When Nine Hours Nine Persons Nine Doors released back in 2010, it was unlike anything I had ever experienced.
Sure, the puzzles differed little from browser-based escape-the-room games, but the storytelling shocked me. From humble, SAW-like beginnings, the narrative engaged me with its quirky cast, then tossed in smart twists based on math and quantum physics. Virtue’s Last Reward continued the trend by doubling up on the science and plot-branching. Zero Time Dilemma had some serious shoes to fill – nine pairs in fact – but it does a damn good job of it.
One caveat before I begin: this review may contain minor spoilers for 999 and Virtue’s Last Reward. But given the complex nature of this series, what constitutes a “spoiler” is not as simple as it seems.
Zero Time Dilemma picks up right where Virtue’s Last Reward left off. That is, one year after the events of 999 and 45 years before VLR. Or six days after it, depending on how you look at things. Nine people find themselves captured and forced to play a deadly “Decision Game” by a man in a plague doctor mask known only as “Zero”. This “Decision Game” is exactly as it sounds. As these nine (split into three teams of three) navigate their bunker prison, they must make choices at key times. These choices determine their fates as well as the other teams’.
But it’s not quite that simple. Teams wake up at 90-minute intervals to play games (i.e. room escape puzzles). When they complete these tasks, Zero usually offers the teams a trap based on probability. For example: A gun contains three blanks and three bullets. If you fire it at a teammate, the door will open, regardless if it’s a blank or bullet. If you do not fire at all, another teammate will certainly die. For each of these actions, Zero Time Dilemma calculates the probability in real time, unlike the fixed results of 999 or VLR.
I loved the extra touch. It makes a bigger difference than you think. In a game that not only urges you, but requires you to go back and seek new outcomes, each decision can sometimes feel weightless. After all, where’s the urgency when every decision is so noncommittal you can simply revert back to a flowchart to undo it? VLR had this issue at times, and Zero Time Dilemma has traces of it, but to a lesser extent.
This installment brings one more interesting conundrum to the table. Four of its nine protagonists are from previous games in the series. In order to deliver exposition without being redundant, Zero Time Dilemma places us in control of not one, but three new protagonists, each the leader of their team. I’m still uncertain about this choice. Much of the mystery in Zero Escape games comes from unraveling each character’s story, but the characters in this game are fairly predictable. