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The Zero Escape series is the definition of “for fans only.” A niche within a niche. The games (999: Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors, Virtue’s Last Reward, and now, Zero Time Dilemma) are bleak, M-rated visual novels, with a deep nerdy streak. Numerology, philosophy, theoretical physics, weird history, conspiracy theories, ESP, time travel – these games mix it all together into a heady, strange, one-of-a-kind brew. These aren’t the kind of games everybody is going to get, but most who do, can’t get enough.
But how do you wrap up a story this complex? Zero Time Dilemma is supposed to be the series’ finale, but intricate, geeky stuff like this rarely ends well. Remember the final (until the revival) episode of The X-Files? Or Lost? Yeah. Does Zero Time Dilemma manage to tie a multiverse of loose ends together into a satisfying conclusion? It’s time we found out…
Zero Time Dilemma (PC, 3DS & PS Vita)
So, what are these Zero Escape games about exactly? Okay, hold onto your butts. The first game in the series, 999: Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors, begins with a familiar horror movie setup – nine eclectic characters are kidnapped and forced to play the deadly “Nonary Game” aboard an abandoned cruise ship. Pretty standard stuff, right? Ah, but this is a game with more on its mind.
One of the game’s key obsessions is morphic resonance, a real theory which states that thoughts and information can be transmitted to others across time, space and multiple universes via the “morphogenetic field.” Eventually it’s discovered the Nonary Game was engineered to increase the morphogenetic connection between two characters, so they can send important information to the past, in order to…well, I won’t spoil it (or confuse you any further). The second game in the series, Virtue’s Last Reward, features a new version of the Nonary Game, and introduces an apocalyptic virus, androids, space colonization and straight-up time travel to the mix.
If all this is making your head hurt, don’t worry, there won’t be a test. I’m just laying it out to give you an idea of how complex the Zero Escape games truly are. This is a series in which each game has dozens of endings, and they all count. Where the characters spend more time discussing alternate universes and time paradoxes than Phoenix Wright spends in the courtroom. This is Japanese visual novel weirdness taken to an all-new level.
Enter Zero Time Dilemma. The game takes place between 999 and Virtue’s Last Reward, although given how fluid this series’ timeline has become, that’s barely relevant. Once again, nine characters find themselves in trapped in a sadistic game, orchestrated by a masked figure known as Zero. Some of these characters first appeared in 999, some in Virtue’s Last Reward, and some are new. The nine people are split into three teams of three, and forced to vote for which one of the other teams they want to die. The way you choose to have each team vote sets a myriad of different branching paths in motion.
Unfortunately, following these branching paths isn’t as easy as it could be. The game does include a detailed interactive flowchart, but unlike previous Zero Escape games, the paths don’t unfold in a straightforward way. In past games, you simply started at the “trunk” and followed a path to its conclusion. If you wanted to see different ending, you backtracked to a branching point, and made a different decision. Go left instead of right. Kill person A instead of person B. Collecting all the endings was time consuming, but relatively painless.
Zero Time Dilemma is instead told in nonlinear fragments, and frequently the only fragments available fall smack-dab in the middle of a branch. You have no idea what led up to the scenario you’re in, and you don’t immediately find out what happens afterwards either, as finishing a fragment often unlocks a fragment on a completely different branch of the timeline. Even more confusing, many branches halt your progress until you get a key code or piece of information from another timeline, and the game makes it very unclear which branches need to be explored to unlock other branches. There is an in-storyline explanation for this fragmented storytelling (all characters are injected with a memory-erasing drug at the end of every fragment) and on a meta level, there’s a reason the story had to be told this way, but the fact remains, you’ll spend the first half of Zero Time Dilemma pretty thoroughly befuddled. This undermines the game’s focus on player choice, as it’s tough to get invested in a decision when you don’t immediately know why you’re making it or what its consequences will be.
I’ll admit, even as a diehard Zero Escape fan, I found myself a bit disappointed by the first 10 to 15 hours of Zero Time Dilemma. I wanted to know what was going on. I wanted to feel an emotional connection to the choices I was making. It felt like the already-knotty Zero Escape storyline was spiraling into total incoherence. And then, lo and behold, things started to come together in a way I wasn’t really expecting.
