We’re damn lucky to be playing Zero Time Dilemma. Following tepid sales of Virtue’s Last Reward back in 2012, it was looking like a proper finale to Kotaro Uchikoshi’s Zero Escape series wasn’t ever going to happen. Thankfully, positive word of mouth and an incredibly devoted fan following outside of Japan gave the series a second chance. We all waited with bated breath, and having played and completed every branch and story path I can’t help but feel a slight twinge of disappointment mixed in with the overall positive vibes I’m currently experiencing.
Here we are again; nine people (and a cute dog) trapped in a life or death game against a murderous mastermind, fiendish traps, and dastardly decisions. ZTD excels at making you feel the constant threat of death for your three parties. Controlling three different team leaders, switching between multiple timelines, and making choices that could leave any character dead is exhilarating. What’s especially impressive is how, despite the story playing out in fragments that fit into the bigger picture/puzzle, the plot is pretty easy to follow given the strong emotional core and nature of the characters. You may not like all of them, sure, but I expect players will gravitate to a few of the doomed contestants, creating a strong sense of ownership for their wellbeing. But make no mistake, this is a game designed for people who have played the previous two entries in the Zero Escape series. Newcomers will find themselves hopelessly lost when it comes to terms such as SHIFT, morphogenetic field, and Brother. ZTD is also far more urgent given all of the horrible ways the cast can die (think along the lines of the Saw movies and you’re almost there), and that keeps the narrative moving forward instead of getting constantly bogged down in explanations and pseudoscience.
For the most part, ZTD wraps up the narrative of the franchise in fine fashion. Questions from 999 and VLR are answered in a mostly satisfying way, and I put down my Vita feeling like I had just read a good trilogy of books that felt properly planned out. Unfortunately, a few of the revelations needlessly muddy the waters in an attempt to make things more complicated without adding anything to the story. One particular plot twist comes across like a cheat that makes little sense and requires obfuscation by the designers to properly work. A couple story beats are overly melodramatic and fit like a square peg in a round hole, adding nothing and merely padding out certain characters to make them feel more developed rather than interesting. Thankfully, the vast majority of the characters, plot twists, and revelations work, but don’t be surprised if you start rolling your eyes when things are supposed to get uber serious and land flat.
Which leads to the biggest and most foolhardy change to the Zero Escape formula. The story now plays out in fully 3D cinematics, and it’s a giant swing and miss from a presentation standpoint. Simply put, the character models animate with all of the lifelike articulation of a Dire Straits music video, and it took away a great deal of my emotional investment over the course of the diabolical proceedings. It’s hard to take things seriously when characters gesticulate wildly, or clip through the environment when they’re running, or when the camera pans away because it wasn’t possible to properly animate a character falling to the ground (and this happens constantly). The presentation is so bad and so distracting that I ended up putting my Vita down half the time to experience the story as something akin to a radio drama. It’s understandable that the developers would want things to play out in dramatic fashion given all the action-oriented scenarios and possible gruesome deaths, but I would have preferred manga-style cutscenes instead of this mess (and it probably would have been cheaper, too). The voice acting is also all over the place; Phi is still just as awesome as ever, though Akane is especially grating and Junpei needs a good solid slap across the face.
The escape rooms are the real heart of the “gameplay” here, and their inconsistency leads to a great deal of frustration at times. Puzzles usually fall into either the adventure game mold (hook up the hose to a showerhead to flood a room) or logic-based riddles (make the number zero using a nifty rotating lock). The best puzzles make you feel clever and observant, while the worst ones had me clicking all over the environment to find the trigger to push forward. Pro tip, make sure to pan the camera up or down if you’re really stuck, as I lost twenty minutes to a clue that was just slightly outside the bounds of the camera AND required the lights on one side of a room to be off. A couple of the puzzles are seemingly random (hello, flowers), and I stumbled on a few solutions that didn’t really make sense or required a little too much trial and error. It’s not all bad, thankfully, with one fiendish puzzle pushing me to think about numbers in a unique way, and a couple tests had me scribbling down notes and comparing screens to find the solution. I would recommend trying each puzzle, but don’t hesitate to look up the answer if blood starts shooting out of your eyeballs.
Zero Time Dilemma is a very uneven experience. The story is fun and exciting, but it’s told in a bafflingly awful way that takes away from the drama. The puzzles are fun at times, but they can be maddeningly obtuse all the same. Again, we’re lucky to be playing this game at all, but I have to admit that it’s my least favorite game in the Zero Escape series and could have used a bit more thought and care in its development. It’s an ambitious game with a lot of heart, though it trips and stumbles a bit on its way to the finish line.