Zero Escape: Zero Time Dilemma, the third in the trilogy from writer/director Kotaro Uchikoshi, has the mammoth task of bringing one of the greatest visual novel series in the history of video games to rest. The first two entries, Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors and Virtue's Last Reward, managed to reach narrative heights that few in the medium can touch. Zero Time Dilemma manages to meet and exceed the already extremely high bar set by its predecessors. It is rewarding to those who've followed the series from its roots yet welcoming to players who've yet to experience the Nonary Game. The game nearly does everything right in regards to the tale it weaves, answering longstanding questions and offering meditations on themes far above standard video game stories. There is a definite risk in its structure that will befuddle at first yet it becomes an immaculate whole as the pieces fit together; an experience that is not only intense but deeply satisfying in ways that those already familiar with the Zero Escape series will know well. It is, simply put, a masterstroke from a gifted storyteller in the medium that deserves your attention.
Much like any other in the Zero Escape saga, ZTD begins with nine people trapped within a facility constructed by the mastermind, Zero. The goal is simple: escape. This game, unlike the prior two known as "Nonary Games," require decisions to be made. The nine players are divided into teams of three and assigned to specific wards to work through. If they want to escape, though, passwords for doors are required. The catch, however, is that a password can only be obtained if someone dies. If any team wishes to make it out alive, then the remaining six contestants must perish to do so. The further wrinkle in the story comes in the form of bracelets around each player's wrist. Every ninety minutes a drug is administered via the mandatory bracelets that not only knock all players out but erases their memory of everything that happened prior. The setup is devious, and it makes for a compelling interpersonal drama that ratchets up as newcomers and former players (Junpei and Akane from 999 and Sigma and Phi from Virtue's Last Reward) are forced to work together to make it out somehow despite the odds being stacked in their favor.
The game's three teams (C, Q and D) are headed up by ZTD's three main characters: a firefighter named Carlos, a nurse with a heart of gold named Diana and an amnesia-stricken boy called Q. Toggling between the trio of protagonists offers numerous ways to attack room escape puzzles, move to other segments or just experience this story from multiple angles. It is highly recommended to switch often as each ninety-minute segment (game time not real time) is unique with prior sections differing dependent on choices made.
The memory loss component is critical as it helps to define the entire game's structure. Each of the game's scenes is codified in the timeline as a memory fragment, and once a chunk is completed, then it is made readily available amongst the entirety of the visible timeline. This lack of repetition is a welcome change from the prior two as there was a degree of backtracking and repeated content to get to the differing endings available in certain vignettes of 999 and VLR. That global flowchart makes navigating Zero Time's Dilemma story easy, but it also means acquiring the numerous endings available is also easier this time around too.
What sticks out is that this is a story told out of order. It isn't the Kurosawa style contradiction of multiple characters giving their version of events or the Memento-esque Nolan criss-cross of reverse and chronological story segments coming together but, rather, a disjointed view of the entire whole. The agency given to the player to truly choose how to unfurl each sequence is fascinating and going back to prior memory fragments to see how they play out based on a differing decision can produce drastically different results. One of the game's endings can be acquired within the first fifteen minutes by making the right call on a coin flip resulting in everyone making it out alive and wondering just where the heck they are. That's the kid stuff, though, as ZTD's story shows little in the way of mercy as it gets going. This is, without a doubt, as brutal as the series has ever been and the memory wipe mechanic works hand-in-hand with each of the teams being segregated as they are. The aftermath of decisions is far easier to digest for these characters as they don't see the direct result of their choices. The player, however, is not spared from seeing just how far people pushed into a corner will go, though. The "amnesia" mechanic might be considered lazy in lesser hands, but Uchikoshi uses it to such creative ends that any minor missteps along the way are inconsequential.
The exposition dumps of the past aren't an issue this time around as Zero Time Dilemma has moved away from its visual novel roots towards a more cinematic presentation. This is both the game's biggest strength and weakness as these "scenes" do a good job of setting up potential vignettes and, honestly, go a long way in helping get across the melodrama and punch of the scripting. It is, therefore, a shame that the budget for the game wouldn't allow for better quality animation on the models. The models themselves move stiffly throughout and rarely look natural and, if not for some very intentional cutaways and camera shifts from more involved sequences involving violence and the latter, the presentation would have suffered even more. The third in the series is available on, you guessed it, three different platforms as well (Nintendo 3DS, PlayStation Vita and PC). This review was written with the Nintendo 3DS version in mind and, in regards to fidelity, it is the lesser of the trio. There are occasional frame hitches during certain scenes and if it's a very crowded vignette, specifically, the frame rate dropped considerably in parts. It didn't ruin the experience of ZTD by any means but its worth noting.
Character dialog mostly makes up for the visual missteps, as these are some of the most realistic and relatable characters in the series. There are no belly-dancer programmers from 999 here. The long scrawls of descriptive text and, frankly, lengthy expository bombs from the prior games give way to tighter scripting and better pacing overall, even considering the game's narrative structure. The effects of the previous games on returning characters, in particular, are explored well along with the entirely new bunch (Team Q) and their perspective on Zero's game of death offers further insights of the series persistent questions of existence, meditations of life, death, memory and reality itself. Zero Escape has never shied away from examining the physical, or metaphysical realm and ZTD continues that trend.
Zero Time Dilemma's voice direction is top-notch. Each and every performance fits the characters, and I found myself preferring the English dub to the Japanese one far more this time around. The VO work in the series has always been top tier, but this is a different level altogether. Every moment of agony and triumph had resonance, and it came along with the best score the series has to offer. The game's horror elements are paired well with the symphonic stylings and fantastic guitar licks of character themes and general background music. Tension ratcheted up consistently through many of the story segments and the game's sound design shined from beginning to end.
The Zero Escape series offered one of the most compelling story experiences in all of the gaming before Zero Time Dilemma, and now, Kotaro Uchikoshi has managed to deliver his magnum opus with this finale. It is, in nearly every way, a superior game in comparison to the prior entries but stumbles slightly in the presentation department. The game's narrative is so daring and feels so fresh, however, that those small flaws matter little in comparison to the magnificent whole. Zero Escape: Zero Time Dilemma needs to be experienced by any and all who appreciate fantastic storytelling. It is welcoming to newcomers, offering explanations of prior events as best as possible, but it is truly a final chapter that rewards those who have played through the first two. If you haven't played 999 or Virtue's Last Reward before this, it is highly recommended to do so. The context of so many of the finer nuances of ZTD's story and, especially, returning character's evolution over the course of the story will make so much more sense. It can be daunting to have to go back as such for newbies but, then again, most will discover a series that not only offers transcendent storytelling in the medium but challenging puzzles to boot. Zero Escape: Zero Time Dilemma is, indeed, a worthy finale to a series that is, sadly, criminally underexposed to Western audiences, but one deserving of everyone's attention.
Zero Escape: Zero Time Dilemma was reviewed on Nintendo 3DS with a code provided by the publisher. It is also available on PlayStation Vita and PC via Steam. For more, read James' preview of the Vita version.
Zero Time Dilemma is a more than fitting end to a series already known for its gripping narrative and compelling characters. Director/writer Kotaro Uchikoshi has outdone himself here and delivered, most assuredly, his magnum opus. This is narrative risk-taking and some of the best storytelling available in the medium that manages to overcome its presentational flaws to offer a must-play experience.