Zero Escape: Zero Time Dilemma by Spike Chunsoft and Aksys Games was an 18-hour journey of philosophical madness related to time, space, god, math, probability, the end of the world, the multiverse, and human emotion. You know, pretty standard stuff.
These themes have run across the entire series, and while this game had some highlights, it lacked the heart of the first two entries in the trilogy, Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors (999) and Zero Escape: Virtue’s Last Reward.
Be warned, this is a fairly SPOILER HEAVY review for the first two games in the series.
For the uninitiated, Zero Escape is the brainchild of writer and director Kotaro Uchikoshi. It’s a series steeped in science-fiction where you play as a series of characters trapped in decision-games that involve plenty of murder, playing out as a visual novel with “escape the room” puzzle segments. Basically, it’s Saw, but with way more obscure and profound mathematical and philosophical concepts.
Ever heard of The Monty Hall Problem? Alien Hand Syndrome? Ice-9? Chronesthesia? You will learn (and then probably forget) a lot by playing these games!
Your host for this hellish game is Zero, a mysterious figure dressed as a plague doctor with even more mysterious motivations. He divides the nine participants into three teams of three and sends them into different and separated wards of an underground bunker. Decisions they make in each room can either result in them dying or people in other wards dying, and no one can escape until six people are dead. DRAMA!
Sure, you kill other people, but hey – you don’t need to suffer the consequences! One constant of the Zero Escape games is the ability to SHIFT, which allows certain protagonists to send their consciousness to another timeline when faced with danger. As a result, every time you make a decision in this game, the story branches off into separate timelines, and you have to learn information from different outcomes and take it with you to other realities in order to achieve the optimal outcome. Still with me?
In 999, the SHIFT ability was the big twist that solved many of the strange occurrences going on. By the second game, Zero Escape: Virtue’s Last Reward, this concept was well-established but introduced a host of interesting and mysterious characters and a “Betray or Ally” concept to the decision-game that added new layers of intrigue. The second game also established that these decision-games were created with the purpose of preventing a worldwide catastrophe, which was a twist in itself.
The issue with Zero Escape: Zero Time Dilemma is that while it succeeds in tying up the loose ends and concluding the story, it lacks a lot of the “holy crap” factor that made me enjoy the first two games so much. There’s nothing really new or revolutionary to latch on to in this game, which makes the super long diatribes about mathematical and philosophical concepts a lot harder to swallow.
Of course, the success of these games hinge largely on the intrigue and likeability of the characters, and this is where Zero Time Dilemma particularly falls short. In the previous games, a lot of the mystery hinged on the characters’ backstories, actions, and murky motivations. Unfortunately, The writing seems lazy in comparison to the previous two games – and given that this is mostly a visual novel, strong writing is key. This definitely feels like the challenge of having to try to tie up all the loose ends distracted from making the characters more interesting.
As for story progression, sections of the story won’t unlock until you’ve reached certain conditions, and in some cases, I had a lot of problems figuring out what I needed to accomplish. Some of the story-related puzzles require some lateral thinking I just couldn’t wrap my head around (a lot of which involve repeating certain sections and waiting for chance to kick in). Basically, I ended up looking up a few things to finish the game.
Also, maybe it’s because I played this game on PS4 whereas I played the previous ones on the DS and 3DS respectively, but the stilted conversations and minimal animation of the characters were hugely distracting in this game.
There are certainly redeeming factors that kept me playing, even if it was mostly to get closure on the series. In particular, Sigma, Diana and Phi’s relationship was the most interesting, infused with genuine emotion, and led to the most interesting reveals and plot points.
The little boy named Q with the spherical helmet (the token amnesiac character with a mysterious identity) also had some highlights, but even then, the reveal of his identity fell a bit flat for me.
As for the escape the room segments, they were up to par with the series standard. You use notes, items and your noggin to wrap your head around some devilish puzzles, which have a lot of variety. There’s spatial puzzles, word puzzles, and of course – math. Always math. The puzzles were challenging enough to be rewarding but without causing too much of a headache.
At any rate, there’s a lot of murder – definitely not a game for the squeamish. In the previous games the stakes and frantic decisions the characters made in order to survive felt more real, and the murders felt more related to genuine emotion. In this game, it all just feels gratuitous.
So should you give this series a try? If anything, try 999 (originally on Nintendo DS and recently rereleased with Virtue’s Last Reward on PS4, Vita and Steam) and see how you feel about it – it was a truly innovative game for its time. It was never meant to have a sequel, so it’s a tight story with lots of mystery. Even though I enjoyed the second game, perhaps 999 should have remained a stand-alone.
Should have quit while you were ahead, Spike Chunsoft!
Zero Escape: Virtue’s Last Reward is available on Nintendo 3DS, PS4 and Steam.
Your point about figuring out what to do is what caused me to bounce off this series. Having to play through several paths to completion, then play through one you’ve already done with new information was a pun in the backside. I’d enjoy this more watching a Let’s Play. Thanks for writing this up!
No problem! I really did enjoy the first two, the ideas that were incorporated, and the storytelling. Unfortunately the storytelling is really where this one fell flat, and for a visual novel it’s kind of important 😋