The Zero Escape series – formed by 999: Nine Persons, Nine Hours, Nine Doors, Virtue’s Last Reward, and Zero Time Dilemma – has been a polarizing presence in the video game community despite being critically lauded since 999 first arrived in 2009. Spike Chunsoft‘s decision to eschew a huge portion of gameplay in favor of a visual novel-style of storytelling was a bold one that ostracized some potential fans, but those who enjoyed the series’ storytelling and puzzle rooms are quick to name both 999 and Virtue’s Last Reward as some of the best narrative-driven games ever created.
It is without a doubt, then, that Zero Time Dilemma arrives on handhelds and PCs with a heavy burden of expectation on its capable shoulders. Spike Chunsoft has already confirmed that Zero Time Dilemma will be the last in the Zero Escape trilogy, and is intended to wrap up any loose ends created in the first two games, while also telling a compelling story in its own right. The incredible thing is, despite a few hiccups along the way, Spike Chunsoft managed not just to satisfy the herculean tasks laid out in front of its development team – it surpassed them, creating an exceptional visual novel/puzzle game hybrid.
For those unfamiliar with the concept of the Zero Escape series, each game tasks players with navigating a Saw-style environment filled with deadly traps and puzzles designed to murder each of the nine characters that star in every iteration of the franchise. Not all of the same characters appear in every game, although there is definitely a lot of continuity in between each title and players familiar with the series will be able to take away much more from Zero Time Dilemma than those who aren’t.
Zero Time Dilemma is more of the same, then, although that’s hardly a bad thing. There’s something oddly comforting about attempting to help the game’s nine characters survive increasingly more taxing puzzles in an effort to eventually escape their prison, which is, in this instance, a modified underground bomb shelter. Gamers familiar with the Zero Escape titles have been here before, and although there is the potential for the concept to feel tired in its third trip around the narrative block, it never falls victim to getting lazy with its story-telling or characterization. Everything in Zero Time Dilemma feels fresh and, on the rare occasion it does not, is repetitive for a specific reason often revealed later.
Sure, sometimes Zero Time Dilemma becomes a bit too enamored with its science-fiction lingo and premise, particularly in the game’s first half. The game’s heavy reliance on a metaphysical pseudoscience that enables certain psychic characters to transport their consciousness backwards in time while retaining their memories of the future, and that concept can be a lot for anyone to wrap their head around. Yet somehow, Zero Time Dilemma‘s tale of a morality game that takes place scattered throughout history works, and works well. There are few instances of better story-telling to be had in gaming, and before the truly final cutscene rolls, players will have had tears in their eyes or bile rising in their throat out of disgust on more than one occasion.
That’s because Zero Time Dilemma lets players navigate three different plotlines that branch into different outcomes with each weighty choice a player is tasked with making. Critical moments come about, characters gamers have become attached to meet grisly, unsettling deaths, and then the game is rewound to the crucial decision that caused the event so that the player can prevent it. These deaths don’t just serve as “game over” or “wrong choice” scenarios, however – often it will be correct to let someone die in order to advance the overall plot, told in three different sub-plots and spanning 3 different teams of characters separated from each other.
It may seem complicated, and it is, but Zero Time Dilemma is the type of game that needs to be played rather than explained. Emotional attachments are made frequently, and gamers will find themselves rooting for some Teams a bit less than others, like Q Team, which features a three-person team comprised of the two least interesting characters of the cast and a child.
Of course, Zero Time Dilemma isn’t just a series of cutscenes interspersed with difficult choices. The puzzle room content that has made such a strong impression on fans of the genre returns in full force with Zero Time Dilemma, and for better or for worse Spike Chunsoft and Aksys Games clearly felt that the formula only needed minor adjustments. Puzzle rooms are bigger than ever, and the first-person examination of each room allows a lot more player freedom than previous games. These puzzles also aren’t similar to other recent successes in the genre like The Witness, as Zero Time Dilemma provides a much more visceral and anxious setting for players to think their way out of.
The puzzles themselves can also be triumphant when executed correctly. One puzzle, involving a series of hieroglyphs, was exactly the balance between frustrating and achievable that solving it felt immensely satisfying. Sadly, on more than one occasion, the game’s camera system obscured an important clue, and players may find themselves tapping the screen hopelessly in every area imaginable for over an hour before they simply luck into finding the next step in the puzzle. If there’s one thing that holds Zero Time Dilemma back from being an absolute masterpiece, it’s the implementation of these rooms, alongside a few puzzles that were way too straightforward.
There are a few other minor concerns to be had with Zero Time Dilemma. The voice acting in English ranges from good to abysmal, and it can negatively affect some intense story moments later in the game. The characters themselves are also awkwardly animated in 3D, and their movements feel robotic at times, a reminder of much earlier 3D character models from over a decade ago. Although the visuals are good when it counts, an extra bit of polish on aesthetic presentation for Zero Time Dilemma prior to the game’s release would not have gone unwarranted.
Ultimately, however, Zero Time Dilemma is a game that does so many things right it is easy to ignore the few times it gets something wrong. In a lot of ways, Zero Time Dilemma feels like Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc in the sense that it successfully blends well-executed but simple gameplay elements with an incredibly compelling story to create an experience gamers simply can’t find anywhere else. There’s a lot to be said about Zero Time Dilemma‘s story and just how deftly Spike Chunsoft has handled the creation of most of the game’s major characters – but then, that discussion would feature a number of critical spoilers, and Zero Time Dilemma is a brilliant adventure all gamers should consider experiencing without ruining any of the fun surprises for themselves.
Zero Time Dilemma is available now for PC, PS Vita, and Nintendo 3DS. Game Rant was provided with a PS Vita code for this review.