Zero Time Dilemma is a worthwhile experience, but it’s far from a worthy finale to the Zero Escape series.
Virtue’s Last Reward, the previous title in developer Spike Chunsoft’s psychological thriller series, flew onto PS Vita under the radar in 2012. No surprise there–the first game in the series, 999: 9 Hours, 9 Persons, 9 Doors, was a Nintendo DS exclusive at the time. Nevertheless, Virtue’s Last Reward (VLR) spun an unforgettable yarn. A rich, complex story punctuated by escape-the-room puzzles demanded your intellectual investment. The tension and unique narrative had me on the edge of my seat for the quickest 40 hours I’ve ever had with a game.
It might not be best practice to hold Zero Time Dilemma up against its predecessor and judge it by everything it isn’t, or by the myriad ways it strikes a different path. But when nearly every change or attempt at advancement feels half-baked at best and negligent at worst, comparisons help ground the conversation. There is, after all, nothing quite like the Zero Escape series. That’s how Zero Time Dilemma can be a good game, but a poor Zero Escape game.
At least the setup is customary. Like its forebears, Zero Time Dilemma begins with nine people trapped in a structure by Zero, a masked villain. In head-to-toe plague doctor regalia, Zero informs the cast they have been taken prisoner to play the Decision Game. The cast, divided into three teams of three and split up to different sections of an underground bunker, must navigate a series of deadly obstacles (and the choices that come with them) to outlast the other teams–for if any six people die, the remaining three will be given freedom.
The structure of the story that follows is wholly unique. The timeline is, at first, completely unknown. As the player, you select one Fragment at a time from a pool of possibilities. Fragments are standalone moments in the broader story, generally featuring a puzzle room and at least one critical choice, that can be played in any order. It’s only after you complete the Fragment that its location and timing in the story’s flow chart is revealed. It feels erratic at first, and the fact you can play story events in any order is a worrisome prospect, but your experience closely mirrors that of the cast. Every 90 minutes, the bracelets strapped to their wrist inject a memory loss drug. Typically, they wake up somewhere completely different–in a room they’ve never seen, with no memory of events that have transpired. Most Fragments actually begin with this waking and confusion, so it’s fitting that both cast and player have no idea where they are, how they got there, or what has recently transpired.
The Zero Escape series has always found ways to draw parallels between cast and player, intertwining the two in meaningful ways, so this latest narrative quirk is par for the course. While there are satisfying, mind-blowing twists in the story at large, I never felt like Fragments contributed to them. It’s an interesting, novel system, but not much more, as most of the story’s true surprises don’t depend on the Fragments to work.
Despite this, Zero Time Dilemma’s story is its standout strength. The nine-member cast includes four characters from previous games alongside five newcomers, and nearly everyone is well-developed by game’s end. What happens between them as a result of your decisions and the stresses placed on them by Zero’s Decision Game are often fascinating and always surprising. I encountered many bad “endings” from the choices I made, and watching grisly things happen to characters I had grown fond of was like a knife to the stomach. After completing some Fragments and seeing where they fall in the broader timeline, you can return to any branching point to try different choices. Doing so, and watching these characters have epiphanies from the knowledge I’d acquired down other branches, felt rewarding and sneaky. I have the power to beat Zero’s game and guide the cast to freedom because of what I, the player, can uniquely do.
As the many plot threads fall together in the final act, a host of revelations come with. Not all of them stick the landing. Some reveals were shocking and changed my entire notion of who these characters were. Others pushed the limits of believability, coming across as cheap and random. The true ending itself felt like a narrative rug-pulling that invalidated much of the series’ central conflicts, replacing them with something lame. There are unanswered questions galore, and not just the “gaps open to interpretation” kind. Plot holes litter the landscape, some serious enough to cheapen the revelations. The game says, ‘Just take our word for it,’ in such significant ways that it transcends ambiguity and feels lazy. It’s the mark of clever writing to be believable without needing tons of exposition. Zero Time Dilemma certainly isn’t light on exposition, and many of its gnarlier twists can be accepted, but a fair few important ones feel rushed and unearned. Meanwhile, several loose threads (including pertinent cliffhangers from VLR) are never resolved, nor even touched upon.
