The third and final series in the Zero Escape franchise, Zero Time Dilemma, connects events between the two preceding games: 999: Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors and Zero Time Escape: Virtue’s Last Reward. With brand new character designs by artist Rui Tomono, 3D cutscenes and a more cinematic and less linear approach to the story-telling, creator and head writer Kotaro Uchikoshi attempts to reach out to a a broader and more global audience.
How do these changes affect the general appeal to the title in relation to the previous entries? Surprisingly they make for a more engaging and intricate story — always a bonus in a visual novel title.
The game begins with nine participants in what seems to a routine experiment in the Nevada desert. For five days they are subjected to living conditions mimicking those that might be experienced on a Mars colony. On the sixth day, however, a mysterious person named Zero kidnaps them and traps them in an underground bomb shelter. Zero divides them equally between three teams, with each team with its own ward connected to an elevator shaft in the middle.
The participants are then told that six passwords are required to unlock the only exit, called the X-Door, and each password is revealed only after a participant dies. In this way, the game offers teams the opportunity to kill other participants through a variety of means to obtain the necessary passwords to escape. Even worse, after 90 minutes the black bracelet strapped to each participant’s wrist injects an agent into their bloodstream that renders them unconscious and erases the memories of the last 90 minutes from their minds.
Quite the dilemma, yes?
In Zero Time Dilemma, the way the story unfolds has gone through radical changes. Instead of players proceeding in a linear and straightforward fashion, players now experience it through the “fragments” system. Each of the three teams have their own plotline, which is separated into fragments or moments in between the periods of unconsciousness. Each fragment is then separated into alternate paths that are selected by a crucial decision.
The best part is that the game allows you total freedom in what you do with this system. Want to play an “all-or-nothing” run through and suffer through the consequences of your choices? Or would you rather play through all possible outcomes and see how each and every scenario plays out? Do you focus entirely on a single team, then play through the others, or bounce around for multiple perspectives? There are plenty of ways to go about the title and all of them are completely valid.
As you play through the game, it begins to dawn on you that Uchikoshi-san did not pull any punches in terms of delivery. You start to feel the full impact of your decisions as you progress, and with each participant having their own complexities and interesting motivations for what they do and why, it makes the results of those decisions truly hit home.
As in the previous entries in the series, the writing is absolutely stellar. It conveys a great amount of deliberation, planning and care — not only for the great characters but for the scenarios themselves as well as managing to narratively tie in Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors and Virtue’s Last Reward, no mean feat by any stretch of the imagination.
Gameplay consists mainly of puzzles during the “Seek a Way Out” segments, in which you examine items in a room, collecting some of them and piecing together how they can combine or interact with other objects in said room. These puzzles generally fall under the relatively simple “escape the room” type deals. That being said, they are are surprisingly diverse and well thought out in execution.
Although difficult enough at times to make me wish for some sort of hint mechanic (possibly something similar and unobtrusive as what’s used in the Professor Layton series), the puzzles fit in well with the environments without feeling forced or out of place. However, if puzzles aren’t your strong suit, don’t think Dilemma will be holding your hand by any means. Best to bring your A-game (or a strategy guide).
Another aspect I found quite enjoyable was the banter between characters as you examine evidence in the various rooms. It made what could have been a tedious process into something I actually looked forward to, as well as adding yet another dimension to already intriguing characters.
The music sets the tense and dire tone quite well, at times debuting the occasional standout piece. If you enjoyed the soundtrack from the other two games then this one is just as good.
Character designs, done by Rui Tomono instead of the previous two titles’ designer Kinu Nishimura, are more subdued and realistic but better composed and work well with the 3D cinematics. In some cases I actually prefer Tomono’s artistic interpretation to Nishimura’s, particularly with characters Sigma and Phi.
In terms of what portable to choose from, both the 3DS and PS Vita work well given their respective interfaces. Of course the latter boosts a higher resolution and slightly crisper visuals but the former allows for dual screens which comes in handy for puzzle solving and keeping the screen from becoming too cluttered.
Zero Time Dilemma is an excellent follow-up and sequel/prequel, making great strides in widening the appeal of the game by overhauling the story progression with its inventive and effective “fragments systems,” while avoiding the pitfall of alienating the loyal fanbase that supported Dilemma‘s development. Despite its tricky position as an in between of two other well established titles, it neatly fills in the gaps and serves as a great lead in for Virtue’s Last Reward, which ended on a cliffhanger. Fans who have long-awaited the return of the series will not be disappointed in this swan’s song.