I found the Zero Escape series just after Virtue’s Last Reward had been released. I read the description, thought it sounded cool, and then looked up some reviews. Everything I read told me the same thing: play 9 Hours, 9 Persons, 9 Doors first! And I said “well okay,” and I proceeded to pick up 999 for like five dollars. Once I started, I couldn’t put it down.
I was in college while playing the first two Zero Escape games, and I would be lying if I told you this series didn’t impact my study habits. I’d stay up until three or four in the morning after hanging out with friends or my future wife until midnight, just so I could try and find the ending where no one died and I truly “beat the game.” The story gripped me, the puzzles stimulated my thinking, and the science fiction of it all reignited a love of sci fi that had been buried underneath for a long time out of sheer lack of good content.
When I learned that there would be no third game, that the series would forever hang uncertain in the air, I was devastated. Why would they cancel the final game? Everything I read blamed the game’s poor sales with the Japanese market compared to the American one. “Freaking Japan!” (I still mutter that under my breath when I see an advertisement for Yokai Watch II while Ni no Kuni II is still out in the aether somewhere) But one day, out of nowhere, I saw an article – Zero Escape 3 is coming. And boy, was I excited.
Finally, I could see the end. Finally, I could learn the truth. And once again, I could die over and over again due to the machinations of a masked figure named “Zero.”
I’ve now had the opportunity to play and finish the game, and so the time has come for me to share my thoughts. This review is going to be spoiler-free, but I do want to include to you the advice that other reviews gave to me back when I first met this series: play 999 first. And then Virtue’s Last Reward. And then come back to this title. If you aren’t familiar with the other games, this experience will not resonate with you the way it was intended.
Another thing to point out is that I am reviewing this game on the 3DS. It is also available on Playstation Vita and I believe on PC as a Steam game. And while many of the points I make in this review will apply to any version, some of the more technical aspects of the game might have subtle differences between the versions.
Before we begin, I’m going to take a moment to describe my scoring method. I score games on a scale of 0-10 based on a range of five categories: visuals, audio, story, gameplay, and length/replayability. Each individual category is scored on the following scale:
0 – This aspect of the game was terrible and had no redeeming qualities – ZERO
.5 – This aspect of the game had its moments, but overall subtracts from the game – POOR
1 – This aspect of the game performed as expected, no more, no less – AVERAGE
1.5 – This aspect of the game was particularly fun, but had a glaring flaw – GOOD
2 – This aspect of the game was wonderful and nearly flawless – GREAT
At the end, I add all the scores together for a “raw score.” Often, I’ll then adjust the raw score by anything from -1 to +1 based on a particular category that maybe I think should be weighted more than the others, or on another factor that doesn’t quite fit into any of the categories. This then creates the total score, which for our purposes will be my official score for the game.
And now, without further ado…my review of Zero Time Dilemma.
“Life is simply unfair. Don’t you think?” This is the refrain that follows you from the very beginning of Zero Time Dilemma. Life certainly seems unfair to these nine victims trapped in Zero’s decision game. Losing a simple coin flip traps them in a bomb shelter covered with death traps in which six people must die in order for the other three to go free. Surviving the decision game takes a little bit of wit and a huge dose of luck. Regardless of whether you live or die, the decisions you make will resonate throughout shelter and affect the lives of others.
Your first impressions of a game are most likely to be what you see. Graphics are more important to some folks than others, but one point we can pretty much all agree on is that if the graphics are particularly poor, they can interfere with your immersion in the experience. And of course, you can’t play what you can’t see.
Zero Time Dilemma changed things up from its predecessors by going fully cinematic, breaking away from character portraits and walls of text. You watch the characters stand up, sit down, and swing chainsaws at each other. Depictions of violent killings are now in full motion, not just artfully pinned backgrounds behind the scene’s dialogue. This decision was made the make the game feel more accessible, to broaden its appeal to people who don’t have much interest in playing what is effectively a visual novel.
I understand the reasoning behind the decision, but honestly the cinematography in this game is really hit or miss. The facial expressions on the characters are generally flat, with each character pretty much limited to their two most common emotions. The blood effects from the gruesome killings are heavily played up for dramatic effect, but they don’t really look great. This is the series’s first real exploration of full motion action, and it really isn’t BAD. The thing is, it definitely isn’t good either, an that ultimately defeats its original purpose. The kind of person who won’t play a game because it requires a lot of reading is generally also gonna be the kind of person turned off by graphics that don’t perform well.
Puzzle rooms work much the same as they always have. You can pan the camera around a detailed room, zoom in on specific points, and interact with the elements there by either using the circle pad to guide a targeting reticle, or using the stylus to touch the object you want to examine. My experience with Zero Escape is that some puzzle rooms just flat look better than others – anytime I step into a mostly-grey room filled with machinery covered in buttons, I sigh a little bit. But for every room that looks like that there is a room with a really unique and interesting visual design that really makes the puzzles pop and draws me into the environment.
