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Zero Time Dilemma Brings Spike-Chunsoft's Sci-Fi Thriller to a New Frontier

The final installment of Zero Escape drops the "visual novel" element, but retains the series' high-stakes world of dark mysteries.

Preview by Bob Mackey, .

Zero Escape sure has come a long way from its relatively simple roots.

While the series debut — Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors — took the form of a fairly straightforward visual novel with a fun twist, the newest entry, Zero Time Dilemma, bears little resemblance to Spike-Chunsoft's first installment. Of course, the central premise remains the same: nine strangers find themselves trapped in an undisclosed, locked-down location, with "escape or die trying" being the overarching goal. But this time around, Zero Escape won't communicate its story via reams upon reams of text; while much of the experience still involves a whole lot of watching the narrative unravel, this time, it plays out via cinema scenes.

When I spoke with Zero Escape creator Kotaro Uchikoshi at today's reveal, I immediately had to address just how much Zero Time Dilemma divorces itself from the format of the past two games. Unsurprisingly, he cites Telltale's The Walking Dead as his inspiration for breaking away from a more conservative genre, claiming that mass appeal is now vital for Spike-Chunsoft's operations — a Japanese audience alone can't sustain the production of their adventure games. While some may bristle at Zero Time Dilemma's slight change in format, it honestly feels like an inevitability more than anything. Virtue's Last Reward toyed a bit with making its presentation more cinematic — at least more cinematic than 999's static images — and honestly, Zero Escape Dilemma feels like the logical conclusion to those slight visual improvements.

Zero Time Dilemma might stray a bit from its visual novel roots, but ultimately, the flow hasn't changed from the past two games. Each chapter of ZTD features a narrative section, followed by a room escape puzzle, then concludes with a high-stakes moral decision straight from the world of Telltale adventure games. In the segment demoed during Aksys' presentation, we witnessed a Saw-like scenario that placed one character in an incinerator, and locked another in a chair with a revolver pointed at their head—one loaded with three live bullets and three blanks. Here, Zero — the series villain — tells these possibly doomed characters that firing the gun will open the incinerator door, but doing so could possibly put an unwanted hole in someone's head. As they weigh their options, time begins ticking down, giving the player an important choice to make with just a handful of seconds remaining.

Interestingly enough, these outcomes aren't predetermined. The first trip through this section resulted in the chair-bound character having a blank fired at him, while the second visit — after some helpful fast-forwarding — ended with his death. With three possible outcomes (including not firing the gun) from this tiny chunk alone, it'll be interesting to see how ZTD plays with multiple timelines with this final sequel.

The flow hasn't changed for the Zero Escape's third entry, but how you access its content feels more episodic and digestible with this installment. While previous games would essentially have you playing out different timelines from the beginning, ZTD dispenses its story via the "Floating Fragment" system, which allows players to pick and choose which segments to play based on an image and a vague description. This new system falls in line with ZTD's narrative gimmick, which knocks its characters out and erases their memories every 90 minutes. Both the cast and the player won't understand the context of these scenes until ZTD places them in a chronological flow chart upon their completion.

Though I at first had some reservations about Zero Escape ditching its text, the brief demo on display today proved that the series can still have the same effect with a slightly different interpretation. Plus, the central premise for its escape game has the makings of a much darker story: Since its characters need six codes to use the elevator to freedom, but can only receive a code when someone dies, the chance for anything approaching a happy ending seems pretty unlikely. You can find out for yourself when Zero Time Dilemma launches on June 28th for Vita and 3DS, and on a TBD date for Steam.

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Comments 11

  • Avatar for riderkicker #1 riderkicker A year ago
    I hope the subtitles are more legible on release.
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  • Avatar for Jason-X #2 Jason-X A year ago
    Hopefully this will work out better than the jump from Dead Space 2 to Dead Space 3.
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  • Avatar for brionfoulke91 #3 brionfoulke91 A year ago
    Wow, this sounds fantastic. The most promising thing is this new narrative gimmick. Knocking the characters out every 90 minutes and erasing their memories is a great gimmick, and using this as the basis for how the player unfolds the story is pretty brilliant. This is smart stuff.

    I'm all for cinematic presentation. But I would caution against the idea that it's an "advancement" over the old visual novel style. To me, that's like saying that movies are an "advancement" over books. One is not superior to the other, they are just different styles with different strengths.

    But I'm all for change if there's thought put into it, and this sounds like a grade-A example of change with a purpose. Can't wait to see more!Edited 2 times. Last edited March 2016 by brionfoulke91
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  • Avatar for link6616 #4 link6616 A year ago
    @brionfoulke91 Yeah, agree there. Visual Novels aren't without their flaws, but they can accomplish some unique stuff harder to do in more visual storytelling.

    But, I think for Zero Escape, this makes a lot of sense.
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  • Avatar for internisus #5 internisus A year ago
    So this is definitely coming to Steam, then? What about its predecessors? I know there were rumors in relation to Danganronpa's recent release—talk of more Japanese developers being interested in getting their games out on Steam for Western audiences with 999 mentioned as an example—but I thought it was unconfirmed.
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  • Avatar for Tristessa #6 Tristessa A year ago
    Near the top of my anticipation list. After the events at the end of the second game I've been needing another entry in the series.
    The style change doesn't bother me at all.
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  • Avatar for Kadrom #7 Kadrom A year ago
    I've had the Watch Edition preordered on Amazon for almost a year with the hopes that this would become a real project. Really excited that Uchikoshi gets the chance to finish the story.
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  • Avatar for bobservo #8 bobservo A year ago
    @brionfoulke91 Oh yeah, Uchikoshi is definitely the best at using the medium of video games to tell stories in a way that just wouldn't work in another format.
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  • Avatar for sobo89 #9 sobo89 A year ago
    @brionfoulke91 This is my most anticipated game of 2016, and this new direction doesn't diminish that at all. I am sad to see the visual-novel go, though. That format was what made 999 and VLR special and more effective than Telltale's games. Aside from Walking Dead S1, there is a disconnect with the Telltale stories, partially due to occasionally bumpy voice acting, awkward animations, and the time it takes to watch a scene play out rather than digest it at my own pace.

    I don't know. I like to point out Zero Escape as one of the best examples of video games communicating stories in a way unique to the medium rather than trying awkwardly to be television or cinema. Oh well.
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  • Avatar for sobo89 #10 sobo89 A year ago
    @bobservo Dang it this site has a spammer problem. Maybe if you build a wall...
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  • Avatar for SatelliteOfLove #11 SatelliteOfLove A year ago
    Year of Dreams still paying out! Woohoohoo!!!
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