In another timeline, this game does not exist. Due to the poor sales of Virtue’s Last Reward (which I wrote a review of previously), the third entry in the Zero Escape series was pretty much dead in the water. The odds of it ever being made were virtually nonexistent. Fortunately, this is not that timeline and thanks to outcry and support from a dedicated fan-base, director Kotaro Uchikoshi was able to bring this project to life and properly conclude the series.
This was one of my most anticipated games of 2016, but I held off playing it due to hearing rumours of a re-release of the first two games being made. Those rumours were true but I wasn’t able to actually play it until late 2017 when the Vita version finally got released in the EU. With those games under my belt, I immediately went into Zero Time Dilemma with high expectations and plenty of concerns. While reviews for the game were mostly positive, there were still a tonne of fans that outright hated it, even claiming it retroactively ruins the entire series. And after playing it… well, it left enough of an impression to make me write this review.
So is Zero Time Dilemma the worthy conclusion it was hyped up to be? Or would it have been best if it never existed at all?
Serving as an interquel between the first two games, ZTD follows the series trend of having nine people captured (four of them being protagonists from the previous games) by a masked individual called Zero, who forces them into playing what he calls the Decision Game – a game he claims will determine the fate of six billion people. The game in question sees them trapped in an underground shelter and separated into three teams in different wards. If they’re to escape, they must unlock six X-Passes (passwords essentially) to open the door. How do they get an X-Pass? Someone must die. Oh, and on top of that, every 90 minutes, they’re injected with a drug that not only knocks them out but also causes memory loss so they don’t remember the last 90 minutes. As you can probably guess, drama ensues.
Obviously, I don’t want to go into the story too much because 1. I don’t want to spoil anything and 2. If this was a spoiler-filled review, we could be here for ages since I have a LOT of opinions on the plot and characters. Overall, though, I think it’s good. The characters are all varied and there’re some stellar interactions between some of them. And much like the previous games, it deals with rather complex subject matters like theoretical sciences without becoming too confusing. Some downsides, however, include characters tending to repeat a lot of info due to the whole memory loss thing, some slight continuity lockout for new players (seriously, don’t make this your first Zero Escape game), plenty of instances of these supposedly incredibly intelligent characters making very dumb decisions and a few moments where it feels like the game deliberately withholds information for the sake of its plot-twists. Oh, and the morphogenetic field – a mainstay of the series that has a legitimate root in actual science – may as well be magic by the end of the game.
Presentation’s not particularly great either. Unlike the previous games, cutscenes are now fully animated and presented in real-time. This may sound great and while character models look decent overall, their animations can be very stilted and can potentially rob any drama from a scene, regardless of how dynamic the camera angles are. It’s hard to take a character’s desperate anger seriously when they refuse to uncross their arms during their whole spiel. On the flip side, the Japanese voice acting’s superb; I’m convinced that every time I got emotional was because of the performances.
And then there’s the gore. Oh, Lordy, the gore. Granted, the previous games have never been shy about showing occasional gruesome imagery but ZTD ramps it up something fierce. Depending on your sensibilities, you’ll either find it suitably dramatic or borderline tasteless.
Now, how does the game actually play? Well, unlike the previous games where you played as a single character and progressed through a linear route which changed depending on your actions, you instead play as three characters; specifically the three team leaders – Carlos, Q and Diana. The story is broken up into Fragments – each one representing a different 90 minute increment – and you’re given access to most of them from the get-go. Once you select a Fragment, you play through the route it gives you (usually involving one of the series’ traditional escape rooms) before ending with a Decision that splinters the route and changes how the story progresses.
Because of this much more non-linear structure, playing through ZTD can be very confusing since you don’t know where in the timeline each Fragment takes place (or even WHICH timeline they take place in) until you’ve completed it. And honestly, I kind of loved it. You feel the exact same sense of confusion as the characters and unravelling the story in this manner was very invigorating and kept me hooked. The lack of context never felt infuriating; if anything, it made me want to keep playing to find said context. There was always this sense of surprise and accomplishment as I saw the pieces fall into place and learnt how certain events came into being. And since you can access the game’s Flowchart (the thing that displays how the story plays out) at any point, it means you can always keep track of how events are linked so as to prevent you from getting completely lost.
Plus, it means everyone’s first playthrough can be completely different to one another. Do you focus entirely on one team’s Fragments first or do you alternate between them? And depending on your own choices, you can uncover some of the game’s biggest twists rather early on. It’s one of those narrative structures that I wish I could completely forget so I could experience the story again in a different way.
Moving on to the escape rooms themselves, they very much function like how they did in the previous games, with you exploring the room all “point-and-click” style, solving various puzzles and correctly using the items you discover to progress. They can be a bit daunting at first since you’re just dropped in the room with no hint as to what to do next but so long as you check everything and keep experimenting, you should be able to get through them with little issues.
The puzzles themselves I feel are at the right level of difficulty and are plenty varied, ranging from logic puzzles to maths equations but, of course, some can be more challenging than others depending on your own skill. There were two in particular that I ended up consulting a guide for, though one of them was the result of me being a dumb-ass and not looking at the clues provided for me correctly (the other was a sliding puzzle and I just really suck at those). But if you don’t want to cheat via the Internet, the characters will share hints concerning any puzzles you find yourself continuously failing and there’s a Memo feature that allows you to jot down important notes and clues you find in case you’re worried about forgetting them.
The only other gameplay aspect is the Decision feature and said decisions vary too depending on the scenario. They’re all very simple and require either a simple button press or typing in a word, like calling a coin toss or picking the correct locker to open. The real meat of them is seeing the outcome since it usually determines whether a character lives or dies. Completing a Fragment also means you can replay the segment at any time and can jump to any point within that segment as well. So, if you just want to see the other outcomes to a Decision, you don’t need to replay the entire Fragment all over again.
ZTD doesn’t really offer much else outside of that; not that that’s a bad thing since the game’s main draw is its story. But while I do feel it’s a good story overall and a satisfactory conclusion to the series, it’s not without some glaring faults. I can certainly see why many fans aren’t particularly fond of it, especially in regards to some of the ending twists and lack of concrete answers for certain characters and plot threads.
Could it have been better? Yeah, but I’m honestly happy the game even got made at all. That’s not to say that excuses its faults, but I loved the good parts of its story enough where it outweighs the bad, and if this is where the series ends, I’m perfectly content with it.
If you’re a long-time fan who’s yet to pick the game up, I feel like you owe it to yourself and the developers to give it a try. And if you’ve never touched the series but love the Saw-esque concept, complex narratives, psychological horror, sci-fi madness and the occasional bizarre and random bit of humour, get yourself all three games on PC, PS4 or Vita and get in on the madness. Hopefully, it’ll be a decision you won’t end up regretting and want to forget.