Zero Time Dilemma Review

By Shawn Collier on June 27, 2016

For fans of the Zero Escape series, after reaching the nail-bitting cliffhanger at the end of 2012's Virtue's Last Reward (VLR), being left with the possibility of no conclusion to the overarching narrative started by 2009's Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors (999) was despair inducing indeed.

So when series creator Kotaro Uchikoshi and publisher Aksys Games announced last year following a strong social media campaign that the third concessionary game would be made and released, fans were understandably excited. So does it live up to their now high and lofty expectations?

Zero Time Dilemma opens up with nine characters (a series trademark by now, if you haven't already noticed), in three groups of three people each in jail cells. They're addressed by a man in a plague doctor getup calling himself Zero who waxes philoshopically and then has the newly designated leader Carlos bet on a simple coin toss. If they guess right they get to leave freely, but if they lose they have to play a "game" that should be all but familiar to those who've played 999 or VLR.

This game actually has an interesting gimmick to it I won't spoil, but eventually you'll end up making the "wrong" choice and losing, in which case you'll be forced to play into Zero's game. But instead of being the Nonary or the Ambidex game like before, this game's iteration is known as the Decision Game.

This naming comes into play directly from the get-go, as you take control of one of three teams from the viewpoint of Carlos of C-Team, Q of Q-Team or Diana of D-Team. They're each trapped in a different area of an underground bomb shelter, and the very first decision they're tasked with is deciding which team they must vote for to die. And if they don't, their team will get two votes against them. So each team is left in a bad situation indeed.

Zero Time Dilemma tweaks the timeline approach that VLR brought to the series, which was something that was a major missing pain point in 999. While there is an overall timeline that is viewable and selectable in ZTD, the catch is that you must first play that part's segment out through the "fragment" section of the interface, after which point the game will reveal where in the timeline that section of the story is supposed to occur.

This is explained in-game by the fact that the watches the mysterious Zero attaches to everyone's wrists this time around inject the participants with knockout gas and memory-erasing drugs every 90 minutes, which explains why you'll be jumping around seemingly haphazardly throughout the narrative as you and the participants don't know where the real timeline is supposed to be.

It's a different approach, but it does make for fun in piecing together the overarching timeline piece-by-piece once you start figuring things out, as you can likely get an idea after a while of which timeline is the "best" timeline. There's also some choice segments thrown into the mix, similar to VLR, with one or two in particular like one where you need to input text that I found amusing if I tried inputting obviously wrong but "correct" in-game answers where the developers had pre-filled responses ready "” nice touch by the developers there.

And for those who disliked that VLR got rid of the more "gruesome" deaths present in 999, you'll be happy to hear that ZTD brings this back in spades with some deaths that probably will turn a few heads without spoiling things. The most I'll say is that if you're squeamish of blood, this probably isn't the game for you.

Of course, this wouldn't be a Zero Escape game without its first-person puzzle escape room "” and they're here and as devious as you'd expect. There's a wide variety of puzzles on display here, with a number of the motifs harkening back to the prior games in the series while still feeling unique to this new entry. Generally I felt most of the puzzles were fair with some critical thinking applied, although you will need to write down some detailed notes for a few of them. But there were a few puzzles in particular that just didn't make sense and I had to essentially brute force myself through them and got lucky in finding the solution and still didn't realize what the clue was supposed to be. It's odd because in other puzzles the game gives you a hint when it realizes you're stuck, but for these particular puzzles it didn't do that at all.

After completing the puzzle sections, you're treated again with more of the game's narrative. It's hard to talk much about in this review, as talking about it much into detail goes straight into spoiler territory or its characters as four of the character return from previous entries (Akane, Junpei, Sigma and Phi). While it may not fulfill everyone's hopes and dreams by the game's end, it does wrap up a good amount of the hanging plot points if you look to find all of the various endings and such.

And while it's preferable that you've played 999 and VLR (or at the very least VLR, as this game essentially takes place not that long after it), the developers did format it in a way that you won't be completely lost if you enter in media-res.

Each of the nine characters are developed quite nicely, with their own backstories that you learn as the game goes on (although the four returning characters in particular do tend to assume you know of their own backstories from their respective games). Like in 999 and VLR, scientific terms and other theories will be thrown out at-will and used, so be expecting that throughout the game "” thankfully there's an in-game log to look back at the dialogue tree if you forgot the explanation told to you a few moments ago.

There are some areas that ding the game's presentation, however, with it depending somewhat on what version of the game you are playing. 999 had vivid 2D artwork, whereas VLR switched things up with quality voice acting and gorgeous 3D character portraits. ZTD has fully 3D models that animate during 3D cutscenes, but this is where the issue lies.

While it's not horrible and you'll get used to it after an hour or two, there's initially something unnatural about how the models animate that's distracting, especially concerning the faces when they need to make certain facial movements. I also noticed some issues in where the "line" shading effect that the developers applied the the models could be seen through when the camera was angled in just the right position, usually during certain cutscenes. This wasn't often and usually was most evident in the 3DS version due to the lower graphical fidelity, but it's incredibly obvious to the eye when it does occur.

Speaking of the Nintendo 3DS version in particular (as we had both the 3DS and Vita versions available to us for review), in specific instances the frame rate will chug when the camera needs to make a sudden movement. While this doesn't happen often, it is noticeable when it does occur. It's nothing like the data corruption issue VLR had on the 3DS, so players playing that version shouldn't be worried that's the extent of the issues I noticed, outside of the slight graphical downgrade.

Finally, the game's audio. While the English voice track doesn't reach the lofty heights of VLR, I couldn't find any real faults with the cast outside of some sound mixing issues, especially regarding any time that Zero is on screen as it's almost necessary to have the captions on to hear the entirety of what Zero's trying to say. There is the option to switch over to the Japanese voice track if you prefer, however. The musical tracks have a nice variety to them and mix things up greatly based on the different locales and situations they're used in.

Final Thoughts

While there's some minor issues with the graphical presentation and some of the puzzles are a bit obtuse for their own good, it's still easily a masterpiece and one of the best release thus far this year. So for most fans, it should live up to your expectations and then some.

The story will keep you guessing until the very end.
Those who disliked the lack of 999-style deaths will be happy with this game.
The new fragments mechanic expands on VLR's timeline mechanic nicely.
Some of the puzzles are too obtuse for their own good.
While full-motion in cutscenes is a nice touch, there's occasional issues with the new graphical style.
The 3DS version has frame rate drop issues in specific key instances.
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