Zero Escape: Zero Time Dilemma

Zero Escape: Zero Time Dilemma is the prequel/sequel to the critically acclaimed Zero Escape: Virtue's Last Reward. After a few years in development hell, the game has finally been released and I'm happy to say the wait was well worth it.

As you would expect from a Zero Escape game, Zero Time Dilemma maintains the intricate storytelling with a plethora of plot twist and reveals that the series is known for. There are nine people trapped inside a bunker with no memory of how they were captured. In order to escape, they must participate in a "Decision Game". The rules are simple, but deadly. Escape is only possible by retrieving six "X-Passes" but all six passes can only be obtained when six of the nine participates are killed.

Of course these are only the rules to the decision game. Zero Time Dilemma narrative goes much deeper than a simple escape game and wrestles with complex themes such as quantum physics, philosophies and paradoxes like the Teletransportation Paradox and the Monty Hall problem.

The nine characters are broken down into three teams. Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors returning characters Akane and Junpei are teamed up with a firefighter named Carlos. VLR protagonist Sigma and Phi are teamed up with a nurse named Diana, and the final team consist of newcomers Eric, Mira, and Q. These three teams don't really have much interaction with anyone outside of their respective teams which I found hindered character progression especially for the new characters.

Despite what was said up to release, I cannot stress enough that you must play through, or at the very least read the story of both the previous games online in order to even grasp the overall plot of ZTD. There isn't much of an introduction to new players or any detailed explanation of previous games. The story is told through fragments which allows you to play sections of the story in random order. Each section typically consists of escaping a puzzle room, a lengthy cutscene, and a difficult decision that splits your timeline.

The main twist here is that your characters are sedated at the end of every fragment and lose all memory of the previous events. This is a pretty interesting way to tell a story and initially it didn't sit well with me, but the memory loss ultimately made sense once I saw the full picture. Character progression also took another hit because of the memory loss aspect however. Since characters lost their memory every fragment, relationships couldn't really be formed. In one fragment, two characters could have formed a bond or revealed a secret about themselves just to have that erased over and over again.

The puzzles are still as fun, fair, and complicated as they have always been and have also stepped up a notch in some areas. One puzzle room in particular requires you to change the walls themselves in order to progress. Some puzzles are easier than others of course, but some of the harder puzzles took me upwards of an hour to complete. The games still feature the in-game notepad, but it's too troublesome to use on PC without a touchscreen, so I often resorted to pencil and paper. There were a few times where I had to go pixel clicking in order to find a way to progress, but usually it was because I overlooked something as opposed to the answer being far-fetched.

The bulk of the game takes place after the puzzles in the newly added cinematic cutscenes. Replacing the heavy use of text the series previously relied upon, this decision didn't pan out as well as I'd hoped. There are plenty of presentation issues that damper the experience. For example, the camera repeatedly clipped characters faces off or panned away from the action to randomly look at a wall or ceiling.

Character models also leave a lot to be desired. Movement is looks very robotic and the lip syncing would sometimes be off. With that said, I was very impressed with the voice acting and music. Voices sound incredibly real and the score was immersive especially during plot revelations. You can switch between Japanese and English languages as well. My time spent with the PC version was also technically sound and devoid of any performance issues.

The core theme of the game is decisions and each one you make will unlock a different time fragment for you to play. In order to see the full story you must replay your decisions and unlock different story branches. Some of the decisions you are forced to make are far from easy. In one scenario all three teams are put in a room full of showers. Zero the game's antagonist, informs the players that in order to escape this room they must decide to push a button in front of them. Pressing this button however, will pour fatal, hydrochloric acid on the other two teams awarding you the needed X-Passes for escape. Not pressing the button of course could result in your team's death if another team presses theirs. Do you trust the inherent goodwill of other people and not press the button or do you give in to your survival instinct and kill 6 people to save yourself?

These are the types of moral decisions ZTD throws at you all the time and there aren't many games, if any, out there that does a better job. The way most decisions are presented here completely obscures an obvious right and wrong choice and instead are just presented as difficult choices to make with unknown consequences.

I was also pleased to see ZTD brings back the darker tone that was in 999 and abandon the lighter one seen in VLR. Death is plentiful here and the variety of gruesome ways characters can die are easily some of the best death scenes in the trilogy. Obliviously, I don't want to spoil any character's fate here but be prepared for blood, and a lot of it.

It's sad to see the Zero Escape series come to an end, but Kotaro Uchikoshi and his team have created a special trilogy of games that won't soon be forgotten. Zero Time Dilemma, despite its flaws, concludes this series in a dramatic and memorable fashion.

Writer for Darkstation since 2014. I've been playing games my whole life and starting writing about them in 2010. Outside of gaming I enjoy anime and watching my Philadelphia Eagles let me down every Sunday.