Overall, I think the graphics of this game did what they had to do. There are moments where they shine and moments where they clearly falter, and ultimately those times cancel each other out to make an overall average graphical experience. While I appreciate the idea of inclusivity, as someone who played this series before the cinematic visuals I would have preferred them to stick to the old way of doing things.
SCORE: 1 – Average
Sound design is an aspect of the Zero Escape series that I have always felt was strong. So how does Zero Time Dilemma stack up?
For fans who have been playing these games for awhile, you’ll instantly recognize quite a few of the tracks in this game, and they have the same powerful effect they’ve always had. Music in Zero Escape during the cut scenes is highly atmospheric, designed to invoke specific emotions and set up the mood that the scene will have. The newer tracks do this just as well as the older ones, and the strong soundtrack helped to immerse me in the experience.
This was accompanied by what was overall some pretty strong voice acting. It certainly wasn’t perfect, and some characters were portrayed a lot better than others. But overall the voice work in this game brought out the emotions that the visuals struggled to portray. Particularly deserving of praise are the actors for the helmet-clad leader of Q-Team, Sigma, and Diana, all of whom had pretty major roles to play and did so with skill.
There was one place where I felt the sound design struggled a bit, and that was in the puzzle rooms. The hyped-up techno club music didn’t necessarily fit with the idea of carefully searching a room for clues and details, and at one point I found myself turning down the sound so I could hear myself think while trying to solve a puzzle. This wasn’t a problem in every puzzle room, but it is worth mentioning that these sequences are the major area where sound design could be improved.
Overall, audio picked up the ball that the game’s visuals dropped, helping to pull me back into a world where I initially felt disconnected. The atmospheric music and solid voicework helped me to really feel the emotions of the game. In future Zero Escape titles (please!) I would love to see them refine the puzzle music further, and to work with the actors who fall behind somewhat to help them reach the level of their peers.
SCORE: 1.5 – Good
The storytelling is the real meat of the Zero Escape series, games that have not inaccurately been referred to as visual novels in the past. Even though this game took a more cinematic approach to the story, it certainly did not back down when it comes to content.
To talk in detail about any specific elements of the story would involve really hefty spoilers, but there are some basic details I can share. The game sees three different groups trapped in a bomb shelter by the mysterious Zero. In order for anybody to escape, six people have to die. These deaths occur as part of multiple events called Decision Games. Sometimes these games will have the characters fall as victims of random chance – others have them specifically select who lives and dies.
The three teams are designated by letters: C, Q, and D. C team consists of returning characters Junpei and Akane along with a new character, Carlos. Q team is a whole new cast, a couple named Eric and Mira led by an amnesiac boy whose face is obscured behind a helmet. D team features returning characters Sigma and Phi, along with a new character named Diana. Unlike in past titles where choosing a specific path allows you to work with specific characters and get to know them more, for the majority of the game these three groups stay separated and interact only with each other. You as the player “control” the leader of each team, giving you three playable characters compared to the usual one. This change to the formula isn’t particularly drastic, but it’s pretty refreshing. Changing characters certainly didn’t impair my ability to enjoy the experience.
The series as a whole is known for incorporating real theories (some of them pseudoscientific) as part of their story. In this game, there’s more of a focus on theories of probability and odds, but there’s plenty of time-related shenanigans as well. This game does delve a little deeper into the “fiction” part of science fiction, bringing in some elements that seem a lot less plausible than the past titles. I mean, not that transporting your consciousness through time is something that actually happens. But the games always presented this impossibility as something that is theoretically possible with science as we currently understand it. And that hasn’t necessarily changed, but there are certain plot devices in Zero Time Dilemma that really stretched my suspension of disbelief to its limit.
ZTD’s story is at its most impressive if you’ve played the rest of the series. I’ve said this once already during this review, but I will say it again: you really need to experience the other Zero Escape games before playing this one. It’s not that you can’t understand the events of Zero Time Dilemma without knowledge of the other games – the game does well enough at establishing the pre-existing relationships between characters – but this game builds heavily on themes and elements that found their beginnings in Virtue’s Last Reward. If you don’t know what those characters have been through, who they care about, and how they relate to each other, then the impact of Zero Time Dilemma would be lessened somewhat.
