Few games make me take a step back and think about the world around me the way Zero Time Dilemma has. As the final credits rolled – there are a number of endings – I was taken aback, left in a daze while I sat there ruminating on the past 22 hours of game as well as my own life and the choices I’ve made throughout it.
Zero Time Dilemma is the third game in the Zero Escape series following 999 and Virtue’s Last Reward. Like the previous games, Zero Time Dilemma is all about choices and the consequences of those choices. There’s plenty of backstory and nuance to take from the previous games being very narrative-driven experiences but looking at ZTD on its own I think they do a pretty good job of bringing up and explaining key material from the previous games. I would definitely recommend playing the full trilogy but if you only want to play one, ZTD may be your best bet.
Without spoiling anything, ZTD takes place in a seemingly abandoned underground shelter. Nine people have been drugged and taken captive by a masked man who calls himself “Zero” and the only way to escape is by killing each other. If six people die, six passwords will be revealed and will open up the exit. But Zero isn’t the type to just let his captors roam free and decide to shed blood for themselves. Instead, he has split the group into teams of three, attached watches on their wrists that knock them out every 90 minutes while erasing their memories of that time, and set up insidious puzzles and choices for the group that ultimately lead to life or death decisions. If it sounds like a certain horror franchise, you’re not too far off, but ZTD becomes a lot more philosophical and story-driven than simply a means to watch people die in some horrific ways.
Out of the nine captives, four (Junpei, Akane, Sigma, and Phi) are returning characters from the previous games. Apparently, they only know bad luck. Throughout my playthrough I felt the most invested in these characters not only because I remembered them but I also think they are the most well-written characters and interesting to watch within the game. They have more stakes and more experience with what’s happening so it’s easier to latch onto them instead of some of the other characters like Eric who just seems clueless most of the game and rather annoying. Mira and Q have some redeeming mysteries surrounding them I found intriguing but their actual arcs felt a bit underdeveloped. Carlos and Diana are probably the most likeable newcomers and they actually have some great payoffs throughout the story.
Unlike most games that have a clear sense of progression, ZTD lets you play through fragments of the story with no clear indication of where they fit in the overall arc and the choices you make in those fragments could have an effect in the rest of the game. You see, the Zero Escape series is all about choice and the paths that unfold because of those choices. But where these games stand out is the fact that sometimes you need to see how things will play out in a timeline that will lead to death and use that knowledge to progress through another timeline. When things really start getting crazy, however, it becomes really hard to keep your timelines straight and I would say around the mid-point I started to get really confused as to what was going on. It doesn’t help that it’s easy to feel stuck if you can’t find any new threads to jump to. In multiple instances I was watching scenes over and over again thinking I missed some clue or phrase I could use as a password on another timeline. ZTD doesn’t really help guide you but that’s okay. You just have to realize that all choices matter in this game and as long as you continue to search for every possible outcome, you’ll proceed. Thankfully, and surprisingly, ZTD does a fantastic job of wrapping things up in a way that concludes the events with enough answers that completely satisfied me, but still left a good amount to question and linger upon.
I’ve spent so long talking about the characters and the plot and how you choose fragments and timelines and all this other crap that you may be asking, “Hey, doesn’t this game have puzzles? I like puzzles! Where’s the puzzles?” Why, yes good sir and/or madam, it does. This is a Zero Escape game after all so there are plenty of rooms that the cast will be locked inside and elaborate puzzle-solving is the only way to get out. The reason I’ve taken so long to talk about them is because…well, they just don’t feel as important, creative, or challenging as they did in the previous games.
That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy solving my way out of these rooms but they almost felt like an afterthought, a way to expand the game and keep it in line with the previous entries. In the previous games, I’d get stuck on a room for days. In ZTD, I don’t think I was ever stuck more than 10 or 15 minutes. Either I’m getting smarter (probably not) or ZTD is just not as challenging. While some rooms still gave me the “I’m the smartest person in the world” vibe, it would usually follow a room that focused more on collecting all the items in a room and then using them in the appropriate slot or something like that. Honestly, I’m sitting here trying to remember some of the puzzles and it’s really hard. For me, the plot heavily trumps the puzzle-solving in ZTD.
There’s plenty of puzzle games out there. There’s plenty of narrative-driven games out there too. But few games get their hooks in me like the Zero Escape series has and Zero Time Dilemma is no exception. With its fully voice-acted cutscenes, fast-paced plot, and simpler puzzle designs, it’s easily the most accessible title in the franchise and one hell of a ride from beginning to end to end to end to true end. It’s absolutely worth playing and experiencing because it does so many things well and creates one of the most interesting stories you’ll find in a video game. I finished the game days ago and I still can’t stop thinking about it. Now you have a decision to make: Play this game or not. Just remember that decision may have consequences you never would’ve imagined.