16 in Review: Zero Time Dilemma

9th October 2016

Over the past year I've played hundreds of different games ranging from the very small right to the full blown AAA with many enveloping me in wonderful experiences and adventures. As we're coming into the last twelve weeks of the year I'll be going over a small sample of these, dissecting what I enjoyed, what worked and what I learned from them.

This week I'll be exploring the manic timeline jumping world of Zero Escape: Zero Time Dilemma.

Zero Time Dilemma is one heck of a twisted journey, holding no bars with its characters or what happens to them. Three teams of three people are kidnapped and placed within a facility to play the "Decision Game" to change the fate of humanity. It's placed (chronologically) in between the events of the first and second game in the series however it is a continuation of the events that transpired in both of them.

At its core, ZTD is all about understanding what is happening across multiple timelines and how you can finally get the full picture. There is, of course, a pre-determined path however the way that you get there is completely up to you, solving puzzles and making heavy choices throughout your journey.

Reading The First Part

Venturing through the story of the game falls into a set of three main teams, each one offering chunks of story divided into "fragments". These fragments range from several hour long puzzles and dialogue sequences to that of minute long conversations between characters providing snippets of information. It's a strange mix of ideas as you technically know the quantity of the story at all times (the fragments are "visible" from the start), however you never know quite how long each one will take or what each part will contain. As you progress through the fragments you, depending on your actions, will unlock access to other fragments within the game allowing you to continue the story from either the current teams' perspective or another's.

Unlike in the previous games in the series, each of the story segments plays out automatically in sets of cut-scenes. Depending on the language choice, no reading is required or the infamous "click to continue" that is found throughout the majority of other visual novel style games. This is a welcome change as it means the player receives more diverse visual scenarios and improved depth to locations, even if it does come at the cost of, to be blunt, fairly amateurish character animations. Environments are interesting and intriguing and although the animation may not be great, the emotion shown by the characters is believable, helped along by the sublime soundtrack.

Solving the Second Part

Married to the story are several escape the room style puzzles that provide a considerable challenge, often requiring a pen and paper to document all of the titbits of information. Each one help progress the story and are often integral to how the characters interact with each other and their surroundings. Puzzles range from simple luck of the draw scenarios, often carrying brutally heavy consequences, to the implementation of coded languages and deciphering image based values to solve equations.

Just like with the story, there are a number of these puzzles that require you to play out other parts first to understand the fully possibility of all the options. These options are generally unlocked from the get go but require the knowledge of the player to progress to them, thus making the playing of all of the fragments vital. Unlike games such as Portal and other movement based puzzles, ZTD falls under the theoretical side removing the reliance on precision timing and movement. This creates a more relaxed atmosphere to the puzzles themselves but with the overarching consequences and the fore coming payoffs each time, it can often result in moments of frustration when you're stuck. Dialogue is often provided by the characters during these puzzles but useful information can be accidentally skipped as it is sometimes delivered through these as well as the notes and documents picked up in each puzzle.

Realising The Third Part

Zero Time Dilemma acts very much like that of an alternate reality game, each part of the story provides multiple hints and information for other parts of the story. Some of the information is fairly obvious in how it relates while other parts require searching and solving first. It's not particularly common that a game not only easily allows you to swap between realities and see the "what if" scenarios, even less so that it forces you to. Unlike other story heavy games it's not simply a case of playing X part again because "the quest was great" etc, it's a core part of experiencing the whole story. Simply playing through parts or playing to one end is a great injustice to the game as a whole and can greatly change your overall perception of it.

It's very clever in its portrayal of the characters and their stories, there are a large number of plot twists throughout that are far from the expected and provide repeated impactful moments. I wasn't a huge fan of team Q's Eric and Mira throughout the story, I felt they didn't quite fit with the rest of the cast however it's tough to say how they could be changed. Zero is well portrayed and offers a level of dialogue verging on the vague but intriguing side, offering hints throughout. D team's Diana, Phi and Sigma were my overall favourite to follow, their story was the most varied and tied up a large number of the loose ends from Virtue's Last Reward (the second game in the series). I felt more engaged with the characters and wanted to progress through their paths more often as it was a much more emotionally attached adventure. Junpei and Akane's portrayal was also great with Carlos complementing it well, their decisions and events were far more brutal in my opinion and relied much more on interesting psychological theories.

Closing 7 Years Through 47

It's almost strange to be talking about the closure of the Zero Escape's series, for a long time it was simply left as an open ended two game series. Nearly seven years after the initial games' release and three platforms later it's finally reached a conclusion.

On its own, Zero Time Dilemma is a confusingly complex sci-fi puzzle game that gives the player a wild ride and a great sense of achievement. The story relies on parts of information from the other games but can be experienced by itself perfectly fine. Character preference ranges a bit in the final game however it's almost a staple of the series with a slew of "normal" looking characters paired with a number of slightly more crazy individuals. From a personal stand point I thoroughly enjoyed the journey and seeing it through to its conclusion and I do feel it was worthwhile playing through the other two games beforehand. The fantastic soundtrack helped emphasise the tones and emotions in scenes and portrayed each parts importance. My personal favourite song is that of "Blue Bird Lamentation", a relatively simple track but with great weight and strikes well with the powerful scenes it backs.

If I do have to criticise anything then I do feel that the puzzles were slightly less challenging than the other two games (one did completely stump me for a while mind), making the overall steps to complete more of a memory and listening game than a problem solving one. The after-stories for the game did feel like a bit of a cop-out, relying on small snippets of text but then I can understand the reasoning when looking back at the animations and, to be fair, large number of cut-scenes and events.

Playing Zero Time Dilemma as your first game in the series may not be the best of approaches but whatever your choice, even the slightest, will lead you down a fantastic 20hr+ journey of death and puzzles that I highly recommend.

Zero Time Dilemma is available on Steam for Windows PC (played), PS Vita and 3DS.

For more info visit the official Zero Time Dilemma website.

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