At about the halfway mark, Zero Time Dilemma actually starts making sense and unleashes some solid twists, but what really surprised me was how real things get. Sure, the Zero Escape games are complex, but emotionally complex? Not hardly. Until now Zero Escape has been a series more comfortable with quantum mechanics than affairs of the human heart, so imagine my surprise when I discovered Zero Time Dilemma is, at its core, a story about love and family. Yes, there’s still time travel, boob jokes, and gushing gore aplenty, but Zero Time Dilemma is also moving and, occasionally, shockingly raw.
Zero Time Dilemma’s greater focus on emotional storytelling is bolstered by production values far beyond those in past entries in the series. 999 and Virtue’s Last Reward conveyed their stories via text, static backgrounds and sparingly animated character portraits, while Zero Time Dilemma boasts a full 3D engine, making simple cutscenes possible. The game’s visuals are hardly cutting edge -- textures are sometimes PSOne-era ugly, and slowdown is rampant -- but the characters have a slick cell-shaded look, and are surprisingly expressive. The decent visuals are backed by voice acting that does a fine job of bringing the game’s copious dialogue to life.
“Okay, fine,” you interject, 1000 words into this review “the story is good, but how does it play? You do actually play this game, right?”
You do! When Zero Time Dilemma isn’t unloading lengthy blocks of story, it’s an escape-the-room adventure game. There are 13 rooms in total in Zero Time Dilemma, each of which has a specific theme. Usually the goal is to find a way to open the room’s locked door by solving a combination of brain teasers, and traditional “find item X, then use it on object Y” adventure game puzzles. Characters continue to banter during these room-escape sequences, and often the solutions to puzzles directly tie into the greater narrative. In other words, you still feel connected to the story, even as you’re pointing, clicking, pushing blocks and decoding alien languages.
Zero Time Dilemma’s puzzle rooms are probably the series’ most balanced. In past games, there was always one or two rooms that would trip you up for hours with a particularly tough puzzle, hidden item, or obscure bit of logic. By comparison, Zero Time Dilemma’s rooms still engage your grey matter, but you probably won’t spend more than about an hour on each. This means Zero Time Dilemma is over faster than past Zero Escape games, but it’s also a much smoother, less-frustrating experience.
Worldbuilding – The dizzying multiverse-spanning Zero Escape storyline is brought to a satisfying and surprisingly emotional conclusion, with the help of dated, yet stylish, visuals and top-notch voice acting.
Innovation – Fairly standard Japanese visual novel gameplay meets an incredibly inventive story unlike anything else you’ve encountered.
Playability – Touchscreen controls and a tidy interface make the room-escape sequences easy to deal with, and well-balanced puzzles keep the “I don’t know what this game wants from me” headaches to a minimum. The fragmented timeline will take a while to get used to.
Durability – It will take you 20 to 25 hours to collect all the endings (and you need to collect most of them to find out what’s really going on). Zero Time Dilemma’s focus on storyline twists and single-solution puzzles means you’ll probably only play the game once, even if you love it.
Demerits – A physical watch promised to those who pre-ordered the limited edition version of Zero Time Dilemma ended up being delayed for months, and faced numerous shipping troubles. That fiasco aside, the game itself is largely issue-free.
And so, against steep odds, the Zero Escape series gets the grand finale it deserves. Fans will savor the way Zero Time Dilemma ties up one of the most intricate narratives in gaming history, but even newcomers should find something to appreciate in the largely self-contained human drama at the game’s core. This isn’t a game for everybody (steer clear if you’re the type who skips dialogue and cutscenes), but it’s heartening to see the Zero Escape series stay so distinctively, defiantly weird, right to the bitter end. There are plenty of dilemmas contained within Zero Time Dilemma, but, thankfully, a lack of identity isn’t one of them.
This review was based on the 3DS version of Zero Time Dilemma purchased by the writer.