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.