The visual novel genre has always been quite popular in Japan with only a few releases in the West, but lately there has been a surge in popularity here. One of the few games to make its way here is the Zero Escape series by Spike Chunsoft and Chime, published by Aksys Games in North America and Rising Star Games in Europe. Currently a trilogy, Zero Time Dilemma is the third installment to the Zero Escape series and it does not disappoint.
Zero Time Dilemma follows nine participants who originally signed up for a Mars settlement testing experiment, but unfortunately find themselves trapped within different wards in the pseudo-colony and forced to play a life-and death game by a mysterious person named Zero. Each of the members is split up into groups of three and players must aid the characters’ teams throughout the game. Essentially, the game is a choose-your-own-adventure/visual novel with its interactive components mostly in the form of escape rooms.
Like its predecessors, Nine Hours, Nice Persons, Nine Doors (999) and Virtue’s Last Reward (VLR), the highlight of the game is its plot. Creator and director Kotaro Uchikoshi has been known to prioritize storyline and plan everything around it. This is evident in the use of the fragment system within the game to facilitate the story. While what at first seems confusing is actually intentional and part of the storyline meant to set the mood. The game’s good writing makes it effective, which sets it apart from many other visual novels.
Although the writing incorporates multiple topics ranging from the psychosocial to Buddhism, at its heart, the game is primarily science fiction horror. Important to note for new players, Uchikoshi definitely amps up the horror in this game. Fans already know that death is inevitable in order to continue the story, but there are also more shocking and gory elements. Players, be prepared to see your favorite characters’ demises multiple times and in different gruesome ways.
Challenging puzzles are key to thrilling escape room games and the creators deliver with ZTD. Things actually make realistic sense during the escape portion, for example items like a screwdriver can be used to open any and all objects it can realistically open within the room, as opposed to very specific items for each object (like those point and click portions of those horrible hidden object games).
There’s also plenty of hints from the characters’ dialogue to help the player figure out where and what goes, while each action further moves the story along. It is recommended to take notes as many of the puzzles require some memorization and even a calculator since nothing is a mere coincidence when exploring the rooms. There are some areas that require either multiple clicking or camera rotation in order to find what the characters need to solve the puzzles. Overall, the puzzles are satisfying and challenging, but nothing too difficult to solve once all the necessary information is gathered.
While the series’ predecessors featured text narratives, ZTD opts for more of a cinematic approach, implementing voice acting in both English/Japanese and 3D animation. Unlike the series’ predecessors though, which its visual novel components were more heavily text-based and half escape room, ZTD opts for a more cinematic approach in its narrative, using full voice acting in both English and Japanese and 3D animation. Unfortunately, the 3D animation suffers during the cinematic scenes especially on the Nintendo 3DS system. Some fans may dismiss the low 3D animation quality as ZTD almost didn’t happen since 999 and VLR are considered commercial failures in Japan. Production continued due to fan support and in some ways, ZTD is like a thank you gift to fans. While the animation is lacking, the voice acting makes up for it by adding emotional context and helping immerse the player into the narrative.
Ultimately, ZTD does not drop the ball, providing an engaging story and challenging escape rooms that thrill like its series predecessors.It is highly recommended that players play the first two games before in order to maximize the game experience of ZTD, although it is not required to understand the game. There are many references within the game that refer back to the others and while they are vague enough to prevent spoilers, it can be confusing for newcomers and thus ruin the experience for some. Though due to its nonlinear storytelling, the game can still serve as an entryway for those who do not mind its unique narrative, but it will be a challenge.
So whom would you choose to die to save your team? Choose wisely. choices can truly be deadly.
Zero Time Dilemma is available for the 3DS system, PSVita, and the PC through STEAM.