Game Review: Zero Time Dilemma

Alan Stock Alan Stock
Expert Contributor
May 6th, 2017

I’m a lover of travel, photography and video games, from the UK. I have worked in the games industry and very passionate about games and their design. Never get bored of them!

Price:
Superb

Reviewed by:
Rating:
5
On May 6, 2017
Last modified:May 6, 2017

Summary:

A cinematic, rollercoaster ride of high drama with twists and turns at every step. Structural flaws and a story perhaps not on-par with previous outings aren’t enough to stop Zero Time Dilemma from being an excellent interactive experience.

Price:
Superb

Reviewed by:
Rating:

5
On May 6, 2017
Last modified:May 6, 2017

Summary:

A cinematic, rollercoaster ride of high drama with twists and turns at every step. Structural flaws and a story perhaps not on-par with previous outings aren’t enough to stop Zero Time Dilemma from being an excellent interactive experience.

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Zero Time Dilemma is an interactive novel/puzzle game concluding the Zero Escape trilogy. It’s out now on PC, PlayStation Vita and Nintendo 3DS. Alan Stock staves off Zero’s memory-loss drug to bring you this spoiler-free review for ComiConverse.

Game Review: Zero Time Dilemma

Virtue’s Last Reward (VLR), the previous instalment in the Zero Escape series, left me desperate for more of this compelling saga. I was addicted to the twisting, complex storylines, great scenarios and memorable characters of these interactive novels. I quickly picked up Zero Escape Dilemma to finish off the storyline - kept hanging from the unresolved ending of VLR. I was curious whether the appeal of the deadly Nonary Games could survive yet another rehash. I was happy to discover that creator Kotaro Uchikoshi manages to keep the series fresh, pander to his fans and tie up loose plot ends, despite some flaws.

Zero

The sinister Zero. Credit: Chime

First, a bit of history. It’s actually a miracle that Zero Time Dilemma was made at all. The backstory behind the game’s creation is a tribute to the power of social media. The previous titles in the series; 999 and VLR, hadn’t been very commercially successful. But when passionate fans heard that Uchikoshi’s wish to finish the series was being dismissed for financial reasons, Zero Escape lovers worldwide banded together. They began an online grassroots movement called “Operation Bluebird”, gaining thousands of supporters. This collaborative effort persuaded the publishers to continue Zero Time Dilemma’s development, and reportedly Uchikoshi even used a fan-made vocal track based on a song in VLR during his pitch for the game. It’s a heartwarming tale in the financially cut-throat world of the games industry. Developers Chime included a special message thanking their fans for making the game possible in the credits and Uchikoshi is forever brimming with praise for his loyal fans.

Diana and a revolver

Credit: Chime

For anyone who hasn’t read my previous Zero Escape reviews - what are these games? Primarily they’re interactive novels, with lots of character dialogue and twisting, intertwined plotlines. Breaking up the narrative are escape-the-room puzzle sections, where you explore a small area, solving devious puzzles in order to progress and see the next section of the story. But what makes this saga special, apart from the quality writing and interesting characters, is the clever structure of these games.

During the story, you get to make important decisions - such as who to team up with, or where to go next. The games have multiple endings, and in order to see them, you are able to hop back to decision points in the story and choose different outcomes to see how things change. You can visualise this as a branching flowchart of different possible timelines, which the games let the player see. Some endings can only be accessed by learning information from one timeline, giving you answers allowing you to progress in a different timeline. The idea of multiple timelines, choice and consequence are all tied into the crazy, sci-fi themed narrative.

Zero Time Dilemma timeline flowchart

The tip of the iceberg of the complex timeline trees in the game. Credit: Chime

Zero Time Dilemma continues where VLR left off. I won’t spoil any of these games for you, but be warned that Zero Time Dilemma contains some pretty heavy spoilers for both VLR and 999. Playing them first is highly recommended especially as they’re both brilliant games. The story’s premise this time around will be familiar to anyone who’s played these titles. Nine unfortunate people are imprisoned by the masked villain Zero in a mysterious facility and must play deadly games in order to escape.

Story continues below

Phi and Sigma in Zero Time Dilemma

The more realistic look of the protagonists really gels well with the subject matter, but preserves the great character design of the previous games. Credit: Chime

Unlike previous games, most of the nine victims already know a bit about each other - they are candidates for a simulated Mars mission who have spent a week getting to know each other. Some returning characters from the series are present - their goal: to foil catastrophic events that will happen if they don’t intervene. Zero has drugged and locked up the cast in an underground bunker explaining the game has “the fates of you, me, and the human race in the balance.” The rules of the game: a single door allows escape, but the only way to unlock it is to enter six passwords. When someone dies, a single password is revealed. So, in order to escape, at least six of the players must die. Each player wears an immovable bracelet, and every 90 minutes, it injects a memory-loss drug into them, making them forget what happened.

