By Leanne Austin
A Mars mission simulation has gone horribly wrong. Nine people are trapped in an underground bunker, forced to risk their lives in a series of lethal Decision Games run by a masked stranger who calls himself Zero…
Narrowly escaping cancellation after years of troubled development, Zero Time Dilemma has arrived at last. As the final chapter in the Zero Escape trilogy, the pressure was on to deliver a resolution to a massive cliffhanger, answer an avalanche of questions and provide a satisfying ending to the franchise.
Before you can even begin to wonder what’s in store you’ll find yourself struck by the number of visual changes. The cast and environments have been given quite the makeover, with each entry now having its own unique look and feel to match the darker tone that spreads as the series progresses. Gameplay has been overhauled as well, shifting away from the signature Visual Novel approach of the previous games to focus on a 3D cinematic experience, comparable to Telltale’s episodic adventure games.
Unfortunately, the new visual style is also one of the weakest elements of Zero Time Dilemma, with the game’s limited budget not being up to the task of supporting this new look. While the concept art for the new character designs is stunning, the in-game models leave a lot to be desired. Certain characters have hair or eyebrows that seemingly have a life of their own, with Akane’s ponytail in particular insisting on clipping through her shoulder at every given opportunity. The animations are incredibly clunky, often leading to unintentionally comedic moments in otherwise serious scenes. The new cinematic style works fairly well in delivering the sheer amount of information that the plot has to throw at you, but some of the charm of the series is lost in the change in format.
The plot progresses in a non-linear fashion that is quite jarring at first, but becomes easier to follow as you go along. You’ll find yourself jumping around the time line by selecting chapters from the Fragment menu which are presented out of chronological order. You won’t find out where each fragment falls in the overall story until you have finished its story scenes, puzzle room or Decision Game. Completed sections are inserted into the overall story flowchart, a system returning from previous game Virtue’s Last Reward which allows you to view and replay previous events. Revisiting Decision Games and choosing different outcomes is the only way to fill in the entire flowchart and complete the game.
With a higher focus on story presentation, Zero Time Dilemma includes the least amount of escape the room style puzzles of the series. There’s less variation in puzzle types this time around, but overall they provide a decent challenge without being too frustrating. If you’re playing the Vita version you’ll want a notebook and pen on hand for a few of them, since the game’s built in notes screen is very awkward to use without a stylus.
By far and away the star of the show is the game’s excellent storyline. It’s an engaging blend of mystery and suspense, with science fiction and psychological horror elements that have intensified massively for the series finale. Despite the sub-par graphics the high level of gore still manages to make a huge impact. I’m like to think I’m not a particularly squeamish person, but one section in particular honestly left me feeling nauseous. Luckily, there are plenty of moments of comic relief as well as philosophical discussion and some deeply emotional character interactions to break up the violence. Between all the time lime hopping and mind bending plot twists, it’s a wild ride from start to finish.
Despite all the odds stacked against it, Zero Time Dilemma manages to provide a reasonably satisfying conclusion that’s fitting for a series that’s always kept its players thinking. While it’s arguably the weakest Zero Escape entry, it’s a decent game in it’s own right, supplying a decent send off to a brilliant and unique franchise that I would recommend to anyone.