Game Reviewby Heidi Kemps,
Zero Time Dilemma
The latest installment in Kotaro Uchikoshi's ambitious story-driven series is a riveting sci-fi tale that takes no prisoners.
Zero Time Dilemma is a game that almost didn't happen. Development was put on hiatus in 2012, citing poor sales of the Zero Escape series in Japan as the cause. The previous game, Virtue's Last Reward, ended on a tremendous cliffhanger that looked like it could be forever unresolved. However, thanks to the fervor of the series' Western fanbase, Western publisher Aksys and Japanese publisher/developer Spike-Chunsoft found the time and (most importantly) funding to create another installment and tie up many of the plot threads left dangling years ago. We got what may be the final game in the series—and it's one hell of a ride from start to finish.
Zero Time Dilemma begins a bit differently than the previous two titles. Where 999 and Virtue's Last Reward threw you immediately into the “escape the room” puzzle gameplay that forms a core element of the series, ZTD instead starts off with a lengthy, in-engine cinematic that introduces the nine main characters and antagonist Zero. The premise is similar to the previous titles: these nine characters are trapped in a life-or-death game headed by a sinister mastermind with ulterior motives—and he's willing to subject his game's victims to extreme psychological and physical anguish to accomplish his goals.
Players will notice one major change right away. Instead of the visual novel-style “character portraits with text boxes” presentation of previous titles, Zero Time Dilemma goes for a more dynamic approach akin to action game cinematics, with in-game models speaking to each other and acting out what's happening. Series director and scenario writer Kōtarō Uchikoshi has stated that he wanted the game to feel more like a riveting TV serial drama, and he certainly succeeds on that front. Seeing the characters struggle with their predicament and being forced to react when shit hits the fan is pretty intense. While the character models themselves look nice (apart from some clipping issues), the animations feel noticeably stiff—likely the result of not having the budget to motion-capture fifteen-some hours' worth of cinematics.
But the fact that the game starts off with a huge chunk of story rather than a puzzle should clue you in to Zero Time Dilemma's real priorities. There is considerably less emphasis placed on the “room escape” portions of the game this time around, which, depending on your personal tastes, is either a good or bad thing. (As someone who struggles with spatial puzzles, I was happy that there were fewer rooms standing in the way of the story, though I was a little sad that there wasn't a penultimate escape room preceding the last set of major plot bombshells like in previous Zero Escape titles).
Since the story is such a key component of the game, the characters need to be interesting and engaging enough to support the narrative and keep the player emotionally invested. Zero Time Dilemma certainly succeeds on this front. The nine unfortunate souls caught in Zero's game are split into three teams, where their wildly disparate personalities have ample opportunity to develop, clash, and reveal themselves to the player in surprising ways. While several faces will be familiar to series veterans—Akane and Junpei from the original 999, Sigma and Phi from Virtue's Last Reward—I mostly found myself drawn to the new cast: heroic and determined Carlos, sultry and domineering Mira, her always-under-thumb boyfriend Eric, the mysterious be-helmeted child Q, and overly sweet and compassionate Diana. The characters have their morals and abilities tested through Zero's various “decision games:” player-controlled choices that place the cast in difficult scenarios where lives hang in the balance. Through these choices, we come to learn a lot about these nine people and how they wound up in this mess. The character development is one of ZTD's strongest areas; my initial impressions of each character did a 180 several times over the course of ZTD's plot.
Both the characters and tension are further built up by ZTD's approach to non-linear cinematic storytelling. A key theme in the Zero Escape series is the existence of multiple timelines and how players approach things differently when they know what the outcome of a choice will be. We see this displayed once again in ZTD: rather than a linear story flowchart, the player has access to multiple “fragments” floating at various points in the game's assorted timelines. These fragments could be earlier or later than the one you previously played, or they might be on a different timeline altogether. You don't really start piecing together how things flow until a good ways into the game. While the approach is novel and engaging, presenting some very clever twists on typical game storytelling, there are a few points where the means to opening new pathways through time and space aren't obvious, which can be frustrating.
While the emphasis on the room-escape portions of the game are lessened, there are still plenty of tricky puzzle rooms interspersed between the choice branching and cinematic sequences. During these segments, you'll need to search 3D rooms for tools and clues to help you escape a locked room (and usually uncover some crucial plot info along the way). Each room is a large puzzle that contains a few smaller puzzles, ranging from simple “use item A on spot B” adventure-game fare to more complex logic and spatial puzzles. These rooms offer a nice change of pace that adds to the atmosphere of being unwillingly trapped in a creepy place, though getting stuck behind a puzzle when you really just want some juicy plot details can definitely happen. (Don't feel ashamed to use a FAQ if you have to—even I had to bother Aksys reps a couple of times when I was stuck.)
I've already touched on the visuals, but ZTD's sound is also worth discussing. The soundtrack, by game music veteran Shinji Hosoe, brings out the feelings of tension, cruelty, and cold oppressiveness that pervade the story and the environments. There's also hours upon hours of voiceover work in both English and Japanese, with some well-known names attached to both language tracks. I played on both tracks for a substantial amount of time, and there were some very good performances all around—particularly both Matt Mercer and Daisuke Ono's takes on Sigma. However, I was rather disappointed with Tomokazu Sugita's performance as Carlos: while he does a great job, the role doesn't allow for Sugita to demonstrate his range as well as other roles (like Joseph in JoJo's Bizarre Adventure).
It's honestly pretty hard to write about this game without discussing the story, characters, and thematic elements more in-depth, but the sheer density of ZTD's plot means that if I even hint at something that made my jaw drop in shock, it could wind up ruining a very cool and special moment for someone else. I can tell you that ZTD never plays it safe, and that's why it's so damn good. You will see terrible and gruesome things happen to characters you love. You'll see revelations that come out of left field, only to realize later that everything was in plain sight. Most of all, you'll see a riveting story that takes a sadistic delight in constantly subverting your expectations.
Overall : A-
Graphics : B
Sound/Music : A-
Gameplay : A
Presentation : B+
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