Zero Escape: Zero Time Dilemma review

Game Info
Platform Win, PS Vita, 3DS
Publisher Aksys Games
Developer Spike Chunsoft
Release Date Jun 28, 2016

Zero Time Dilemma is, in many ways, an ideal series-ender. As the final chapter of a beloved trilogy, the game had the odds stacked against it: Having played and loved the previous Zero Escape games, I came in with high expectations. Falling short of tying up the series' various loose ends and solving its most pressing questions could have left me cold.

But this finale — set between the preceding entries — manages to tell a stand-alone, engrossing story while wrapping up most of the biggest plotlines set up by the prior two Zero Escape chapters. It's a rare feat, although not one without missteps as the game attempts to balance a heavy narrative focus with challenging gameplay.

Like the previous games (999: Nine Persons, Nine Hours, Nine Doors and Virtue’s Last Reward), Zero Time Dilemma is a gory, time-traveling visual novel. The game stars a cast of nine, each of whom volunteered for what they thought was a research mission to Mars. Turns out, they've actually signed up for a sadistic set of trials that could see all of them meeting grisly deaths. This game of mortal consequences is led by a cloaked figure named Zero, who splits the participants into three teams of three, pitting them against each other as they seek their way out of the test facility. (Several of the major characters were first introduced in 999 and Virtue's Last Reward. You'd think they'd know better by now.)

zero time dilemma screen 1

Fully animated cutscenes unravel this story across three intertwining plots, punctuated by heavy choices for the player (as each team leader) to cast. Will you shoot your teammate? Which one? Will you press that button that may just save your team but kill 6 billion others in the process? Depending on how you answer, the characters have different reactions, and the narrative changes accordingly, leading to several gruesome dead ends or allowing the teams to progress further into Zero's death trap.

"Choice" is the operative term in Zero Time Dilemma, as every decision the player makes in the three plotlines has a unique effect on where the story goes. Thanks to a branching flowchart of nonlinear narrative fragments, the player can keep track of the various paths created by their decisions. The fragment system is a smart way to introduce more agency in a story-heavy game that sometimes left me feeling like a spectator, albeit an engaged one.

Fragments — and the cinematic way in which they play out — also ensure that the player will never be forced to read miles of text. That's important, considering the gameplay segments appear much less frequently. Along with the high-pressure decision-making, escape-the-room puzzles break up the story. They entail pointing and clicking for clues, solving equations and giving your brain a workout.

zero time dilemma review screen 2

At their best, these puzzles are the game's highlight: They're challenging but not impossible, lengthy by design, divorced from the story while still contributing meaningfully to it. Finding your way out of Zero Time Dilemma's closed doors feels like a necessary addition, not simply a way to make the game more than an interactive novel. Completing these challenges often felt like a major achievement.

I say "often," because not all of the escape rooms are well-designed. Certain puzzles infuriated me with vague directions and wonky controls. The camera sometimes obscured hints I needed to keep going; one puzzle had me frantically clicking around the room for three hours, only to discover that the clue I needed was right in front of me the whole time, just slightly out of view.

Many of the later puzzles are simply trickier versions of previous ones, which started to feel repetitive by the end. The most commonly repeated rooms are often less reliant on in-game clues, and are instead more geometric in nature — and they were painful for me, as someone who’s not mathematically inclined. Whenever I got stuck in an escape room, it was either because I had no idea where to go next or just couldn't figure out a Rubik's Cube-style challenge.

These moments of desperation — and, sadly, the escape rooms themselves — are few and far between. Zero Time Dilemma has a lot of story to sift through, and in so doing it puts the traditional puzzle solving on the backburner. Thankfully, the story is so worthy of Netflix-style bingeing that I found the dearth of actual gameplay easy to forgive. Zero Time Dilemma tells the best story to date in the Zero Escape series, which, as a trio of visual novels, lives or dies by its narrative. The table-setting pseudoscience in the first third of the game can be annoying — new terms I picked up include "metempsychosis," "sophistry" and "morphogenetic field" — but the game becomes less talky, more shocking as it moves along.

Not everything makes sense as the cast learns more about the hows and whys of their imprisonment, and some scenes push the envelope a bit too far (without spoiling anything, this game isn't recommended for the faint of heart). But while I didn't always understand the technical aspects, the more I learned about the truth behind the cast's imprisonment, the more I wanted to ensure their survival. Supported by truly unexpected plot twists, the stories of Zero Time Dilemma's cast mates are what I kept thinking about, and want to talk about, more than anything else at the game's end.

Wrap Up:

Zero Time Dilemma is a fitting finale, even if the gameplay gets lost in the background

In some ways, that disappointed me. I was first drawn to the Zero Escape games because of their inventive puzzle design, something that suffers in Zero Time Dilemma. But I've loved following these characters the most over the past six years, and this concluding chapter serves them well. Zero Time Dilemma, above all else, is a finale that should please anyone looking for a great story — even if the gameplay gets lost in the background as a result.

Zero Escape: Zero Time Dilemma was reviewed using an advance 3DS download code provided by Aksys games. You can find additional information about Polygon's ethics policy here.

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