For all the cries about how the modern games industry is lacking in innovation, there sure do seem to be a lot of unique and bizarre games showing up lately. Just look at the localization scene. Series like Danganronpa, Hyperdimension Neptunia and even Dark Souls would have never even been considered for Western release even ten years ago. Another great example is the Zero Escape series of puzzle/visual novel games; it’s hard to agree that the industry is choking to death on samey brown-and-grey shooters when we’ve got this particular brand of timeline-twisting insanity coming out on the regular. The latest of these is Zero Time Dilemma, and that’s what we’re checking out today.
Like the other games in the Zero Escape trilogy, Zero Time Dilemma is essentially a visual novel that follows the story of nine characters (including many that return from the previous titles in the series) trapped in a horrific game of life and death. They’re split into three teams, and you’ll follow each as they face the terrors that await. Essentially, this is something like the Saw series; the characters must make decisions about who will live or die, and that in turn dictates where the story goes.
It typically goes in some pretty gruesome directions, by the way, so this probably isn’t one for the kids. Zero Time Dilemma’s writing is very strong, especially by video game standards, and the consequences of your decisions are made pretty clear. In the end if you play the game through completely nobody’s going to get out unscathed. It can be rough to root for one particular character and have them get wrecked, especially since on some level the events of the game aren’t entirely under your control.
That brings us to the other side of the game; there are puzzles to solve as well, which is a bit less Saw and a bit more escape-the-room. These serve to break up the decision-making and cutscenes with some more traditional gameplay a la the classic room-escape games of Flash antiquity. These are pretty typical for the genre, ranging from dial-spinning to memorization to approximately ten thousand variants of codebreaking.
I’ll be the first to admit that this isn’t my bag, so I found the puzzles to be more of an obstacle in the way of a story I was enjoying rather than a fulfilling activity in and of themselves. That’s an odd thing to say given that this is meant to be a room-escape game and solving brainteasers is central to the plot, but the story and decision scenes really are fantastic and they overshadow the puzzle-solving completely. It contrasts with something like last year’s Until Dawn, a game I found to be similar in concept; while that one had “puzzles,” they were never especially taxing and let you get back to the story quickly. So far as I can tell, Zero Time Dilemma’s puzzles would be enjoyable and fulfilling for players who are into that kind of thing, so they’ve got twice the reason to check this one out.
That’s actually why it’s difficult to talk in detail about Zero Time Dilemma; once you’ve gotten past the puzzles, the central focus of the game is its plot, and that’s not really something you can discuss without ruining any reason to play it at all. As with the previous two titles (Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors and Virtue’s Last Reward), it’s a twisty, turny mess of branching paths and parallel timelines, one that eventually ties all three games together. Even the exact order in which you’re experiencing the narrative isn’t entirely clear at first. You can select the segments you’d like to play, with each ending up on a giant flowchart as they’re completed. Some familiarity with the previous games is a must, particularly since if you intend on playing them in the future you’ll find that significant portions of the plot have been revealed in Zero Time Dilemma.
Graphically, Zero Time Dilemma uses 3D models for its cutscenes much like the previous title, Virtue’s Last Reward. It’s not a bad-looking game, despite some slightly goofy animations, but it does have to make some concessions to the fact that it was made to run on handheld systems. Notably, the 3DS version of the game chokes a bit, even on the New 3DS, while the Vita version is more smooth. The Steam version is the nicest of all on a decent PC, of course, and that’s the direction to go in if you can do so.
Games like Zero Time Dilemma end up being pretty easy to review: if you’ve played any of the previous Zero Escape games, there’s no question that you’re going to want to keep going. If you haven’t but the concept sounds interesting, you’ll want to do so first. If movies like Saw made you squeamish or you’re not into what is essentially very tense psychological horror, maybe skip this one and check out lighter fare like Neptunia instead.