It’s kind of amazing that we live in a world where the Zero Escape series has finally gotten the conclusion it teased all the way back in 2012. The possibility of a third entry looked incredibly bleak, but thanks to a strong fanbase in the west, we’ve finally arrived at this point. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little skeptical about Zero Time Dilemma, mainly because of its radically different presentation and departure from its visual novel roots. I felt that the new style would take away from the narrative by making it much shorter and lacking in detail. While in some cases it’s an issue, I can safely say that it definitely felt like a Zero Escape game, and it’s certainly a worthy conclusion to the series.
The game starts us off, like the other Zero Escape titles, with our main cast already captured by Zero. He gives them a choice via a decision game to correctly call a coin flip. If they can guess the correct face of the coin, they will be set free. If they do not, they’ll have to participate in Zero’s Elimination Game. Of course, they get the answer wrong, and are promptly knocked out with their memories erased. They all wake up in lounges in separate wards, with only a computer that displays the two opposing teams.
It’s here that Zero explains the rules of the decision game. The goal is simple; six people will have to die in order for the other three to escape. Each time a person dies, an X-pass is given for the X door. This is also when the first of many decision games plays out. The teams all have to vote on the computers to dictate which team dies. The team with two votes will promptly be killed off. Once all three teams cast their vote, the bracelets on their wrists inject them with a sleeping drug, and the game can now properly begin. They’ll have 90 minutes to complete whatever scenario they’re given before they get knocked out with their memories wiped, starting the cycle anew.
The problem with talking about a Zero Escape game is that you have to be a little vague with the story–giving too much away can easily spoil it for others. Zero Time Dilemma is no exception to the rule. The one thing I can talk about, however, is how it tells its story. The game is told through fragments, essentially presenting the story out of order. The more fragments you complete, the clearer the plot’s chronology becomes. The game handles this mechanic pretty well, as you’ll start off dazed and confused (much like the characters) trying to figure out where you are in the story. Any confusion you might feel is intentional, and begins to clear up the more you progress. It also helps by giving you a flowchart to help you piece it together easier.
The only potential problem one might run into with this storytelling format is pacing. It’s quite possible that you’ll end up getting a really exciting moment early on, followed by a slough of comparatively less interesting ones. Personally, that was never a problem for me, and I found all the fragments to have value to them–whether from really tense and exciting moments, to just plain old character building.
As for the narrative itself, while I refuse to give details past its premise, I will say that the story definitely feels like it belongs in the Zero Escape series. The new format does not detract from the game’s storytelling, and in some instances actually makes for better dramatic moments. The only minor complaint I have is the lack of any sort of narrator. This may seem a bit weird to criticize, but the Zero Escape games have always been good in churning up a sense of dread with their narration.
An important thing to bring up is how well ZTD will go over with newcomers to the series. Uchikoshi has gone on record saying that Zero Time Dilemma would be accessible to players that have never played the previous two games. Zero Time Dilemma does make an attempt, but it ends up feeling half-baked. Without going into spoiler territory for the last two entries, most of the events from the second game, Virtue’s Last Reward, are explained in some detail. Unfortunately, some pretty big plot details from 999 are barely brought up, which could lead to some confused newcomers wondering about the relationship between Junpei and Akane. It really does pay off having played the previous entries, as not only will the game make way more sense, but there are also loads of tiny references that only veterans will pick up on.
Fans of the series will be happy to hear that old cast members are on top of their game, and are as great as when we left them. Phi and Sigma still have amazing banter and are a joy to be around. The highlight of the game is the Junpei and Akane dynamic, as we haven’t seen these two truly interact since 999. Unlike Phi and Sigma, whose dynamic is largely the same from Virtue’s Last Reward, Junpei and Akane’s relationship has changed over the year they were separated. Junpei is much more cynical and sarcastic, especially towards Akane, knowing now what kind of person she truly is. Akane is still the same as she was in 999, but now plays a more active role in the plot, and is often the brains of the group. You constantly root for them throughout the game, hoping they can finally achieve the happy ending they’ve been fighting for over the course of two games.
The new characters are good, although it feels like they get outshined by the old. Carlos and Diana are decent, with Carlos acting in a similar way to how Junpei and Sigma did in their respective games. Diana acts more as the innocent intermediary between Phi and Sigma. Putting the two of them in the leading role was a great idea for bringing out the best possible dynamic in each team. Sadly, the same can’t be said about Q-Team. While not bad per se, they definitely pale in comparison to the rest. Mira is by far my least favorite, since her importance to the story seemed somewhat forced, and her ultimate growth as a character felt rushed and barely set up at all. The Q-Team segments were always my least favorite from a narrative standpoint.
