Zero Escape, put simply, is a visual novel series where things go wrong and weird pretty hard and pretty fast. It is also a series I fell in love with pretty hard and pretty fast; a grin sliding up my face when, upon stumbling into a room during one of the games, I found the cast’s broken, bloody bodies scattered like dolls. I still consider Zero Escape: Virtue’s Last Reward to be my favorite game. So, reviewing Zero Escape: Zero Time Dilemma was something I had been looking forward to for years — since about early 2013. In fact, I’d argue it is the only game I have been so excited to play in easily a decade (to the frustration of my co-workers).
So, let me get this out the way: Play this. If you are a visual novel fan, or someone who wants a fantastic narrative, go play 999 and Virtue’s Last Reward beforehand, then give this a go. It has puzzles, sure, but the narrative is where the series shines like a nuclear blast. It is a shame this game doesn’t do a good job at recapping previous events, but the rest of the games are very good in their own right. If you are familiar with the series already, you will at least enjoy Zero Time Dilemma, if not love it. If you need that thumbs up of approval while still staying blind of the experience, it is definitely there as well.
Although, naturally, I’m not allowed to end a review after two paragraphs, so I better leap into full review mode. Very very minor spoilers are ahead.
Zero Escape: Zero Time Dilemma (developed by Spike Chunsoft of Danganronpa fame, though not directed by the same person) is a visual novel with puzzle elements where you play as one of three people. Trapped in a facility, you are told you are to remain until six people die. Through various hijinks that occur, you may or may not kill others off. You may die yourself. Perhaps you’ll even unravel the mystery of the facility, who your captor is and what their objective is.
The game is set up in an unusual and interesting manner as you pick which protagonist you want to be, and then pick what fragment of history you wish to traverse. If this sounds like it could get confusing quickly, well, it sadly does become so as, on a singular time path, it can flit between the three protagonist groups. While they did try to rectify this via group choice and then picking the fragment you want to visit, this ends up swapping confusion for frustration as you navigate through multitudes of menus to pick what may as well be a random segment. However, considering each group will usually act somewhat independently of prior events, this confusion is okay.
Each of these groups can be broken down to each of the three games in terms of theme. While there are cross-overs and independent talks, Team C is an examination of Akane and Junpei post-999, Team D looks into who Phi and Sigma are pre/post-Virtue’s Last Reward (time is weird), and Team Q is the present day look at Eric and Mira. This does mean each group is not as impactful if you haven’t played the corresponding game, although fortunately not in the dark as you play as fresh new faces, with their own dark, bleak pasts. The allocation of the teams in this style ends up allowing Zero Time Dilemma to expertly address most of the hanging plot threads their intended titles left dangling previously while providing something new to the audience.
Fortunately, on top of addressing the various unknown parts of prior games, Zero Time Dilemma is punchy. Each of the fragments (35 fragments, although a few are repeats of other teams’) provide some form of twist, revelation or something else significant. I’d provide early-game examples, but, well, I said only minor spoilers. Just know it does the twist more times than Chubby Checker has done.
On top of this lies a thick heaping of brutality as people die in ugly ways. Sometimes not even instantly, as their eyes dilate hideously, begin to shake, and characters breathe their last breaths. Often, even though injuries will occur off-screen, the splatters of blood and implied positioning of the bodies are enough to send a shiver down your spine. Fortunately, the deaths aren’t Corpse Party-esque in worshipping gore, but rather each one impactful and with purpose. This brutality ends up emphasizing the narrative, rather than distracting.
In terms of the gameplay, the puzzles are still incredibly solid and will test your ability to decipher the clues you are granted in unusual ways. My only grumble about them is their volume and concentration. Rather than being spread out, like Zero Escape: Virtue’s Last Reward, it seems the last third of the game is void of all puzzles.
Instead, the game has more instances where you’re required to correctly pick the right decision. Sometimes this will be to push a button, other times to pick a person, and even times where you have to remember a password from another timeline. Hilariously, getting the wrong answer will sometimes throw back specific error codes (e.g. “The dead can not kill”) or even get specific cutscene changes. Once I got yelled at because I blamed someone being choked to death on the dog. Roughly in the same way you’d blame a fart on the dog. Needless to say, the person with a shotgun then demanded to know how a dog is meant to choke someone and then shot me.
So far, up to this point, I believe Zero Escape: Zero Time Dilemma would be worth at least a 9.5, maybe even a perfect 10. However, well…
…Sadly, the last third/quarter of the game’s narrative falls apart. For the want of a villain, they ended up making a Zero that neither seemed interesting, sympathetic or even fully realized. At best, he is someone who is forced into relevancy only to keep mumbling the phrase “my motives are complicated” over and over until I grew numb. They then end on a cliffhanger, despite Zero Time Dilemma somewhat being billed as the finale to the trilogy.
As an added frustration, as I began to mentally review the twist (i.e. where the antagonist was the entire time, what they did, and one of their primary motives), I realized that the twist was very similar to one of Kotaro Uchikoshi’s previous work with some words changed. While it doesn’t feel lazy, it seems a little rushed. It feels as though Uchikoshi finished the first 2/3rd or 3/4th of the story, and needed to just think of an antagonist who would wrap things up while leaving a potential sequel open. I really had hoped for something more unique and closed.
The final score of Zero Escape: Zero Time Dilemma is a solid 9 out of 10. Despite being disappointed with the final part of the game and some minor failings, it is still an incredibly solid tale that hits with full force. Playing the story, I was reminded of the awe I felt as I dove into Virtue’s Last Reward for the first time. In addition, I felt the need and want to just push on despite being so tired that I struggled to stay awake. While it wouldn’t sit as my favorite Zero Escape game (that goes to Virtue’s Last Reward), it is still a very solid addition to the fantastically written series and a very strong contender for Game of the Year. Please, buy this game, as this is the type of writing ability that deserves to be rewarded. Please, let others know of Zero Escape‘s existence. Please, let us see a fourth game in this astounding series that deserves to bloom beautifully.
A PS Vita review code was provided by Aksys Games for the purpose of this review
Zero Escape: Zero Time Dilemma
- Narrative is punchy as hell through-out
- Wraps most of the dangling plot threads of prior titles
- Puzzles still expertly crafted
- An ending that provides a weak villain and an unfulfilling cliff-hanger that is familiar
- Puzzles not spread out quite enough