“Seventeen years ago, a woman was killed. As a result, after a falsely accused man was sentenced to death, his wife took her own life. A taxi driver died in an accident along with his passenger, a surgeon. The child who awaited a critical operation also perished. Six people all together. Why did these six die? Because of a snail. A single, solitary snail took the lives of six people. No, not just six… but six billion. Six billion people will lose their lives as a result of that lone snail. Life is simply unfair, don’t you think?”
This story is one that is referenced quite frequently in Zero Time Dilemma, the final game in the critically acclaimed Zero Escape series. Most of you reading this review are probably not familiar with the series as a whole, but that comes as no surprise. As much love as it has received from both critics and fans alike, Zero Escape is a visual novel/adventure game; one that focuses on puzzle solving and storytelling, replete with lengthy cutscenes and exposition, and more philosophical and metaphysical references that most games are comfortable with.
Still, the most amazing thing about Zero Time Dilemma is that it saw a release in the first place. Despite the praise its predecessors received, it took years of fan demand and a shift in the game’s production style just for it to see the light of day. Now that it’s here, I can safely say that Zero Time Dilemma is a fitting end to one of the greatest video game stories of our time.
Taking place between 999: Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors and Zero Escape: Virtue’s Last Reward, Zero Time Dilemma follows the story of nine people who have signed up for an experiment designed to test the psychological effect of humans living in close quarters on Mars. A few days into the testing, the participants are kidnapped by a mysterious individual who goes by the name of Zero. Holding them against their will in an underground nuclear shelter, Zero forces each participant into a series of ‘decision games,’ though his motives behind these games are unclear from the onset. In order for each player to escape, they must enter six passwords (dubbed “X-Passes”) into an elevator before it will take them to the surface. The catch is, a single X-Pass is only revealed when a participant dies.
To make things more difficult, the participants are broken up into three teams: C-Team, Q-Team and D-Team. Each team is also assigned a de facto leader, who is responsible for making decisions for the team as a whole. The teams are comprised of:
- C-Team: Carlos, a young fireman who has a strong sense of justice, and deeply cares about his sister, who is suffering from an incurable disease, Akane, a member of a secret society attempting to save humankind, and Junpei, a young detective who has seen some tough times in the last year. Both Akane and Junpei are returning from their appearances in 999: Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors.
- Q-Team: Q, an amnesiac boy whose identity obscured by a large helmet, Eric, a somewhat unstable ice cream shop clerk with a rough childhood, and Mira, Eric’s girlfriend who is more calm and collected, often devoid of emotions as a whole.
- D-Team: Diana, a pacifistic nurse who dislikes conflict, Sigma, a young man who seems a lot older than he really is, and Phi, a mysterious and rather blunt young woman who joined the experiment to help save the world. Both Phi and Sigma are returning from their appearances in Zero Escape: Virtue’s Last Reward.
While the game does an admirable job of attempting to catch new players up with the events from the previous two games, Zero Time Dilemma is much more enjoyable if you are already caught up on the series. It’s not impossible to follow along, but unsolved mysteries and hanging plot threads are tied up by the end, and the series’ central plot line of saving the world (which was admittedly only introduced in the second game) is the underlying story thread that drives the entire game forward. While some of the game’s developers have suggested that Zero Time Dilemma can be played without having already gone through the other two entries, I strongly recommend that you play through the series in order.
Going back to the decision game, Zero Time Dilemma structures its narrative in a wholly different way compared to the rest of the series. While the ability to jump around to different parts of the story makes its return from Virtue’s Last Reward, Zero Time Dilemma splits its three teams into separate parts of the facility. Rather than following the group as a whole, you’ll focus on one team at a time. Sections of the game play out in 90 minute chunks of time, referred to in-game as fragments, with fragments focusing on a specific team. The catch is, each participant in the game is wearing an irremovable bracelet, which both puts them to sleep after being awake for 90 minutes, along with wiping their memory (through drug injections). This means that each time they awake, they’ll have forgotten what happened previously, save for specific moments when Zero chooses to not erase their memories.
This segmented approach to storytelling does have its benefits though. As mentioned, you have the ability to play the story in any order you choose, though the game does have some level of gating, as certain fragments are unlocked later while others are available immediately. Still, the ability to jump from fragment to fragment allows you to focus on whatever team you want, or you can choose to play a different fragment should a particular puzzle prove too challenging at a given time. Personally, as someone who has played through the entire series, I chose to focus on C-Team and D-Team, given my fondness for Junpei, Akane, Sigma and Phi.