Zero injects memory loss drugs into the players

Damn Zero, not again! Credit: Chime

This time around, the players are split into three teams, isolated from each other in different wards of the bunker. Each team is put through various trials including the deadly escape-the-room games. In contrast to other Zero Escape games, you view events from a third person perspective instead of playing as one of the protagonists. Your viewpoint hops between the three teams as you see fit.

Mistrust is heavy in the air. One of the nine is an unknown boy called “Q” wearing a bizarre helmet covering his head, who claims to have amnesia. Who is he? Zero’s messages are pre-recorded - could he be among the players? Zero encourages players and teams to betray each other at every turn, to sacrifice others to save themselves. As events turn sour, people die and mysteries thicken.

Weird looking character Q in Zero Time Dilemma

Q, pictured here, is a great character. Who lies beneath that helmet? Credit: Chime

The dark tone of 999 returns, with a lot of gore, death, shock and plenty of unsettling moments. The atmosphere is thick. It’s even more reminiscent of the movies Saw and Battle Royale than previous outings - no bad thing. But humour’s still present, providing some light relief from the dark - although thankfully it’s been a toned down in quantity compared to 999 and VLR, befitting the serious predicament of the players. The game gives you plenty of difficult decisions, such as who to execute in a no-win situation. Some of these choices must be made within a tight time limit, adding an extra sense of urgency.

Diana struggles with a difficult choice in Zero Time Dilemma

I sense this ain't gonna end well... Credit: Chime

To give an example of the hard decisions and tone of the game (minor scenario spoiler ahead), one memorable escape-the-room scene is also featured as Zero Time Dilemma’s box art. One team is locked in a room. Within, a girl is trapped in a trash incinerator, which is about to start up and burn her alive - with no hope of escape. A man is held strapped to a chair outside the incinerator, a revolver fixed on the frame, muzzle pressed against his head. The gun’s chamber spins - 3 out of 6 of the bullets are live rounds. The last player, a girl, is given a choice that you must make for her. The time before incineration is about to end. The sound of the revolver firing will unlock the incinerator and free the girl inside. Don’t shoot, and she’ll burn. Shoot, and there’s a 50% chance that you’ll blow the brains out of the guy in the chair (due to half of the bullets being live). During this deadline, the characters appeal frantically for you to choose one option or the other. You have only 10 seconds to choose - and you must live with the consequences. Someone will probably die - but who?

Decision time in Zero Time Dilemma

Critical decisions are highlighted with much fanfare, a far cry from the stress-free "choose your room" options from earlier games. Credit: Chime

These tense moments are elevated through excellent music. Their impact is also helped by the characters being 3D and animated within the world in this instalment, rather than just overlaid on a flat background. The character animation and facial expressions are stiff (forgivable given the game’s handheld roots), but still make the story much more engaging, together with the cinematic camera angles. The English voice acting is a bit hit-and-miss; some characters are brilliantly voiced, like newcomer boy “Q” who puts to shame the awful child’s voice performance in VLR. But others really don’t hit the mark, either through poor delivery or the voice not really fitting the character. Zero himself is also very quiet in the mix - I recommend turning up the voice volume immediately, or even using subtitles to hear what he’s saying. Fortunately, the writing and translation work is once again excellent. The characters are on the whole are even more believable and likeable than the previous games, feeling much more like real people than the caricatures we’re used to in Zero Escape.

Inside one of Zero Time Dilemma's many escape rooms

Inside one of Zero Time Dilemma's many escape rooms. Credit: Chime

The escape rooms are as devious as ever, with some good puzzle design - fortunately not hitting as many difficulty spikes as Virtue’s Last Reward. The room designs tie in nicely with the concepts and themes of Zero Time Dilemma. Continuing Zero Escape tradition, interesting and complex scientific or philosophical theories are explored throughout the story - the game touching for example on topics like the Sleeping Beauty Problem, and Monty’s Dilemma. These brain teasers get the characters (and you) musing about what exactly Zero and his game’s purpose really is - and are great food for thought. They also have a bearing on Zero Time Dilemma’s bold timeline structure.

A puzzle in Zero Time Dilemma

Puzzles range from the straightforward, like this one, to the more devious. In general their design is good and there's some good head-scratchers throughout. Credit: Chime

The addition of memory-loss drugs to the story affect the game’s structure in an interesting way. Instead of progressing through the plot in a linear fashion like the last games, here it’s broken into “fragments” that each team experiences. You pick a team, then choose one of the many fragments available, with only a thumbnail image hinting at what it may contain. You play through the fragment and at the end the team is usually injected with both sleeping and memory-loss drugs. The cycle continues - pick a team, play a fragment. After you’ve experienced certain events, more fragments will unlock.

The fragment select screen of Zero Time Dilemma

The fragment select screen. Credit: Chime

This means the order in which you experience events will be very different (at least in the first few hours) between players of Zero Time Dilemma. It feels like the movie Memento: you experience the story in the same way that the game characters do - waking up in a situation each time with only a vague idea of when it’s happening, and what horrors might have already occurred but which you’ve forgotten. Of course, the more fragments you play, the more you begin to piece everything together. One fragment may answer mysteries you found in a different fragment - making the narrative experience different for each player until the game becomes more linear. It’s a great idea, but not without its flaws.

