Review: Make time for Zero Time Dilemma

For some, Zero Time Dilemma may be the best entry in the trilogy. For others, it may be a shock to see the series depart from its more puzzle-based pace. One thing is certain: Zero Time Dilemma gives us definitive answers and endings, a conclusion that is varying degrees of satisfying. Considering Zero Escape: Virtue’s Last Reward ended on a cliffhanger and this final installment exists despite a development hiatus, that alone may be enough to please everyone in search of resolution.

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Summarizing the Zero Escape series is quite a feat, given the series’ complexity and possibility of spoilers between entries. The short of it is, Zero Time Dilemma is an escape room scenario with consequences most dire. A group of nine individuals, some strangers and others friends, have been locked in an underground bomb shelter. A person named Zero has come in and taken over, dividing them into groups of three and forcing them into different compounds in the facility. The C, D, and Q-Teams will only be allowed to escape when six passwords are put into the blockaded elevator; a person has to die to get one of these passwords. In addition, the watch each person wears will inject the bearer with a drug that erases their memory and knocks them out every 90 minutes.

The odds are against this group of nine.

The odds are against this group of nine. The Decision Game has begun; votes are held periodically to determine if a group should be executed. Not participating involves a penalty. Each group consists of people with differing mindsets and personalities. While Akane and Junpei, from C-Team, have known each other since Zero Escape: 9 Hours, 9 Persons, 9 Doors, they’re very different people now than they were then. Carlos is something of an odd man out, since he doesn’t know either of them. D-Team puts a woman named Diana, another newcomer, with Zero Escape: Virtue’s Last Reward’s Sigma and Phi. Q-Team has a boy with amnesia, in an irremovable helmet, with a woman named Mira and her boyfriend, Eric. These are people who are isolated from one another, due to distrust. Even though a dog, named Gab, travels through vents with messages, how reliable are they? There’s a constant sense of doubt and distrust, carefully cultivated even among the people you do and don’t know.

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Zero Time Dilemma wants you to care about these characters and their situation. It marks what is probably the most distinct shift in the series. While 999 and Virtue’s Last Reward offered a healthy balance between puzzles and exposition, this is a very text-heavy game. The 3D character models, voice acting and presentation makes this entry feel more dramatic and important than its predecessors, even when the camera gets a little “too” dynamic. It feels as though it carries a greater weight, perhaps because it has such a task ahead of it. Kotaro Uchikoshi, the series’ writer and director, designated it the final installment before its release. It had quite a task ahead of it; I came away feeling like its first objective was to bring this trilogy to a close and any puzzles or supplemental experiences came second. It successfully pulls everything together.

This isn’t to say Zero Time Dilemma doesn’t have satisfying puzzles for players. It absolutely does. Each of the 13 rooms in this underground compound can be considered a conundrum, with various steps to go through in search of a resolution. They may not be as plentiful as they were in previous games and that’s okay. Games evolve as the story requires; Zero Time Dilemma needed to invest in different areas. I’ll admit some disappointment at some design decisions. My favorite parts of 999 and Virtue’s Last Reward were the build-up to one final room, and I was sad this final entry went in a different direction. Getting that final payoff eased that pain some, of course. But people who’ve stuck with Zero Escape all of these years may have moments where they long for what as they go through what is.

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These thoughts reveal an additional concern. I’ve been engaged in the Zero Escape series since 999 was released in 2010. I’ve known some of these characters for six years now. I’m invested in their affairs. There were moments I picked up on plot threads and subtle cues, all because I had this past with the series. While I suppose Zero Time Dilemma could be enjoyed by anyone, regardless of their experience, I wouldn’t recommend it to a bystander. In my mind, I can’t see anyone coming right into this installment without at least playing Virtue’s Last Reward first, if only to prepare people for the odd manner in which the game is presented.

Zero Time Dilemma isn’t a linear experience; there will be many times in which it isn’t clear when, or even where, the events you’re watching are happening.

Zero Time Dilemma isn’t a linear experience; there will be many times in which it isn’t clear when, or even where, the events you’re watching are happening. Everything is quite disjointed; you pick fragments and play through each one, hoping your decisions put you on a path to a proper resolution. Things work out, of course. You’ll figure it out as you play, as things find a way of making themselves clear, but you’ll understand sooner and appreciate it more if you at least go through Virtue’s Last Reward first.

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There is, of course, an ulterior motive to recommending a previous Zero Escape game before Zero Time Dilemma. This is an exceptional story. The level of detail presented here is extraordinary. You will pick up on things here that tie in perfectly to past events and honestly? You’ll feel brilliant as you come to realizations and revelations years later. The writing is concise and localization exemplary, at a level that might exceed its predecessors. I suspect that the impending end and fight to fit everything of importance into this final installment may play a part in its directness and appreciate it. It’s the exact pace you’d want and expect from such a game, to the players’ benefit.

The Zero Escape series is like a 1,000 piece puzzle. 999 and Virtue’s Last Reward gave us the chance to put together the edges and most recognizable faces and landmarks. Playing through Zero Time Dilemma is like fitting in those last 200 or so pieces. You’ve come so far and think you finally understand everything; as those final expanses are filled, you finally understand. Things are clear and you’re able to enjoy all of the effort you’ve put in the last six years as pieces all into place. Freedom never felt so good.

Score: 8/10
Publisher: Aksys Games
Release Date: June 28, 2016
Developer: Chime
Platform(s): 3DS, Vita, PC
Questions? Check out our review guide.
A review copy was provided by the publisher or developer for this review.

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