PS Vita, 3DS, Steam | 2016
Zero Escape: Zero Time Dilemma is, I’m heartbroken to say, just an okay game.
The Zero Escape series of games boasts a pretty unique and compelling mixture of Japanese visual novel and puzzle solving. Just like the previous two Zero Escape games (999: 9 Hours, 9 Persons, 9 Doors and Virtue’s Last Reward),
Zero Time Dilemma (ZTD) opens with a motley crew trapped in some abandoned facility, forced to play a game where the stakes are literally life and death. It sounds corny, but in practice it’s pretty effective and compelling. In this iteration, the game’s narrative hinges on chance and probability; you can “escape” on a coin flip not five minutes in.
Every choice made in the game’s narrative branches the story, and the player is encouraged to go back and play out other choices to unlock different looks at outcomes and character stories. Most choices are followed by a puzzle room of some kind, and players must solve a series of simple-to-baffling escape-room-style puzzles in order to move the narrative forward. It can be an awesome flow when done right; a cliffhanger to motivate the solving of puzzles for one more bit of story. Unfortunately, the puzzle-to-story ratio throughout the game is uneven at its best and downright maddening at its worst. Add in a new “amnesia” mechanic, which allows the game to present the story Tarantino-style in seemingly random order, and each piece feels like a short, nonsensical look at a piece of a narrative that isn’t particularly interesting or engaging paired with 30-45 minutes of arbitrary puzzle solving.
I loved a handful of the puzzle rooms (the Cylinder, Rec, and Transporter rooms in particular), but I despised the majority of them (the Showers room being the least intuitive). While the UI is passable, navigating around the rooms is the roughest part, and some rooms were so frustrating and unintuitive that I had to have a friend look up a walkthrough just to make sure my game wasn’t broken. The quality of the puzzle rooms leaves a lot to be desired as a whole.
At times, a story path will require input from the player, and all of these inputs are open-ended, here’s-a-whole-keyboard-to-type-anything, you-definitely-have-to-know-the-answer questions. It’s one of the more compelling mechanics in the game in that it forces you to actually understand and determine the appropriate answer. Unfortunately, more than once the “correct” answer ended up being a variation or synonym of items I’d previously tried and disqualified.
I was able to make it through the entire game without spoiling anything for myself, but I don’t really feel any better for it. I’d recommend setting a time-to-walkthrough timer for yourself to avoid some frustration. The game front-loads so much puzzle solving with so little exposition that I wasn’t even sure there would be a story for the majority of the game.
ZTD also carries its prequels’ narrative baggage, much to its detriment. As a fan of the series, it was enjoyable to see how the game attempted to play with my expectations and ultimately tied up loose ends, but most of this would be lost on newcomers. ZTD tries way too hard to carve something new out of the box the previous games confined it to. Some characters’ attitudes can also vary wildly from scene to scene, so much so that at times I was questioning if they even were the same. This developer makes fantastic games in this genre, but I think it’d be best if they started with a fresh story each time.
I can’t say it more emphatically: don’t play this game before its prequels. I don’t even want to bring up the general themes at issue here as they spoil a bit of what made the original so special. If you have any interest in puzzle games and visual novels, stop reading and go play 999.
I adored 999. I don’t know as I could give it a higher recommendation, and if I ever do blog about my “favorite games of all time”, it would definitely be on the list. I’m a little cooler on the sequel, Virtue’s Last Reward (VLR). It expands on all of the ideas that made 999 so fantastic, but it also ups the ante of ridiculousness and pushes the limits of believability. ZTD breaks through that bubble into the completely absurd and incomprehensible, so much so that I found myself rolling my eyes at the end game sequences more than I was able to pay attention.
999 was presented with pixel-art characters and pre-rendered, 2D backgrounds. VLR shifted this to full 3D models for characters and environments, but the art style survived. It was basic, but it still had a certain charm to it. ZTD pushes the graphics up another level, maintaining a form of cel-shaded 3D but adding another layer of seriousness, grit, and realism—and it’s too far for me. It loses most of the charm 999 captured, and it performs at some of the lowest framerates I’ve ever seen on a Vita game (not that it matters for a visual novel, but it’s distracting at best). Cut-scenes could stand a good bit of editing; long, awkward pauses between most camera cuts and lines of dialog become tedious very quickly and harm the immersion.
The game’s major twist and quickly-wrapped ending had me laughing more often than it should. It’s absurd. Maybe in a good way, maybe not. But ultimately, I enjoyed it. Probably only because of my investment in the story and previous games, but I did. I enjoyed it just enough to recommend it, somehow. It comes together in a way that only this genre seems to be able to pull off.
I’ve seen the other reviews out there. It’s sitting somewhere between an 88% and a 95% on Steam user recommendations and an 83 on Metacritic. No one is more frustrated about that than me. I yearned to love this game. I was so excited to play another entry! But it’s just okay, at best.
Play 999. Play it soon! It’s fantastic. If you enjoy it, pick up Virtue’s Last Reward and play through that. If you like that, play Zero Time Dilemma and tell me what you think. Otherwise, don’t bother.