For those who have played the rest of the series, this game is the ultimate wrap-up. While you may not necessarily be satisfied with how everything shakes out, but everything WILL shake out. This doesn’t just apply to big “what-if” questions from Virtue’s Last Reward, but also to smaller, more subtle details as well. I’m really looking forward to replaying the other games with the full knowledge of this one in mind so I can really appreciate how the series all ties together. There is, by my estimation, only one plot-hole in the series, one point that is left unaddressed, and honestly my personal interpretation of that plot-hole makes it a non-issue anyway. Obviously, I can’t talk about it here because spoilers, but I’ll be posting a spoiler-filled article with my personal thoughts about the story of Zero Escape as a whole that you can check out if you want to know exactly what I am talking about.
Of course, it’s not fair to evaluate the story just as a part of the greater whole: how does it stand on its own? In my opinion, Zero Time Dilemma is fantastic in this regard. Even within itself, discounting the other games in the series, the story that ZTD tells is gripping and full of subtle goodies to gobble up if you stay focused and use your brain a little bit. More so than any other Zero Escape title, by the end you can truly understand why each and every character matters and how they connect to the story as a whole. I want to talk in more detail about this SO badly, but for now all I can say is that everything ties together and nothing that is said in this game should be ignored, because it’s gonna be important at some point.
Overall, the story of this game is exactly what I’ve come to expect from Zero Escape: gripping, suspenseful, emotional, and mind-bending. While there are elements of the story that I certainly did not enjoy (again, look forward to my spoiler-filled opinion piece for the full details on that), these are ultimately a result of my personal opinion and what serves as a turn-off for me may be a huge selling point for someone else. When it comes to story, I could not put this game down until I completed it, and just like with the first two titles I found myself staying awake way later than I should just so I could find out what in the world happens in this wonderful game.
SCORE: 2 – Great
While Zero Time Dilemma has enough story for a novella, it ultimately is a video game, and part of its quality has to be judged on the quality of the interactive elements. Gameplay in ZTD comes in two main forms: puzzle segments where you “seek a way out” of a locked room, and decision games where you generally just click on something or type in a name. The game features a total of 13 puzzle segments versus 29 decision games, which really shows just how much of Zero’s emphasis is on the Decision Game, but while you’ll be doing the latter far more often the former is a lot more engaging and takes more time.
If you’ve played Zero Escape before, there’s nothing about the puzzle segments that’s going to catch you off-guard. You’re placed in a single room that you can explore, looking for small clues and solving little puzzles in order to find your way out of the room so you can progress. The puzzles are varied, and generally within one room you can expect to see specific themes to play out. There were certain puzzle types that made repeat appearances throughout the game, and so by the fourth time you felt pretty confident in solving it. In particular, there’s a “fit all this stuff in a box” puzzle where you have to line up different-shaped objects in such a way that they form a picture or all fit into a particular space that appeared multiple times, at least once for each different team. I felt that this game overall had pretty strong puzzles – they weren’t overbearingly difficult but they took thorough exploration, making you think without pushing you to the point of giving up. Hints were generally as specific as they needed to be. One specific instance I can think of is where the puzzle was heavily based on mathematics, a subject I’m not particularly solid at, and so the characters very carefully explained the math so that if you struggle with that subject you can still put two and two together (pun intended). There were a couple of puzzles that really stood out to me as particularly impressive. One involved a room where the hallway could be spun around in order to reveal hidden details and to move objects to where you could reach them, along with small sliding-block puzzles where you had to move Tetris-style pieces out of the way in order to unlock a mechanism. Another involved figuring out the number system of an unfamiliar culture by comparing the “numbers” together in order to determine their value, and then doing math with those numbers.
As I said earlier, the decision games are a lot less involved. They generally just boil down to voting for someone or accusing them of something, although they do vary from time to time. A particularly memorable decision game for me was the “Monty Hall problem,” where you play out a murdery-version of a classic scenario from Let’s Make a Deal. When it comes to gameplay, the Decision Games really didn’t do much for me. Most of them were too simple and random to really be all that engaging, and every decision game without fail has this annoying little cut-scene type thing where you have to sit there staring at the character’s “under pressure” face and then watch a timer before you can actually make a decision. It slows the whole thing down and makes it feel more artificial, an unnecessary build-up for a moment that already has significance because of the storytelling.
Overall, the gameplay of Zero Escape really delivers during the puzzle sequences, while the Decision Games feel more like interruptions. Luckily while the latter happen a lot more often, they are short and sweet so you can immediately get right back into the real meat of the game, which is the story. The puzzles are engaging and fun, and when they prove to be a little too challenging the game is always right there with solid hints to get you through it. While the Decision Games do hold it back a bit for me, they are a small blemish on an otherwise-solid part of Zero Time Dilemma.
SCORE: 1.5 – Good
I really need to figure out one word that really sums up this idea, but for now we’ll go with this. How do the story and gameplay interact with one another? How much of my life is this game gonna take up? And once I pay money for it, am I ever going to want to play it again?
