Wot I Think: Zero Escape: Zero Time Dilemma

Flip a coin. If it’s heads, carry on. If it’s tails, embark upon a 20-hour adventure in which you might be cut in half with a chainsaw, dissolved in acid, or turned into nuclear goop in a big uranium-fuelled explosion.

This is the first and most central decision of visual novel/room escape game Zero Escape: Zero Time Dilemma. Nine people are trapped in a facility, and six people must die in order to reveal the six passwords for the exit. What’s more, every 90 minutes, everyone is put to sleep and their memories are wiped, which – as you might imagine – makes everything terribly confusing to piece together, for both them and you.

As the third game in the Zero Escape trilogy, Zero Time Dilemma plays on a similar concept to its prequels, Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors and Virtue’s Last Reward: the story takes place on a branching flowchart, splitting whenever you have to make a decision.

In 999, this was as simple as choosing one of two doors to go through. In VLR, it was slightly more complicated – each team would vote every couple of hours to ally or betray the others in order to maximise their own chances of escape. It’s yet again more complicated in Zero Time Dilemma, as you take part in the “Decision Game”. Your mysterious antagonist, Zero, puts you in situations requiring (usually) a binary choice at the end – push the button or not; save person A or person B; betray team A or save them? It’s a different way of telling the story to previous games, but your decisions have more immediate consequences than just choosing a door.

However, those immediate consequences are not always that interesting in themselves. If you’ve played 999 or VLR, you’ll know that every ending has to be seen before progress can be made, due to the way the narrative-hopping story plays out, but Zero Time Dilemma will just tell you “…and then X died. GAME OVER” and boot you back to the selection screen to choose a more eventful branch. Because you have to play out each bad ending to find the good one – and to comprehend the full story – this can feel a bit more like box-ticking than actual progress.

However, when the narrative branches delve into the secrets and motivations of a character, that’s when Zero Time Dilemma shines. Not all of the characters are as interesting as past games – in particular, newcomers Eric and Mira are weirdly one-dimensional, the former as an overprotective fool and the latter as a distractingly chesty psychopath – but seeing what happens with Phi and Sigma, recurring characters from the previous game, is compelling enough to make you want to play Virtue’s Last Reward again with fresh eyes.

Unfortunately, the game is marred by visual issues. Over-enthusiastic hair and breast physics make it hard to take a scene seriously as Mira’s generous bosom bounces merrily in the background and Akane’s hair attempts to perform a Riverdance routine on the back of her head. What’s even worse is the 3D animation, a new addition to the Zero Escape series.

The characters’ movements are sharp, stiff and robotic, like animatronic puppets with rusted joints. Their facial expressions are locked into something between anger and indifference, with everyone having the kind of sharp, angular eyebrows you’d see in a heavily stylised anime. More complicated animations are bypassed altogether as the camera cuts to a view of the ceiling. If this was used sparsely, it might seem cinematic; as it is, the camera cuts to the same ceiling view about five times in every story segment.

Zero Time Dilemma is still a visual novel and an escape-the-room game at its heart, and when it focuses on those aspects, it’s almost as excellent as its prequels. It does suffer from similar problems – getting too caught up in its own confusing philosophical monologues, relying too much on the player’s knowledge of what happened in the two previous games, and beginning the story in media res and expecting the player to piece it together themselves – but the story itself, once you understand what’s going on, is impressively smart, thoughtful and gripping.

The narrative unfolds in whatever order you choose, as you make your decisions, opening up new branches of the flowchart and attempting to create a coherent timeline of events in your head. It’s not until the very end of the game that you really understand any of what’s happened, and there are some deliciously juicy twists that will (hopefully) genuinely take you by surprise.

The escape-the-room segments, which vary between engaging puzzles and irritatingly difficult leaps of logic, are disappointingly few and far between. Zero Time Dilemma isn’t really about the rooms as much as it is about the people, and where 999 used the rooms and the puzzles and objects within to reveal parts of each character, Zero Time Dilemma instead bookends the escaping part with more story. It’s a shame they aren’t more integrated, and it’s also a shame to miss out on the bits that work well with the 3DS’ stylus, like note-taking.

There is a lot to love about Zero Time Dilemma, though its weird new look is a clear misstep in a series that’s otherwise managed to be quite stylish with the limited resources it had. If you are a fan of 999 and VLR, it’s a must-play to fill in the gaps between the two – and you’ll appreciate the twists and reveals more than anyone else. The occasionally dull new characters are mostly redeemed by their motivations and backstories in the end, but it’s hard to overlook Zero Time Dilemma’s visual flaws, which distract from the brilliance of the story. It’s by no means the best Zero Escape game, but it’s a fitting end to the trilogy’s story arc and – animation aside – it’s an excellent way to spend a few evenings.

Zero Escape: Zero Time Dilemma is out now for Windows via Steam for £30/$40/€37.

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20 Comments

  1. AshEnke says:

    So if I’ve never played any of the games, I only have access to a PC, I have low tolerance for verbose visual novels (I bounced off Dangaronpa when it took an hour to explain the setup and everything was so slow). But I love choices, I love telltale games.

    Will I love this one ? Should I start with the first two games ?

    • Wellzy4eva says:

      From my experience with ZLR, if you don’t play the games in order, you’ll miss a lot of the story and call backs, kinda like starting a tales game on Episode 3.

      • Wellzy4eva says:

        Oh and it can be VERY verbose at times, although perhaps not as much Danganronpa?

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      X_kot says:

      Like you, I couldn’t sustain my interest in Danganronpa, but the Zero Escape games have kept me engaged. I didn’t start with the first game, 999, and unless you really like room-escape puzzles, you can just watch a playthrough of it. You should definitely play Virtue’s Last Reward before Time Dilemma; it summarizes most of the events of the first game and sets the stage for the third. (Both 999 and VLR have been confirmed to have PC ports on the way.) There is a lot of dialogue, but you can click through it as fast as you want.