Files make a return from Virtue’s Last Reward, though slightly different. You now have two categories, Cinema and Quest. Quest files are basically the items you get during a puzzle room, that help you escape that particular room. You get cinema files as the game progresses. They unlock during cutscenes and act as story aides, giving you information that wasn’t given during the cutscenes. While completely optional, it does enhance the experience if you take the time to read up on them during your playthrough.
The final thing I have to say about the story is that the ending of Zero Time Dilemma might split fans down the middle. I can’t go into specifics, but my first impression was definitely that it lacked a certain amount of closure. That is, until I discovered once you beat the game, it adds some new files that expands the game’s ending. Upon reading them, I can safely say the game ends on a high note, and I’m ultimately satisfied with its conclusion.
Much like the presentation of the story, ZTD also has completely different visuals. For starters, it doesn’t present itself like a visual novel, but is instead more like a traditional game with cutscenes. Surprisingly, this doesn’t detract from the game’s plot, as it still takes the time to slow down and exposit philosophical ideas and thought experiments. At no point does the game feel like it’s rushing itself to get to a certain point. Like other titles in the series, it takes its sweet time and puts it to good use.
The character designs are hit-or-miss, though, honestly. Kinu Nishimura did not reprise her role as designer, replaced by industry newcomer Rui Tomono. Her style is much less exaggerated and considerably more grounded compared to Nishimura’s work. Because of this, fans might consider her designs to be much duller in comparison, but I think it actually helps with the game’s mood. Zero Time Dilemma is by far the most violent and grim of the Zero Escape games, and has some of the most morbid imagery the series has to offer. Tomono’s designs really help to sell this imagery in a way that I don’t think Nishimura’s would have.
The actual 3D models are another thing altogether. While they’re considerably better than the ones in Virtue’s Last Reward, they still look awkward in certain moments. Characters’ facial expressions are quite limited, and don’t always fit the situation they’re in. Lip-syncing is also quite wonky, as sometimes their lips won’t move in certain conversations. It doesn’t detract much from the drama, but it is definitely noticeable.
The music in Zero Time Dilemma is absolutely fantastic, with a mix of some older songs alongside newer tracks. They are used perfectly to capture the emotions occurring on-screen, and it’s hard to find much to complain about as far as audio goes in general.
Zero Time Dilemma’s puzzles are, sadly, the weakest in the series. This is mainly due to certain puzzles not delivering information very clearly. There were three instances where I was stuck in a room for well over an hour trying to deduce a puzzle’s solution, only to find the answer due to sheer luck. There was also a room where the puzzle I was tasked to solve was so straightforward and mind-numbingly simple, I wouldn’t even call it a puzzle. There was another involving hieroglyphs that, while not a hard puzzle necessarily, was incredibly tedious and had me scribbling notes like a madman to solve it.
At the very least, the puzzle UI is much more streamlined and less tedious to get through. Every item you gather will display on one screen, and doesn’t require tons of scrolling just to combine two items. It’s as simple as dragging and dropping. The memo system also makes a return, although I only ended up using it a couple of times, since most puzzles give you way too much info. This issue might be mitigated in the 3DS version, but if you’re playing the Vita version, you’re better off just writing on paper.
I wish I could talk more about Zero Time Dilemma, but if I did, I’d be spoiling so many of its great moments. I’m still surprised this game was made, but I’m nonetheless glad I was able to play it. The puzzles may be the weakest in the series, but the story and characters carried Zero Time Dilemma all the way to the finishing line, and gave us the conclusion we were hoping for since 2012. If you’re a fan of the Zero Escape games, I don’t need to convince you to buy it. If you’re a newcomer and want to get into the Zero Escape series, though, play the first two games before you even consider Zero Time Dilemma, as it offers a much more rewarding experience if you have.
Zero Time Dilemma was reviewed on PlayStation Vita using a digital code provided by Aksys Games. You can find additional information about Niche Gamer’s review/ethics policy here.
The Verdict: 8.5
- Story is unmistakeably Zero Escape
- Old cast is absolutely fantastic
- Soundtrack is great
- Finally gives the series much needed closure
- Ending might leave some people split
- Newer characters (specifically Q Team) are overshadowed by old cast
- Puzzles are the weakest in the series