Seek a Way Out
The Zero Escape series began on the Nintendo DS with 999: Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors, a mystery thriller about nine characters trying to escape a ship. The game featured branching decisions, puzzling escape sequences, and huge twists that turned the story upside-down. Despite its commercial failure in Japan, the series was well-met with critics, leading to a sequel, Virtue’s Last Reward, on Nintendo 3DS and PlayStation Vita. The game built upon the intriguing plot of the original and brought new characters, more escape rooms, and a bigger emphasis on science fiction. Again, the game didn’t sell well, which led to series creator, Kotaro Uchikoshi, putting the series on hold indefinitely. Luckily, fan response and a desire to finish what he started led Uchikoshi to finally create the conclusive third game of the Zero Escape trilogy, Zero Time Dilemma.
Zero Time Dilemma weaves a tale similar to previous Zero Escape games but puts its own creative twist into it. Again, a group of people find themselves trapped in a facility thanks to a mysterious character who goes by “Zero.” Everyone unwillingly participates a survival game in which six players’ deaths will allow the remaining three to escape. Meanwhile, Zero engages them in life-threatening decision games that often end in betrayal or self-destruction.
Of course, that’s not all. The huge catch is that every 90 minutes, the characters are injected with a drug that causes them to fall asleep and lose their memories of that fragment in time. This unique concept manifests in the gameplay as well. You can experience nearly any 90 minute fragment in whatever order you choose. Since the characters don’t remember what happened beforehand, it’s almost like starting anew each time. Unfortunately, this makes development seem somewhat static. However, this unique style of storytelling sets up its own brand of intrigue. Each fragment is part of a large timeline, which you view as a massive flowchart. Certain sections of the timeline remain locked until you complete specific story elements. As you play more fragments, you can piece together the timeline and solve the mystery of this treacherous game.
Unlike previous titles, the characters are divided into three groups that rarely interact with each other. Although you get to appreciate each group’s rapport more, you miss out on individuals’ reactions to characters outside of their group. Regardless, the characters are entertaining and run the gamut of personalities. You play as the three team leaders: loyal and righteous fireman Carlos, kind but anxious Diana, and mysterious entity Q. Rounding out the rest of the cast are some new characters and some familiar faces from both 999 and Virtue’s Last Reward. Fans of those games will be pleased to see more conclusive revelations to these characters’ fates.
ZTD is largely rooted in the visual novel genre, so storytelling is essentially half of the game. Experiencing the story is more cinematic than ever before, with fully-animated, voiced cutscenes replacing the lines of text from previous entries. After choosing a team and fragment from the menu, you watch that particular episode.
Within most fragments, you will encounter the second part of this game: escape sequences. This style of gameplay will be familiar to anyone who has ever participated in a real-life escape-the-room game or have played older adventure/point-and-click games. In these sequences, you must seek a way out of a locked room by searching the area, solving puzzles, and managing items. Each room features unique challenges, including spatial reasoning puzzles, codebreaking, math problems, logic riddles, and hidden-picture minigames. The game effectively utilizes the 3DS’ touchscreen for its challenges and point-and-click portions. Additionally, a memo function lets you take notes, which is almost required for certain puzzles. A room’s difficulty largely depends on a player’s ability to solve these logic puzzles, but they are all generally solvable without requiring outside assistance.
The puzzle rooms are mostly enjoyable breaks from the story, but they share common pitfalls. First, most of the rooms follow a linear structure. Although you can technically access most puzzles from the get-go, there is typically one puzzle you are required to solve that will give you the solution to the next puzzle, and so-on. Some rooms are open-ended, but most only give the illusion of choice. Building upon this issue, some rooms require you to find certain items to complete a challenge. However, on some occasions, these items are too well-hidden, represented as only a sparkle or tiny item on the floor. These annoying pixel hunts serve as barriers for players who are just trying to solve the codes and escape.
Following most escape rooms, Zero tasks the characters with a decision game, usually tied to a complex scientific, statistical, or psychological principle, such as the anthropic principle, the Monty Hall Problem, and the prisoner’s dilemma. Each decision leads to a different branch point, further complicating the extensive timeline. Thankfully, you can return to any segment of the timeline at any time to redo a decision. You can even fast-forward through story elements to get to the branch point, making the experience user-friendly.
Without spoiling anything, ZTD’s implementation of the timeline is extremely clever both from gameplay and story perspectives. The timeline is just as much a part of the game as any other element, and the culminations of these fragments is a thrill to play through. That said, there is one section that players may get stuck on once all the available story fragments are exhausted, and better communication on that particular progress prerequisite would have been appreciated.
No matter what order or which teams you play as, there are wonderful story sequences with clever twists throughout. There are multiple endings, with some being either graphically gruesome and others presenting juicy revelations for the entire series. Some end-game twists may come off as too convoluted (even by Zero Escape standards) and may disappoint some fans looking for more in the trilogy’s conclusion. However, ZTD answers many questions and ties up loose ends from all three games, which fans won’t want to miss out on.
Graphics and Sound
ZTD utilizes fully animated and voiced cutscenes, which is a huge step-up from text-heavy static screens. The characters don’t move that much, which is to be expected from a dialogue-heavy game, but the models look pretty good and resemble an anime-styled Telltale Games presentation. During action scenes, the framerate drops and the cutscenes devolve into PlayStation era FMV sequences. Regardless, having these extensive cutscenes helps this game feel more modern.
The game has options for both English and Japanese voice tracks, which will appease players of either camp. The voices are good for the most part, although there are some volume issues with certain characters like Zero, whose voice is very hard to hear. The creepy music contributes to the game’s tone while mild techno tracks during escape sequences help get the brain running. Longtime fans will be all too familiar with the five discordant tones signaling death and madness, and the series wouldn’t be the same without it.
ZTD will take most players between 25-30 hours, making it shorter than the previous entry, Virtue’s Last Reward. Total playtime varies depending on how long players take during puzzle sequences. Although there are multiple endings and many fragments to complete, most playthroughs will go through each fragment and ending to get through the whole story, so there isn’t as much replayability as it may seem. It is very possible to replay it like rereading a good book, and playing fragments in a different order can make it interesting. For the most part, this game is only meant to be played once.
Zero Time Dilemma has a great story filled with the ridiculous twists that Uchikoshi has become known for. This game gets scary and gory, earning its M rating, so only those who can stomach it need apply. Otherwise, players can strap themselves in for a thrilling tale filled with science fiction and horror. Mystery aficionados and puzzle fans will love this enjoyable mix of visual novel intrigue and escape room sequences. Fans of previous Zero Escape games owe it to themselves to play through the exciting series conclusion. However, players without prior experience may be lost in the midst of references and convoluted time plot. If you haven’t played a Zero Escape game, it is recommended that you play the first two installments, especially Virtue’s Last Reward. Once you are familiar with what the style and characters of those games, you will fully appreciate the madness that is Uchikoshi’s Zero Time Dilemma.