When Volume 3 of the Zero Escape series, Zero Time Dilemma, was put on hiatus indefinitely in 2014 due to the series’ poor reception in Japan, I never thought that I would have the chance to finish the wonderful story set up by the previous two games. Now it’s here, in my hands, and I couldn’t be happier. Zero Time Dilemma is the best entry into the Zero Escape series and here’s why.
Zero Time Dilemma is a visual novel puzzle game set between the events of the previous entries into the series, 999 and Virtue’s Last Reward. Nine characters, both new and returning, have once again become held captive by the evil mastermind, Zero, and are forced to play his sickening games. The only way to escape from Zero’s grasp is through the X-Door, which will open when six members of the cast die and their passwords are revealed. With characters lives hanging in the balance, it’s up to your decisions as a player to save as many characters as possible and unravel the mystery behind Zero’s identity.
The cast has become split into teams of three and you are in control of their captains, Carlos, Q and Diana. Due to Zero’s memory erasing drug that the characters are injected with every 90 minutes, the story is no longer told in a linear flowchart of decisions, but in multiple memory fragments that the player can experience in any order they desire as they get unlocked. This randomizes the difficulty-curve and your first fragment, like mine, may contain one of the harder puzzle rooms you have to complete. Some players may prefer the linear story progression, I enjoyed building the flowchart up with my fragments and filling in the grids; it was something fresh from a visual novel.
After your party awakens from their drug induced state, it's now your turn to interact with the game and seek a way out of one of the many puzzle rooms that you've been locked in. It's best to start these sections by surveying the environment, looking for objects or folders that might give you a clue on how to acquire solutions. There are usually about four key puzzles you have to solve in every room and each one flows into the next by providing you with the lacking information or objects required to make your escape.
Some puzzles require you to decode files to find solutions, while others force you to be more hands on and start combing items to make keys or levers. After completing two or three of these segments, it can be hard to keep a track of all the material you've acquired, so it's best to record long passwords or subtle clues written on the walls in the memo section of your interface and keep them later for reference.
Over my 24 hour journey there were only a couple notable moments where I got stumped on a puzzle and it was due to me over-complicating the solution. These rooms just aren’t as difficult as the previous entries in the series, but they pack more then enough character in their themes and their solutions remain clever. Unlike in Virtue’s Last Reward however, there is no longer an easy mode switch for players to flip when they get frustrated or stuck. Instead, your supporting cast will give you helpful hints when you reach difficult moments.
My only disappointment with the rooms, and actually over the entirety of game, is that there is no final puzzle to challenge my wits and connect all of the evidence I found. The Q room of Virtue’s Last Reward was the game’s final boss and it was challenging to solve, but I took pride in beating in without a guide. This is a feeling I feel is absent from Zero Time because my final moments of interaction with the game was spent clicking between one of two choices multiple times.
However, my favourite part about Zero Time Dilemma was easily the fully animated cutscenes during every portion of the novel sections. While some animations and facial expressions came off as awkward or stiff during emotional moments, I never expected this type of production from a title with such a low budget. Regardless of the quality of the animations, the powerful writing of the novel sections more than picked up the slack, creating an experience that any fan of the previous games will find as a treat to enjoy.
That being said, anyone can pick up Zero Time Dilemma as their first entry into the series and have a pleasant experience. While the previous games are constantly referenced and there is a lot of content geared towards fans, Zero Time Dilemma still tries to open it’s doors to new players by providing short summaries of past games events as the story progresses. Some of the context of certain events may become lost, but you’ll still be able to understand the basic plot points of the previous entries.
If Zero Time Dilemma is truly the last entry in the series then it has reached a satisfying conclusion. The plot holes and questions fans have been asking about for years are all explained and there are a number of surprises that I never expected to be revealed. Cheers to you on a cult-classic series Kotaro Uchikoshi. I eagerly anticipate your next game.