Despite achieving critical success, the commercial failure of Virtue’s Last Reward (the second chapter of the Zero Escape trilogy that was released in 2012) in Japan resulted in the cancellation of development of the sequel. However, because of fan support (Operation Bluebird), the people over at Spike Chunsoft changed their minds and now we have Zero Time Dilemma, the much awaited concluding chapter.
Like the games that preceded it, Zero Time Dilemma is a “visual novel”/puzzle game which has two modes of gameplay – Novel sections wherein the game’s narrative progresses, and Escape sections wherein you are tasked to solve sets of puzzles in order to “escape” whichever room the characters that you’re following are in.
The theme is consistent across all three games: nine people are trapped against their will in a certain location and are forced to play a game (called the Decision Game in this chapter). The narrative revolves around the identities of these people, the reasons why they were chosen, and the overall purpose of the game that they’re forced to play.
Zero Time Dilemma has three significant differences when compared to its prequels, the first being it’s narrative flow. The previous two installments – Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors (999) and Virtue’s Last Reward (VLR) – flow chronologically from a beginning and branches to different endings that depend on your in-game choices. In Zero Time Dilemma, however, the narrative is told in fragments; for the majority of the game, you can choose any amongst a selection of many different fragments, with the game purposely not informing you where exactly in the whole narrative your chosen fragment fits until you’ve finished it completely. Think of Zero Time Dilemma as a cross between the films Saw and Memento, with the latter being told in random order.
The second major change in this chapter is the presentation – the previous two games in the series are visual novels in the truest sense, involving a lot of text to read and using static images or short cinematic sequences. In Zero Time Dilemma, the Novel sections are all presented in animated cinematics with full voice acting, so there’s barely any reading necessary. And the final big difference of Zero Time Dilemma involves the lack of one single protagonist that serves as your avatar in the game, unlike 999 which you see through the character Junpei or VLR which you experience through the character Sigma.
Now that we have these out of the way, let’s talk about the Good and the Bad of Zero Time Dilemma (note that this was released on the Nintendo 3DS, the Playstation Vita, and on Windows PC – I’m reviewing the 3DS version):
- Zero Time Dilemma works as a stand alone game, but you need to have played both 9 Hours, 9 Persons, 9 Doors and Virtue’s Last Reward to fully enjoy it. Knowing what happened in the previous games would explain the interactions between several characters. One particular ending was very powerful for me because I played Virtue’s Last Reward – that’s all that I’ll say about it. I’m not sure if the game’s storyline will be as impactful to someone who didn’t experience the first two games of the series.
- Because Zero Time Dilemma is no longer a visual novel in the strictest sense, it no longer has an inner monologue that works to describe events, locations, and concepts. The story is told via visuals and spoken dialogue – some parts become laden with exposition because of this. This together with the lack of a single lead protagonist leads to losing the feeling of experiencing the game as if you were there; I felt like I was observing a group of people instead of experiencing the game’s events through the eyes of one of the characters because of this.
- Despite being touted as having animated cinematics, there are a lot of moments in Zero Time Dilemma wherein there’s very little animation going on – characters often are just sitting or standing around talking to each other. Or running from one place to another. If the developers were aiming for a movie-like experience, they missed the mark.
- Because of the fragmented storytelling structure, it’s hard to make sense of what’s happening in Zero Time Dilemma until after the halfway mark – or maybe even further past that. The game’s story is like piecing together a jigsaw puzzle without knowing what the puzzle is supposed to be a picture of. People will need to be very patient with the game – it’ll be worth the wait, but the wait can be a long one.
- Speaking of fragments, there’s a design choice in Zero Time Dilemma that didn’t really work well for me. Fragments are unlocked based on different achievements that are not really well communicated in the game. I had to look up FAQs maybe once or twice because I was stuck – I’ve gone through all of the available fragments already and none of the locked ones were getting unlocked.
- Part of what made the first two Zero Escape games very interesting from start to end is seeing how each of the characters interact with each other – groupings of characters in both games change constantly so you get to see everybody with everyone else. That’s not the case with Zero Time Dilemma, where the groupings are long term and most of the interactions are limited to these groupings.
- I mentioned that the game’s cinematics needed some work and that’s still true. But boy, they are still an improvement over static images – no matter how well drawn, it’s different to look at a picture of someone swinging an axe at another person versus actually seeing an animated 3D model do the same.
- While being a more direct sequel of Virtue’s Last Reward than of Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors, Zero Time Dilemma still manages to tie up all the loose ends and hanging plotlines of both games with a generally satisfying conclusion.
- Half of Zero Time Dilemma consists of puzzle solving and in this area, I was genuinely entertained. While not having to refer to guides or FAQs throughout my playthrough when it came to the puzzle solving may be seen by some as a result of the puzzles being too easy, I would disagree. I think that Zero Time Dilemma’s puzzles are more complete in the sense that all the clues that you need are well communicated enough that I didn’t get stumped for too long.
- I noted a lot more bad stuff than good but this isn’t about the numbers; you play Zero Time Dilemma because of it’s story, how it’s presented, and the puzzles in the game. Zero Time Dilemma has a really good storyline once you get past the fragmented storytelling, presentation is for the most part really good (just try to be more accepting of the cinematics) and the puzzles are still great.
In general, I loved Zero Time Dilemma. It was a good enough conclusion to the Zero Escape trilogy (one that we almost didn’t get) and while it could have been better with a bigger production budget, I think the product that we got had enough improvements over the previous games and offered different enough experiences to justify a purchase.
However, I wouldn’t recommend this game to everyone – like I said above, I don’t think Zero Time Dilemma would have the same impact on someone who played the previous Zero Escape games as it would on someone who hasn’t. A big part of my enjoyment comes from knowing the returning characters and knowing what came before and how everything is going to be resolved. And despite not being a visual novel in it’s strictest sense, Zero Time Dilemma still requires sitting through long cutscenes in between the puzzle sequences which may not sit well with others. Zero Time Dilemma is a really good visual novel-style game that should be played by those who like the genre and own a 3DS.