As someone who has long been part of the fight to bring obscure and/or niche Japanese games to the West, I’ve seen the importance the fan community can make in those decisions. When people beg for an English translation of a particular game and then don’t support it once it hits, it causes companies to not only lose faith in those franchises, but also the fans who “swore” they’d be there with their support. On the other side, I’ve witnessed brands like the Atelier games or Hyperdimension Neptunia continue to see release when you would never expect them to be successful, because the consumers were ready and willing to give the support of their dollars.
The Zero Escape series is another great example of that. Starting as the murder mystery 999: Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors on the DS and then continuing in Virtue’s Last Reward on Vita and 3DS, the games never hit it big in their home of Japan, but did find a following in the West. When director Kotaro Uchikoshi admitted that we’d probably never see a conclusion to the trilogy, fans rallied for the man and his creations—enough so that Zero Time Dilemma was greenlight for development (prompting an emotional Uchikoshi to take to Twitter to thank all of his fans).
Playing Zero Time Dilemma, you can feel the passion that Uchikoshi and his team have put into this project. Like its predecessors, this is a complex tale of nine people fighting for survival that at first resembles a jumbled mess of ideas and narrative moments—especially true here given the way the story is structured. The game opens with a mysterious figure calling himself “Zero” (the same name as the antagonist from 999) having kidnapped a team of volunteers who were running a simulation for a colony on Mars. The nine subjects are told that, in order to escape the underground facility, six people will have to die.
Zero Time Dilemma then separates itself from its predecessors by, well, separation. The group is divided into three teams of three, with each placed in their own section of the facility, separate from the others. After the first step of what this new Zero calls “The Decision Game,” the player is suddenly presented with a handful of out-of-context pieces of each team’s story that can be played in any order, with no real explanation or understanding of which falls where on what potential timeline. Even where Virtue’s Last Reward mixed up the flow of time along its different paths, this gameplay choice feels especially confusing and—at least, for me initially—frustrating. However, the deeper I went, the more pieces I played through, the more sense of context I had for them, and the more I loved the idea. Going back to that dedication the team has, somehow the random unfolding of events provides that “what’s happened, and what’ll happen next” drama the series is known for. Under many other developers, I think this idea would have turned into a mess of spoilers and boring segments, but here it’s handled masterfully.
Those gameplay segments switch between cutscenes, quick decision making, and puzzle solving, the three pillars of the Zero Escape series. Zero Time Dilemma has some genuinely great puzzle rooms that you’ll feel like a badass once you’ve solved, but those solutions tended to come easier for me than I was hoping (or expecting). Outside of a couple rooms where I either was too focused on other things to notice the next step, or where I felt like I hadn’t been presented with enough details to do anything but guess at a solution, none of the game’s rooms ever had me stuck for all that long. This isn’t a deal breaker by any means, but for a series so based around the “escape room” concept, I would have loved for Zero Time Dilemma to have been more brutally challenging (to match its violence).
Another element to the game that falls into that “mostly great, a little disappointing” category is its presentation. While they’ve been controversial among some fans, I love the fully 3D animated character models and how fantastic they look on the Vita’s screen. Sure, their animation can feel somewhat stiff and robotic at times, but having the nine participants fully come to life on screen in more dynamically-shot cinematics helps bring the story—and nervous tension—to life, as does the fully voice-acted dialog. The biggest weakness Zero Time Dilemma faces in this area is the thing that tends to be a problem for similar games in the genre: the at-times awkward “point to point” room movement that can make it hard to get a good look at your surroundings or specific items found in them. It doesn’t hurt the game in any serious way, but it can be annoying here and there—and I continue to believe that we could find a better way to do things.
By now you’ve noticed that I’ve barely talked about the story or what happens to the characters beyond the basic introduction, and that’s definitely on purpose. Games like Zero Time Dilemma are a monster to review in that regard, because even the slightest revelations can lead to the biggest spoilers. I’d rather you get to go into it like I did: free of any idea of what to expect or knowledge of what happens along the way. And for those of you who are new to the series, yes, you can enjoy this game. Longtime fans will definitely get more out of it on a deeper level knowing what came before and what connections these characters have to others, but that background isn’t at all a requirement for getting engrossed in Zero Time Dilemma’s pieces as they unfold. And, trust me: both new fans and old will still be left with unanswered questions, so you’ll all be in the same boat in that regard.
Zero Time Dilemma is a shining example of why I still, to this day, have a deep love for the games that come out of Japan’s development scene. This is a twisted and thrilling tale that only certain creators or studios could produce, and it’s also a gift from a man who has spent years trying to bring this final chapter to his fans. It may be a smaller project offered to us on two of the tiniest gaming platforms we currently have, but it’s one hell of an epic experience.
As the final chapter of the Zero Escape trilogy, Zero Time Dilemma is a dramatic journey through the strengths and weaknesses of the human spirit, one that longtime fans and newcomers can both enjoy and appreciate.
M - Mature
|Zero Time Dilemma is available on PlayStation Vita, Nintendo 3DS, PC. Primary version played was for PlayStation Vita. Product was provided by Aksys Games for the benefit of this coverage. EGM reviews on a scale of one to five stars.|
Mollie got her start in games media via the crazy world of gaming fanzines, and now works at EGM with the goal of covering all of the weird Japanese and niche releases that nobody else on staff cares about. She’s active in the gaming community on a personal level, and an outspoken voice on topics such as equality in gaming, consumer rights, and good UI. Check her out on Twitter and Mastodon.