Puzzle sections are back in full force here, though they are less traditional than your typical ‘escape the room’ style conundrums. Puzzles often rely on visual elements, requiring you to suss out a clue or a way to arrange items from one visual clue, than apply that to another object. Without going into spoilers, there are even some clues which rely on auditory cues.
Still, genre fans can rest easy; you’ll still have to combine objects to form entirely new ones, though these moments aren’t as arbitrary as those from your favorite adventure game from the 90’s. Unlike Virtue’s Last Reward, there is no set easy mode; instead, the other participants in the room will slowly dole out more hints should you get stuck or are taking a long time on a particular section of a puzzle. This method of easing the difficulty works well, and feels more organic than an arbitrary hint button. I will admit that some puzzles can be difficult, and while I did brute-force my way through one (due to my own error), they aren’t unsolvable (at least by my standards).
As rewarding as the puzzle sections are, the decision games that Zero forces you into can be very tense and horrific. Often times, the decision games will result in the death of one or more participants, which lends a lot of weight to the decisions you make. Being in control and making these decisions for yourself is infinitely more interesting than watching a static cutscene, and the in-game flow chart helps chart what effects your decisions have.
Some choices may lead to a specific ending or a game over screen, while others will continue the story, often requiring you to switch to a different team to see how things left off. Some choices, such as coin tosses, are also completely randomized by the game on-the-fly, meaning that moments that come down to random chance will be different each time. While the ability to jump back and replay sections (and in turn, decisions/choices) might remove the weight of your decisions, the impact that they have in the short term is ever present, and there were plenty of tense moments where I was forced to make a decision that I came to regret. These moments are some of the series’ best, and the way the decision making and branching narrative ties into the game’s twists and turns pays off well.
As you probably guessed by now, this review won’t spoil any of the big secrets and revelations. That being said, series fans who have been anxiously waiting to see how it all resolves itself won’t be disappointed. Long-standing questions are answered, mysteries are solved, and while there is a hint at a possible fourth entry in the series, the game does deliver a definitive ending. You can also expect plenty of philosophical and scientific concepts to make an appearance, such as metempsychosis, alien hand syndrome, and plenty more.
Of course, there is the elephant in the room, which is the game’s visual style. For those who haven’t seen any footage of the game yet, Zero Time Dilemma features fully acted, 3D cutscenes, complete with voice acting. While these cutscenes are a great addition, adding a more cinematic flair to the entire game, animations are rather stiff, and feature a low amount of key frames. What this translates into are animations that come off as a little rough, as they are rather simple looking, and don’t feature a lot of small movements and detail.
Personally, this animation style didn’t really detract from the overall experience for me, and I imagine the lower quality animation was done in order to bring the game in under budget (remember, the fact that this game is even out in the first place is a bit of a miracle). If you’re a little less forgiving, the stiff animation may bother you, but the voice acting and dialogue does a decent job of tying it all together, despite the oddly worded/acted line that crops up every so often. During the review process, most of our time was spent on the PlayStation Vita version, which ran fine. Frame rate dips can occur on the Nintendo 3DS version of the game, and while the visuals do look rougher in comparison, it’s perfectly playable.
Frankly, reaching the end of Zero Time Dilemma was one of the most bittersweet moments of my entire history with video games. I can’t say it tops my time spent with games like Journey and Braid, but the Zero Escape series has now left an indelible mark on the gaming landscape. Throughout the 20 or so hours I spent playing, I laughed, I cried, and I wiped a bead of sweat off my forehead as a I made some truly gruesome decisions. I will sorely miss the moments where my close friends and I speculated on how the series will end, how the world will be saved, and whether unrequited relationships will be salvaged.
To put it simply, Zero Time Dilemma is a masterpiece, and you shouldn’t hesitate to give it a go. Just make sure you’ve played the other two games first. I cannot stress that enough.
This review is based on the PlayStation Vita version of the game, which we were provided with. Some testing was also done on the Nintendo 3DS version.
Zero Time Dilemma wraps up the long-running Zero Escape series in style. Presentation issues aside, it's the masterpiece we've been waiting for, and the one that the fans deserve.