    • Shazbut says:

      I’d say play 999 first. The plot keeps moving and even though some of the writing is absurd, it never really feels slow. You’ll probably like it.

      It should be on Steam eventually but…well, there are other ways

    • Ragnar says:

      I’d start with 999. The PC port should be incoming.

      Play through once to get to an ending, then follow a guide to get to the two proper ends.

    • AncientSpark says:

      I’ve heard a lot of varying opinions on this one, from “it’s a good idea, but not totally necessary” to “it’s pretty important.”

      From my view, you don’t necessarily need to play 999, but you do need to understand the main story device it explains towards the end (morphogenetics), because it’s a big term and tool that’s used throughout the series. If you can get someone to explain it to you and you don’t mind spoiling it for yourself, you can safely skip 999 otherwise; there’s a few motivations you might miss, but it won’t be strictly necessary.

      On the other hand, I argue that VLR is quite necessary because its main plot is a big motivation for why ZTD even exists. The reason why is not only big spoilers, but it’d take a pretty hefty while as well.

    • SaunteringLion says:

      This game really needs the story of 999 and Virtue’s Last Reward to make it worth it, if you aren’t into Visual Novels. 999’s story can be viewed on Android or iOS if you have that (but the puzzles flesh out the story quite a bit and are great, so the DS version is best). Virtue’s Last Reward is just on Vita and 3DS at present.

      They might eventually port 999/VLR to Steam, so I’d wait for that before jumping into the series.

    • AshEnke says:

      Thanks everyone !
      I’ll wait for the release of the second game on Steam, I’ll watch a playthrough of the first one and I’ll start from here.

  2. TheAngriestHobo says:

    That last screenie was well-timed. Kudos. :)

    On an unrelated note, what are those strange… boobflaps hanging down under that lady’s bra?

  3. Babymech says:

    Unfortunately the game was underfunded (it was a struggle to just get it made) which means that the balance of puzzles and plot segments is extremely lopsided compared to previous games, the puzzles are somewhat same-y, and the twists are very rushed / not thought through. There are also no secret endings, which seems pretty unforgivable.

    Also, without spoiling anything, the central conceit of the game really robs it of any urgency. There’s no way good way to do spoiler tags here so I’ll just say that as far as I can tell, the central conceit of the game literally undercuts the motivations of every single action in the story – which is unfortunate when that story is so central to the game.

    • Chillicothe says:

      Yeah, the first two were like slowly, then rapidly realizing the full scope of the narrative you were deep in (like the situation the characters found themselves in), but ZTD was very fitful towards the end and doubled back too many times robbing one of the most crucial components the series relies on: character motivations ringing true.

  4. Scrofa says:

    I’ll wait for VLR port or buy a 3DS, whichever will happen first, thank you very much.

  5. SaunteringLion says:

    Time Dilemma was a disappointment. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still great. But it was a disappointment still.

    As mentioned, the amount of puzzles in the game comprises like 25% of your playtime, compared to 999 or Virtue’s Last Reward where it was close to even. The puzzles are also very, very easy. I looked up one element from one puzzle when I could’ve solved it, and another because it was so poorly worded (start with the one on the far left, THEN activate the next ones). Compare that to 999, which was well balanced, and Virtue’s Last Reward where I would have to actively restrain myself from looking up the answers, but feel so proud when I completed them. And there isn’t even a final, ultimate puzzle, which in the previous games were one of the highlights.

    The story itself also was not as either as emotionally gripping as 999, or as conspiratorially engaging as Virtue’s Last Reward. The twist here was alright but didn’t substantially change too much. The payoffs for characters we’ve stuck with for a long time seemed forced, and some of the resolutions either didn’t gel with previous canon or seemed phoned in.

    Still, very glad it got made and I got to finish the narrative.

    • SaunteringLion says:

      Also Phi, one of the best parts of VLR, which is one of my favourite games ever, is woefully underused in this game. She doesn’t say or do anything of note.

      • timmyvos says:

        I think that’s going a bit too far; she does do one very important thing, though it’s probably better to say that it’s done to her.

    • Deano2099 says:

      Also found it disappointing, I’m not sure there were fewer puzzles, if anything I thought I spent more of this game puzzling than the others, but that’s mostly because the other games had long, drawn out (great) reading sections. Replacing the text (and first person narrative) with fully animated and badly acted scenes kind of ruined it for me. There was far less story, the characters felt far less well characterised, and the central plot point just wasn’t as much fun. The “decision game” seemed to be a bunch of scenarios that weren’t interesting enough to design a full game around, and seemed completely random and arbitrary. The great thing about the first two games is that the single game lasted the entire story, and the consequences of the rules were fully explored.

  6. rmsgrey says:

    The article already hits my main points about the game: good game, shame about the graphics, the action-averse camera, and the lack of polish.

    There are a couple of other things: one is that the interface, even on the 3DS version, is less user-friendly than VLR’s; the other is that big twist.

    The details of the twist are a spoiler, but at one point, the game reveals a significant piece of information that several characters are aware of for most of the game, that they couldn’t have known before the game started, and which, until the twist is revealed, they carefully never mention on-camera even in situations where it might make sense to do so.

    It’s not this, but it’s as though, three-quarters of the way through the game, one of the characters said “y’know what, why don’t we just use the fire exit in that corner?” and the camera panned over to display a clearly visible, clearly labelled fire exit that just happened to be out of shot any time characters were in that room previously, and which no character bothered to bring up when the characters were standing next to it in an early scene discussing ways they might get out…