Similarly inconsistent are the game’s puzzles. Zero Time Dilemma’s core gameplay requires escaping from these detailed puzzle rooms by investigating clues, items, and environmental oddities in first-person, piecing together their relationships and figuring out how to proceed through deductive reasoning. By and large, these sections aren’t too formidable; about an hour’s worth of puzzling each, more or less. But there are maddening inconsistencies that speak to an absence of thorough playtesting. Some are cakewalk-easy; all of the logic and patterns make perfect sense, and you can breeze right through. Others have bits that are arbitrary and needlessly complex. Even when the goal was clear to me, and it was abundantly obvious what needed to be done, I couldn’t proceed because I hadn’t clicked on or figured out some obscure intermediate step.
One such moment had me stuck on a puzzle for a few hours. I had collected six of eight hidden things, but the seventh and eighth piece only materialized in the room after an arbitrary extra step (that’s never hinted at by dialogue or other clues). In another room, I was stumped for a couple hours (with the puzzle solved!). Turns out, there was a keyboard where I needed to enter the solution. It only appeared to me through random tapping on a non-descript background, which caused the hidden panel to appear when I hit the right spot. Elsewhere, pixel-hunting had me pulling my hair out. In one room, I felt that a small book on a shelf seemed important, so I tapped it. I received the same dialogue prompt as with the useless stuff around it. Unconvinced, I tapped on it twice more, just to make sure the hit detection wasn’t ripping me off. Only after viewing a guide online did I found out: yes, that book is important. I guess I had missed it by one pixel three consecutive times.
With each of these acting as stumbling blocks to the narrative flow, it’s practically criminal that the designers felt it necessary to make straightforward logic problems “harder” through needless obfuscation. Of course, your mileage will vary, but a cursory glance at forums says I’m not alone in this frustration. Halfway through the game, I was wishing for the option to skip the puzzles entirely, even at the cost of earning Trophies, just to get on with it. Coming from VLR, where I felt the puzzles were actually more challenging yet fair and consistent, Zero Time Dilemma’s escape rooms were pretty disappointing.
The change to a cel-shaded art style and fully animated cutscenes brings its own set of disappointments, though it’s not without some positives. Internal monologuing, an important part of how VLR told its story, is basically gone, but in its place comes high-quality voice acting and more grisly death scenes. Zero Time Dilemma pivots more toward a Saw-style thriller with some of these moments, and while the scenes are still somewhat tasteful (you won’t actually see someone cut their own neck with an axe, just the blood spraying after), the impact of a cutscene over VLR’s still images is definitely felt. The cast benefits from Zero Time Dilemma’s colorful palette, which is amplified by crisp lines and picture clarity on PS Vita.
On the flip side, being told entirely through cutscenes makes the game’s truly awful animation and lip-syncing even harder to stomach. Neither the English nor Japanese dubs come close to lining up with mouth movements. Characters run, talk, and express themselves with all the elasticity of wooden planks. By game’s end, I had adjusted and could appreciate the story being told, but even through the very end, I periodically found myself distracted by the unnatural, amateurish visuals. A shift toward a more dramatic, cinematic feel could have benefitted the game’s intensity. Instead, cutscenes feel undercooked and poorly implemented, like the new art direction wasn’t given enough time or budget to feel like anything other than a step backward from VLR’s text scenes
The soundtrack’s creepy, underscored melodies help compensate. It’s light and playful when a break is needed, but often, the haunting backdrop is matching the racing of your heart and properly reinforcing the current scene, whether intellectual, puzzling, or scary.
By the end of my 25 hours with Zero Time Dilemma, plenty had derailed me from enjoying its story. But despite my misgivings about the way everything comes together and threads left hanging, this is still a great story. One key thing–perhaps the thing–about Zero Escape is its narrative ambition. These games tell complex stories that dwell in philosophy and science. They demand your attention and some critical thinking, but the reward for your investment is huge. Despite its failings, Zero Time Dilemma still makes good on this promise with a grand, sweeping tale. How the whole thing fits into the broader series is surprising, extremely ambitious, and (generally) well-executed. It’s a series finale fans deserve to have, but not the game they deserve. For those fans, it’s essential reading, but newcomers should start elsewhere, and all should beware that Zero Time Dilemma ends this unparalleled series on a weak note.