some undesirable changes to the established formula and exasperating design choices make Zero Time Dilemma a lackluster send-off to a cult-favorite series.