Game review: Zero Time Dilemma is a disappointing finale to trilogy
Robotic animation, an often incoherent plot and some dismal characters ensure only the most devoted fans will stick this one out
Zero Time Dilemma
In the Zero Escape trilogy, a psychopath forces the player to solve a series of escape-the-room puzzles while submitting them to all kinds of mind games and threatening to kill them the entire time – yes, it’s basically Saw meets Crystal Maze.
The final game in the saga is Zero Time Dilemma, available for PC, PlayStation Vita and Nintendo 3DS. It functions on the same catchy premise as the first two games: Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors and Virtue’s Last Reward. This time, nine people are trapped in some secret facility, and must figure out a way to escape. Some of them know each other, some don’t. They all have secrets, motivations and lives they desperately want to return to.
So far, so Agatha Christie. But the unique thing about the Zero Escape series is its way of telling the story. All the Zero Escape games require constant use of a flowchart menu. Imagine this flowchart: at the top is the beginning of the story, which splits into two as you make some binary decision and continues to split as you make more further on in the story. In Zero Escape: 999, the catalyst was a choice between two doors, each one progressing the story in some way; in Zero Escape: VLR it was choosing whether to ally with or betray your teammates in a mandatory, repeated vote.
These choices are more open in the third title – rather than returning to one choice repeatedly, you have multiple decisions to make. Press the button that might kill everyone – or don’t. Shoot one person to save another, or don’t shoot and let them be killed. To top all that off, characters are forced to forget everything they’ve done every 90 minutes, making it quite confusing for everyone to figure out what happened.
The point behind the flowchart is that you have to live through every outcome to get the right one. Each death scene and game over, where you reach the end of a branch and get kicked back to the flowchart menu, reveals a little more about the characters. You’ll use these snippets of information to gain their trust, enter passwords and advance the plot in other ways, eventually gaining access to the True Ending, where (hopefully) everyone survives.
In Virtue’s Last Reward, one entire playthrough of the story unfolded in full before you were even offered the chance to explore another branch of the flowchart. By that time, you had a good idea of the characters, the various rules of the game and, importantly, the entire linear story of that particular branch. This is where Zero Time Dilemma differs, offering its story in small, non-linear chunks and asking you to piece it together. You’ll play the story out of order, reliving bits repeatedly to get a different outcome in order to unlock more chunks of story, and you’ll come out of that feeling disoriented, confused and bothered by the fragmented narrative.
Zero Time Dilemma also differs from its predecessors in the way it looks. Where 999 and VLR had very little 3D animation, Zero Time Dilemma is fully animated. While the chunky, cel-shaded style of the world is appealing at first, the animation is appalling.
The characters’ movements are stiff and robotic; there’s a weird focus on hair and breast physics that only serves to highlight how bad the hair and breast physics are. More complicated animations are bypassed completely as the view cuts to the ceiling, which happens several times in any given scene. The cinematography of the entire game is a little bit off, with long close-ups, lingering shots and strange, awkward angles that make it all seem a little amateur.
The character design is variable, too. Some of the new characters are forgettable and irritating, such as newcomer Eric and his boobtastic girlfriend, Mira, but others almost reach the heights of the memorable casts of 999 and VLR.
The story itself takes a long time to get going, and that’s the main issue many will have with Zero Time Dilemma. It is difficult to properly care about the characters, the plot or the various deaths until quite late on. The plot is often incoherent or hard to understand because you’re jumping from fragment to fragment, like reading a Choose Your Own Adventure book in random order.
Zero Escape fans will enjoy having a lot of the series’ gaps filled in, and finding out more about recurring characters may encourage you to go back and play the first two games again. However, Zero Time Dilemma is easily the weakest of the three instalments. It’s well-written, smart and it wraps everything up in a somewhat satisfying way, but the dismal animation and some of the more forgettable additions to the cast mar what should have been a grand finale.