Bracelets in Zero Time Dilemma

Sadly gone are the clever bracelet ideas from the last games, instead they serve just as a device to inject the drugs, and helpfully double up as a watch. What a nice guy Zero is. Credit: Chime

The fragment structure makes the first part of the game a disorientating experience, which is, of course, intentional, but this loss of coherency makes it difficult for the game to build tension and maintain a good narrative pace. It’s only in the later part of Zero Time Dilemma when more linear events start rolling that the story really gets you hooked. Before then, you’re hopping between fragments with the plot a confusing mess of random events with unclear connections. Curiosity will keep you playing, but it’s when the plot becomes less fragmented that the game’s at its most enjoyable. Then you’ll find it very hard to put down. Another problem with the fragment structure is that the game is front-loaded with escape-the-room sections - because most of these are fragments unlocked from the start. Once you’ve seen them, the rest of the fragments play out mostly as interactive narrative meaning the gameplay takes a back-seat.

Story continues below

Carlos and Akane covered in blood in Zero Time Dilemma

This game is not for the faint-hearted - there's some pretty gruesome stuff in here, even if it is cartoonish gore. Perhaps it would have more impact if it was more subtle like 999's glimpses and descriptions of horrific scenes. Credit: Chime

An in-game flow chart is available to help you track events, timelines, and spot decision paths you’ve missed. However, I found this to be a bit of a lazy crutch and thought it was much better fun to try and piece together the fragments for myself. As the story unfolds, you start to link which fragments occur in which timelines, and you’ll eventually see some of them to their conclusions. After a few endings, in true Zero Escape fashion, the plot goes completely haywire and loads of crazy things happen one after another. Twists and revelations abound, questions are answered, more are raised. All the story  strands ultimately intertwine brilliantly. There are even clever puzzles associated with the game’s structure, but I can’t really talk about these without spoiling it for you.

Zero Time Dilemma escape room

The location design is industrial and fairly boring - the space lacking the flair of 999's cruise liner setting. Credit: Chime

Unfortunately, there are some story sticking points - locked narrative gates where the game does a poor job of communicating how to progress further. Two in particular spring to mind, where I had to check online how to proceed - I found many others had the same problem. The plot’s fragmentation although interesting, does hurt the game somewhat. Some of the twists and plot resolutions are also either ludicrous or quite hamfisted. Some fans will be annoyed at the how events are wrapped up, and won’t be happy with new plot devices that were introduced to bring this complex trilogy to a close.

Zero Time Dilemma inventory screen

The inventory is finally easy to use compared to the previous games, although it's implementation is still somewhat clunky. Credit: Chime

The final ending will probably disappoint some players, and it’s worth pointing out this is a significantly shorter game than VLR, clocking in around 20-30 hours depending on how many of the fragments you re-play. Some of these problems are due to the time restraint of the game’s short development - half of the writing and event design were done by other people than Uchikoshi (who wrote the entirety of the last two games) and it shows. It’s also important to note that the PC port makes no effort to update the user interface to reflect the changed control scheme, handheld console icons are everywhere - and it has control and performance issues throughout, a poor effort.

Carlos in Zero Time Dilemma

Carlos seems like your a boring pretty-boy jock at first, but he really grew on me. Credit: Chime

But overall, regardless of the platform you play on, Zero Time Dilemma is still a highly engaging story that really gets its hooks into you. Some of the plot strands are brilliant and there are plenty of heart-stopping moments, brilliant revelations, clever ideas and “what the heck?!” bombshells. This is what Zero Escape is all about. Add in the new emotive characters, great soundtrack and cinematic direction and it’s really the pinnacle of the overall series in terms of a polished, engrossing movie-like experience. There’s more urgency and pace in this instalment. Zero Time Dilemma feels distinctly different from the previous games, which is good. But unfortunately, partly as a result of the pacing and the fragmented structure, the plot and overall immersion don’t quite live up to its predecessors, even though at times it’s fantastic.

Mira baring all in Zero Time Dilemma

No Zero Escape game would be complete without a ridiculously sexy lady with everything on show - fortunately, the other girls in the game show a lot more class, with Mira here being the least interesting of the bunch. Credit: Chime

Zero Time Dilemma finishes off a superb trilogy with a bang. Crucially, it tries a different angle and attempts to mix up the formula a bit. The return of darker, more serious content is welcome, adding the gritty edge that VLR sorely lacked. It takes a while to warm to, but once you get into it, you’ll find it impossible to stop playing and you’ll want answers to all your questions. It’s with a heavy heart I must bid farewell to the colourful cast and intricate plot of this great series - and I can’t wait to see what Uchikoshi does next.

 

Zero Time Dilemma

  • 5

Superb

A cinematic, rollercoaster ride of high drama with twists and turns at every step. Structural flaws and a story perhaps not on-par with previous outings aren’t enough to stop Zero Time Dilemma from being an excellent interactive experience.

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