What started off as a very well written and self-contained adventure game has grown into a trilogy of adventure games that enjoy a small but fiercely devoted following. The Zero Escape series started back when Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors (999) was released for the original DS and, after its success, was followed but by Virtue’s Last Reward (VLR). Both games are story driven adventure games with plots that start out as a struggle to survive in a twisted game that grow more and more mind bending as they continue. For a while, it looked like there would be no third Zero Escape game since VLR didn’t do very well financially in Japan. Thankfully, the series found enough support in the west for developer Spike Chunsoft to create the concluding chapter.
Much like the previous two games, Zero Time Dilemma (ZTD) places players into a life or death situation where the only choice is to play along. This time around, nine people have been kidnapped from a government facility to play what is called the Decision Game. Unlike the previous two games, though, these people aren’t all together in one place. Instead, they are split into three teams and are forced to stay in their own sectors of the massive underground facility. C team consists of Carlos, a strong willed young man who has a strong sense of justice; Junpei, who seems to have a lot of trouble in his past; and Akane, a deceptively intelligent young woman who seems to know Junpei. Q team consists of Mira, a beautiful but odd young woman; Eric, a frankly weak willed and whiny young man; and a mysterious boy with a gigantic round ball on his head who doesn’t remember who he is or why he’s in the facility. Then there’s D team, which consists of Diana, a sweet young woman who seems out of place; Phi, another young woman who is incredibly aloof but highly intelligent; and Sigma, a large man who acts strangely for someone his age and seems to have some connection to Phi.
For people who have played previous games in the series, I mentioned more than a few familiar faces up above, but I’ll leave who those are ambiguous for the sake of those who haven’t played the first two. Suffice it to say that the cast is large and diverse, with each person getting their chance to shine in unique ways. Their personalities are brought out through the cut scenes that make up the bulk of the game. Unlike the previous two games, this one features full cut scenes instead of text boxes. This is a mixed bag. On one hand, the voice acting is excellent, with the actors really bringing the characters to life in a way that wouldn’t have worked as well if the game had been all text. On the other hand, it’s pretty clear that this is a very low budget game since character animations are rough at best. Lip syncing is terrible, animations are very basic, and the game has to cut away from other, more demanding actions. It’s understandable that the game looks a bit rough since there was a question of whether or not it would even get made in the first place, but it can still be distracting during otherwise powerful or intense moments.
Said moments come around via the aforementioned Decision Game. At numerous points in the story, characters are forced to make very difficult decisions. For instance, one that has been featured heavily in promotional work for the game has Diana make a choice. Sigma is trapped in a chair with a gun to his head with no way of getting out, and Phi is trapped inside a furnace that will activate if Diana doesn’t pull the trigger on the gun. According to Zero, the game master, there’s a fifty- fifty chance that the gun will fire a blank or that it will actually go off. Believe it or not, this is one of the more tame decisions in the game, with horrific threats being thrown the players’ way.
This leads to one of the most interesting elements of the game. In order for the facility to open, six people must die. Additionally, they are all wearing bracelets that inject them with a drug every ninety minutes. This drug erases their memory of those ninety minutes, leaving it up to the player to figure out the order of events as they really happened (made fairly easy by a handy timeline that lets you jump to different points in different histories as well as see the chronological order of them. This fragmented storytelling leads to a lot of exciting mysteries that I won’t spoil here, but it’s reminiscent of the novel by Chuck Pahlahniuk Invisible Monsters, which also played with chronology to save some great reveals until the very end. The difference here, of course, is that this game has grander stakes (everyone is told in the very beginning that they are playing the Decision Game for the fate of the world). This out of order storytelling combined with the Decision Game gives the game a much darker tone than the previous two, since it doesn’t shy away from gore when the player makes the wrong choice.
The previous two games in the series expertly set up numerous mysteries and paid them off in mind blowing ways, and thankfully this continues here. For much of the game, you’ll have questions as to what’s going on and how this game fits into the grand scheme of the series (players familiar with VLR know what I’m talking about). Everything pays off well in the final few hours of the game, though, and much like the others, the final stretch demands to played in one sitting if only to see how everything works out. There are, however, some issues. There is a very, very late game reveal that pertains to the whole series that is initially mind blowing, but becomes quite confusing when given any amount of thought. Without giving anything away, it kind of goes against some of the rules established in the game. There’s also the matter of the ending- the actual resolution to the major dangling plot threads of the series is satisfactory and well executed, but the way the game actually ends is a bit ambiguous and not entirely satisfying- it’s tough to describe without spoiling things, but you’ll see what I mean when you play it. It’s thematically fitting, but I personally could have used a bit more than what was given.
In between watching the story unfold and making decisions, the player is also put into puzzle rooms that are the series standard. The set of rooms in this game are more on par with 999 than in VLR- where the former was never terribly challenging, give or take a few puzzles here and there, and the latter was quite tough, especially late in the game. They’re mostly well designed, though, with some real “Aha!” moments that signify a really good puzzle. There were a few times where I was truly stuck, though, and when I scoured message boards, the answer didn’t actually make much sense to me. These don’t come along very often, but when they came along, the in game hints provided by characters simply weren’t enough to help solve it.
I know I made a lot of references to the previous games in the series, and that’s because you really should play them before playing this mostly great conclusion. Think of it as more of a book series- would you start reading Game of Thrones with the fourth book? Of course not. You’d start from the beginning. Such is the case here. It could work as a stand-alone game, but it would spoil a lot of the first two games for you, and those are both worth playing through. ZTD marks the final entry into this terrific science fiction series, with the same expertise at pulling off insane plot twists and making them seem feasible (save one later on) and utilizing both real world science and plausible fictitious science to weave a compelling mystery and ask difficult questions about humanity. Seeing as how the world wasn’t originally going to get this third game, it’s a marvel that it’s as well executed as it is. While it has some rough edges, it’s tough not to be pulled in by this grim final volume of one of gaming’s most interesting and under exposed series.
+ Difficult decisions and fragmented storytelling lend the game a much darker tone than prior games
+ Well designed puzzles that are mostly challenging without being frustrating
+ Large cast of interesting characters that are brought to life thanks to excellent voice acting
+ Maintains the series standard of setting up numerous mysteries and expertly paying them off
+ Overall a satisfying conclusion to the trilogy…
- …Although certain plot elements don’t work as well as the rest
- Some puzzles feel more difficult than they should
- The low budget is obvious thanks to weak character animation that can sometimes take away a bit of the impact of otherwise powerful moments