Length-wise, this game lasted right around 30 hours for me, which is plenty for a story-based game like this. It doesn’t feel too long – in fact, that 30 hours flew by and I honestly could have stayed engaged for a little longer if they really did feel like more needed to be said. That being said, I’m the kind of gamer where 30 hours is on the low-end of what I am willing to go through for a good game. For some folks, that’s their high-end, and if you are the kind of person who has to be actively doing something for every second of a game’s length in order to be satisfied, Zero Time Dilemma probably won’t keep you engaged.
Pacing plays a lot into that. This is an area where I felt ZTD faltered somewhat. Specifically, the balance of puzzles versus story. I mentioned earlier that there are 13 puzzle segments in this title. Those 13 puzzle segments take up much of the early parts of the game, but once you get through them, you unlock huge chunks of story that now are not broken up by anything except for Decision Games. If you play the game a specific way, you can end up in a situation where you have no puzzles left to do but plenty of cinema left to watch. I’m not knocking the story – I already gave the game a perfect score in that category – but playing all the puzzles for the first half of the game and then watching all of the story the second half of the game made it feel pretty unbalanced and weirdly-paced. Now the good thing is that to a degree, this can be avoided by approaching the game’s fragment system in a different way. I played by powering through each Team one at a time, and I definitely do not recommend others to play the game that way. Jump around. Do some stuff as Q team and then play as D team. Then jump over to C team for a bit. This’ll keep the pacing more balanced somewhat, although since many story-heavy fragments can’t be unlocked until specific puzzles are completed, it’s inevitable that you’ll eventually run out of puzzle while still having quite a bit of story to see.
When it comes to replayability, Zero Time Dilemma is the kind of game that you probably won’t want to replay for awhile. There aren’t “secrets” or “post-game content” or anything like that, so once you get your thirty hours out of it, you’ll probably not touch it again until it’s gathered dust for awhile. I do think the game is worth replaying, though, and here’s why: it turns your conception of what’s really happening upside down. By the end of the game you’ve learned so many truths and little details that really tie the game all together, but you’ve inevitably missed some details. By experiencing the game a second time with the full knowledge of everything that’s really going on, you can really see the foreshadowing and the puzzle pieces connecting in a way that enhances your appreciation for the story. So while you probably will want to replay this game, it certainly won’t be the day after you finish it.
Overall, ZTD is a good length and is worth coming back to after you’ve taken a break. The biggest issue when it comes to these aspects of the game is how it is paced – with a puzzle-heavy intro and a story-heavy finale, you kind of experience these two very important parts of the game in separate chunks. I think when it comes to issues of pacing and replayability, Zero Time Dilemma could learn a lot from it’s predecessor Virtue’s Last Reward.
SCORE: 1.5 – Good
Now let’s look at our totals so far…
Graphics: 1 – Average
Audio: 1.5 – Good
Story: 2 – Great
Gameplay: 1.5 – Good
Length: 1.5 – Good
RAW SCORE: 7.5 – Good
I think the raw score of this game is a really solid representation of what you are going to experience if you pick up Zero Time Dilemma with no knowledge of the games that come before it. However, for those who have experienced 9 Hours, 9 Persons, 9 Doors and Virtue’s Last Reward, ZTD is more than just the sum of its parts. This is the wrap-up of a trilogy, the ending of a whole series. That adds a significance that really can’t be ignored. While I personally felt that this ending was satisfactory in almost every aspect, there is at least one point that is arguably a plot-hole, and certain aspects of the ending are certainly let-downs. There are relationships I would have liked to see explored just a bit further, and there is in a way a bit of closure missing. But overall, Zero Time Dilemma is a really solid wrap-up, and I just can’t get over how this game not only answers questions within itself but also answers lingering questions from Virtue’s Last Reward. While this story did leave a couple things to be desired, at the end of the game I felt a sort of satisfaction that goes beyond this individual game to the series as a whole. And that for me is worth a bit more credit than what the raw score offers.
SCORE ADJUSTMENT: +.05
Zero Time Dilemma is a game that excels where it excels. It has multiple little issues throughout – pacing and graphics chief among them – but these issues don’t yank you out of experiencing this immersive story. Zero Time Dilemma tells a fantastic story on its own and goes a step beyond that to wrap up a really great series. If you’re the kind of person who looks for subtle details in storytelling and loves to make connections, if you’re a puzzler at heart, then this game will keep you engaged from start to finish. I highly recommend Zero Time Dilemma to anyone who has played the other games in the series. And if you’ve never experienced Zero Escape at all, I recommend you scoop up a copy of 9 Hours, 9 Persons, 9 Doors and experience this wonderful trilogy from start to finish.
FINAL SCORE: 8 – Good