While its predecessors—999: Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors and Virtue's Last Reward—took some time to reveal their narrative-based gimmicks, Zero Time Dilemma doesn't waste a moment in cutting to the chase.
In fact, it begins with an ending. Opening with a similar premise to the last two Zero Escape games, Zero Time Dilemma also finds a group of nine characters trapped in an unknown location and forced to play a death game to escape—think of it as "anime Saw." This time, though, the villainous Zero offers you a chance to escape before the festivities begin by wagering your group's future on a single coin flip. After somehow choosing correctly on my first try, all nine characters made it out alive and well—albeit a bit stranded—and an achievement alerted me to the fact that I unlocked one of ZTD's many endings. And all this happened within the first 15 minutes.
A Slip in Time
If you're familiar with the Zero Escape series, writer Kotoro Uchikoshi's brand of narrative rug-pulling shouldn't come as too much of a shock. Each of the games preceding ZTD made the itself part of the essential game mechanics by relying on the player's knowledge of events across multiple timelines. (That said, if you haven't played 999 or Virtue's Last Reward, you should probably do that first.) Rather than have you gradually work your way through scenes and room escape puzzles across a sprawling narrative flowchart (as in VLR), Zero Time Dilemma does things a bit differently. Three teams comprised of three characters each have a pool of story fragments the player can choose from, and within each fragment exists an enclosed network of scenes—often with a branch or two—that must be completed in order to place said story fragment within a large flowchart which shows where these scenes fit within the context of the full narrative.
If that sounds slightly confusing, well, it's supposed to be. In a design choice that fits nicely with the game's theme, choosing scenes at random with no idea of their place in an official timeline completely aligns with the characters' experience. In a twist similar to Memento, every 90 minutes (of story time, not your time), they're knocked out, and their memories of past events get completely wiped—the only thing they're able to track is the time, thanks to a convenient watch provided by Zero. So, as you start a story fragment and your chosen group of three wakes up with no idea where the hell they are or what happened before, you're pretty much in the same boat with them. Granted, this selective memory loss feels more than a little contrived, but Uchikoshi largely uses it to make more creative decisions, rather than to excuse poor ones.
As always, the stakes are deliciously high. Zero tasks the three teams of three characters with escaping the facility he's trapped them in, but there's a catch: Six passes are required to take an elevator to the surface. And since a pass only becomes available when one of the nine characters dies, the group finds themselves in a situation where it's nearly impossible to not show your true colors. Especially since Zero keeps each group confined to its own area—it's a lot easier to off someone if you don't have to see the consequences.
The Telltale Art
Just as 999 ditched its 2D character portraits for 3D character models with its sequel, the visuals of ZTD receive a bit of an upgrade as well. Rather than portraying its characters as Ace Attorney-style talking heads—well, more like talking upper-halves—ZTD instead goes for a more something more cinematic by telling its story primarily through cutscenes, completely washing its hands of the series' visual novel roots. While this approach is serviceable, ZTD's character models and animations can't quite pull off the heavy lifting they're asked to do. While the cast looks perfectly fine, they don't do the best job of emoting, and Spike-Chunsoft clearly didn't have the budget to put a whole lot of acting in the story scenes, so the camera ends up doing most of the work. Still, I get the sense the developers knew their limits when it came to what these polygonal models can convincingly do—the camera often artfully cuts away when stiff animations can't sell what the story demands the characters do next.
This graphical upgrade definitely makes Zero Time Dilemma feel like a more modern experience—and one much friendlier to newcomers—but it didn't take long before I missed paging through text and absorbing the story at my own pace. Much of Zero Time Dilemma is akin to playing a Telltale game without the constant onscreen prompts to keep you engaged; but, in a way, this approach feels more honest. If you really think about it, few of those Telltale prompts do anything other than push a character through a prescribed animation. Still, it's interesting to think that even the illusion of interaction can add a little more enjoyment to a somewhat passive experience.
A Rock and a Hard Place
Some of these story scenes end with a tough choice; some rely on luck—as with the coin flip—while others ask you to make a decision without knowing the full consequences. And, in keeping with the series' focus on multiple timelines, you can easily revisit these scenes for the sake of trying every option—in fact, you should. Some of the best takes on these life-or-death choices come when the teams find themselves forced into the same problem, which raises the tension since you can only view the perspective of each group individually. One of the earlier scenes involves a voting process staged by Zero in which each team must vote for another, leaving the team with two votes to be executed—and choosing to not vote essentially puts you on the chopping block. Watching each team trying their best to communicate with the others (and weigh the possibilities of deception) definitely makes for a more interesting approach than if Zero Time Dilemma simply cut between all three teams within the context of a single scene.
While the majority of story fragments reveal more of the narrative or force you into making tough choices, a handful feature room escape puzzles that started in 999 as a way to add a little spice to your typical passive visual novel. Even though these interactive bits could be excised entirely, they make for genuinely interesting, self-contained challenges—even if the finicky cursor doesn't always go where you want it to. As with the last two Zero escape games, these room escape challenges can best be compared something like The Room: puzzles within puzzles within puzzles. Even if you're essentially doing the same thing every time, each of Zero Time Dilemma's room escape segments feels distinct from the others, and always brings a great sense of satisfaction when you finally crack open that last door.
As of now, I've worked my way through a large portion of Zero Time Dilemma's story fragments, but as with the past games, writer Kotaro Uchikoshi typically aims for Stephen King-size tomes over a story that would be more economical. Still, with a game that shrouds so many truths in mystery, it's definitely hard to lose interest in the plot—especially if you've been a fan of the series since 999 and never thought this final installment would even be a possibility. For the time being, I definitely haven't been disappointed by Zero Time Dilemma, but be sure to check back with USgamer soon for my final thoughts and score.