Review: Zero Escape: Zero Time Dilemma
Those who have played both 999 and Virtue’s Last Reward should be well aware of the stakes going into Zero Time Dilemma. There’s a good deal of setup from prior games in the series going into this and it’s highly recommended that you tackle those games first before diving into the finale. Zero Time Dilemma sees returning characters Junpei, Akane, Sigma, and Phi accompanied by five new characters, a new Decision Game, and of course a mysterious figure known only as Zero.
The setup in ZTD, without going into too much detail, is similar to what we’ve seen in both 999 and Virtue’s Last Reward. Nine people are trapped and forced to play a deadly game facilitated by someone wearing a plague doctor’s mask and using the name Zero. This time around the nine players are split into three teams (C-Team, Q-Team, and D-Team) and are separated into three different wards. The only means for escape is by entering 6 X-Passes which are only given out as people die. From there ZTD dishes out all of the crazy twists, turns, puzzles, and random lectures on quantum mechanics that you’ve come to expect from Zero Escape. And for about 90% of the game, it consistently delivers on everything I wanted from the series, it’s just those last couple hours that have left me quite conflicted.
One new aspect of the Decision Game this time around is in the 90 minute timer embedded into the watches that each player wears. After 90 minutes is up, the players are put to sleep and their memories of those past 90 minutes are wiped. The result is the ability to play through the story in any order you’d like. You’ll jump from fragment-to-fragment, back and forth between teams, and to various points of the overall timeline all the while having very little idea of what is actually happening. This is pretty disorienting at first, a feeling that I think is very intentional, but piecing things together as the story goes on is really satisfying and the freedom to jump around as you choose is greatly appreciated. Without going into spoiler territory I think it’s also worth noting how impressive it is that the game allows you to tackle scenarios late into the timeline immediately without giving away some of the major reveals that await you in the build up for the ending. Often times the knowledge obtained from one team could be used to help another team progress in a different route and in other cases you might even see the results of things you’ve done reflected in a later timeline. The stories in the Zero Escape games are pretty complex which leaves me even more impressed that ZTD makes telling a story completely out of order work as well as it does.
The presentation isn’t without issues though, and the most notable one comes with the shift to fully 3D cutscenes. It’s a very different approach for this game and one that is immediately jarring. Character animations are robotic, lip sync could use a lot of work, and Akane’s hair has a mind of its own. At the same time this approach gives the game a sort of unique look and one that feels like a half-way point between traditional Visual Novel and fully animated cutscenes. As the game went on I kind of got over the change and found the presentation ‘interesting’ and not necessarily in a good or bad way – just ‘interesting’.
Escape Rooms, now called Quests, are exactly what you’d expect from Zero Escape. Once again, you’re presented with a series of connected puzzles and the single goal of escaping any given room. They’re all themed specifically around whatever room the characters find themselves in (Biolab, Rec Room, etc.) and naturally all feel quite different. It’s rare that you’ll ever repeat a puzzle across multiple Quests and for the most part the puzzles are both challenging and fair. Unfortunately, there were a few times where I found myself, pixel-hunting in hopes that I’d stumble upon some sort of solution. Specifically, there was a moment where I had to click on a document that was laying on-top of a cardboard box. I had clicked on the paper a handful of times at first with no reaction and assumed it wasn’t something that I’d be able to interact with. As it turns out the game is just picky and, at least in that situation, required me to be very precise with the object I was selecting. That kind of stuff can be quite frustrating when you’ve been stuck on a puzzle for well over thirty minutes.
After each Quest is solved the current team will typically be confronted with some sort of choice that, depending on your answer, might result in the death of certain characters. There are numerous times where characters will have to think logically, tempt fate, and even discuss brain teasers like the Monty Hall problem in order to make different choices. It’s not the choices in these situations that stuck with me, but rather the context around them. Listening to any given character casually talk about [redacted] in any other game would feel out of place, but this is Zero Escape and the way all of this ties into the overarching narrative are nothing short of fascinating.
I think another interesting point is how Zero Escape differs from other games that have choice driven narratives. The choices don’t really matter, instead it’s the way that you see these characters react in response to any given variable. Throughout the Zero Escape series, we get to witness people from all different walks of life react in logical, and sometimes illogical, ways to all of the crazy situations that are presented to them. They’re flawed characters and are grounded in a way that acts as a sort of counterbalance to just how insane the story in this series can get.
Finishing Zero Time Dilemma left me feeling a bit hollow. In one way it’s simply because this is likely the end of a series that I love, but at the same time that hollow feeling also comes from a very conflicted viewpoint of how everything is wrapped up. I’ve somehow found myself in this place where some of the major reveals towards the end just didn’t feel all that satisfying. The ending and everything around it makes sense for the most part and the twists work, but they just don’t have the same impact that I’ve come to expect from Zero Escape. On top of that some pretty big questions and plot points from VLR are left unanswered and in some respects completely ignored.
Zero Time Dilemma, despite any of my complaints, is still really great and is very much worthy of the Zero Escape name. The truth is I was glued to my Vita for the past week completely absorbed in ZTD and I couldn’t stop thinking about it in any of the few moments that I wasn’t playing it. I absolutely have frustrations and disappointments in different aspects of the game, but they all come from a place of investment in this series. Is ZTD completely satisfying? No, but it’s still very, very good.
A copy of this game was provided by the publisher for review purposes. For more info on our review policy click here.
What I Like:
- New setting/rules for the game
- Zero's plague doctor mask is really creepy
- Choosing fragments to play in any order
- The way the story is told out of order works really well
- Escape Rooms for the most part are still a lot of fun to solve
What I Dislike:
- Robotic animations; poor lip sync
- Ending sequence didn't have the impact I was hoping for
- Questions from prior games left unanswered