It’s About Time
The Zero Escape series, starting with 999: Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors, has been a trailblazer in the visual novel genre. These works are typified by book-length amounts of text, often including player choices that take the narrative into one of several branches. In the case of Zero Escape and its kin, the storytelling is broken up with escape-the-room puzzles. Let there be no mistake, though—the story is front and center in this genre.
Though visual novels have been popular in Japanese markets since the early 80s (making up nearly 70% of Japanese game sales by 2006) only the safest and least genre-adherent titles had previously been brought West. Following the surprise success of 999 on Western shores, those restrictions have been challenged, and Western audiences have been introduced to a second generation of Zero Escape’s cohorts such as Danganronpa and Steins;Gate. Does the O.G. of the genre have the same prestige it amassed years ago, or has it been usurped since its last iteration?
First and foremost, Zero Time Dilemma is a sequel in all senses of the word. It is made exclusively for those who have followed the series up to this point and is not a good place to start for new players. For long-time fans, though, ZTD is a fitting conclusion to the story and brings excitement with callbacks to earlier entries. In fact, the three groups of characters (more on that later) are essentially broken up into “Team 999”, “Team Virtue’s Last Reward”, and “ZTD newcomers”, with each answering questions and tying up loose ends related to their specific entries.
Zero Time Dilemma begins in the same way that previous Zero Escape games began: nine people wake up in an unknown location, kidnapped by a masked man named Zero who forces them to play Saw-esque games to avoid gruesome fates, and horrible deaths wait around every corner in Zero’s underground bunker of puzzles. This time the rules are a bit more straightforward than they’ve been before— the door to freedom will only open when at least six members of the group have been killed.
It may start the same, but much of the structure after ZTD’s opening segment is significantly different than its predecessors’. Unlike previous installments, the characters are divided into three teams and kept separate from each other for the majority of the story. It gives more time to explore the intricacies of the relationships between three sets of three characters, but I missed seeing the cast play off of each other, as we have before.
Another change is that instead of telling a mostly linear story (branching storylines and time-travel aspects aside) Zero Time Dilemma treats each scene like a separate vignette, allowing players to go through most of them in any order. Though the writing tends to be strong in each individual scene, this decision ultimately hurts the pacing of the first half, as actions don’t build towards much and choices don’t compound over time.
Furthermore, these individual scenes take place in multiple timelines where different combinations of characters have died and different events have transpired. It’s quite difficult to keep the timelines straight, further decreasing the immediacy of any one situation. A certain level of disorientation is intentional, but it does not play to the story’s strengths.
This disorientation is a shame because the dialogue in each scene tends to be quite strong, and the writers have become masters at creating smartly-constructed, nail-bitingly intense situations for the characters to work their way out of. The narrative is not afraid to deliver some heavy punches, gruesomely killing off major characters and tasking players with making gut-wrenching decisions. Unfortunately, the strengths inherent in each scene are let down by the script’s lack of cohesion.
The confusion of timelines also compounds a problem that Virtue’s Last Reward (the second of the series) had. Since these titles require searching every possible timeline for clues and information, players must eventually replay all of the major choices and choose the opposite of what they originally picked to ensure that all information is acquired. Knowing that all choices will have to be reversed undercuts their weight, though. Any strong feelings about making a hard choice are negated since the player will have to do both, making it pointless to invest in the events.
This dissonance is amplified in Zero Time Dilemma because choices not only have to be immediately reversed to experience all of the content, but they’re also robbed of meaning by being taken out of timeline context. Whether a character was killed has no bearing on future chapters because the game randomly throws the player into scenes where that character survived regardless. It’s all rendered meaningless.
So that’s the first half of ZTD. The latter half? It falls apart even harder.
Don’t get me wrong—the drama is an exciting rollercoaster, but it absolutely does not adhere to any kind of internal consistency or logic. Without going into spoilers, the game directly contradicts information it had given multiple times, it has impossible grandfather paradoxes inherent in its time travel narrative, and the biggest twist is completely absurd because it’s based on information that all the characters knew, but was intentionally and clumsily obfuscated from the players. It could have left me with the feeling of “wow! I’ll have to watch that all again to see what kinds of hints they left for me!”, but it completely drops the ball as it defies not only probability, but also possibility. When the big reveal happened, I was unsure whether to laugh at the sheer audacity of it or be angry about how graceless it is.
More disappointing on a personal level is the fact that Zero Time Dilemma’s script does not incorporate the same amount of urban legends, unsolved mysteries, and pseudoscience from the real world that previous entries had. Grounding aspects of the scripts in genuinely unexplained phenomena made them feel well-researched and educational, prompting me to do reading and learning after turning the games off. Apart from a couple of brief instances, Zero Time Dilemma drops this motif almost completely, instead spiraling into its own increasingly-incoherent narrative.
So the overarching story is a bit of a mess, but what about the gameplay? ZTD occasionally breaks away from cinematics to have the player complete short escape-the-room sequences. These are, for the most part, well-composed and are set at a good difficulty level, allowing most challenges to be solvable while still making players feel accomplished and clever. While I generally enjoyed these, they felt like they were keeping me away from the story rather than being used to further the story. They aren’t the main attraction here but they are genuinely gratifying to complete, complementing the moment-to-moment play even if they’re not as memorable as the drama.
As mentioned previously, the majority of Zero Time Dilemma’s scenes are gripping and exciting, but the faults in the overall structure of the narrative let the individually-brilliant vignettes down. It’s also following up on two of the finest games in the genre, and its strengths are not cast in a favorable light by comparison. I hope that we haven’t heard the last of the Zero Escape team, but I also hope that their future projects rein themselves in and they produce something more coherent and personal.
Disclosures: This game is developed by Spike Chunsoft Co., Ltd. and published by Spike Chunsoft Co., Ltd. It is currently available on PC, PS Vita, and 3DS. This copy of the game was obtained via publisher and reviewed on the Vita. Approximately 21 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode, and the game was completed. There are no multiplayer modes.
Parents: According to the ESRB, this game is rated M and contains sexual themes, strong language, blood, and intense violence. This game is markedly more violent and gruesome than previous entries in the series. Though bodily mutilation is not shown on screen, there are multiple scenes of dismembered bodies, copious amounts of blood, and moments of intense violence happening just off screen. Sexual themes are relatively light, with the exception of one character who prominently displays her breasts throughout the entirety of the game.
Deaf & Hard of Hearing: The game remains playable without sound thanks to subtitles and an ongoing log of all dialogue exchanges.
Remappable controls: No, this game’s controls are not remappable.
Colorblind modes: There are no colorblind modes available in the options.
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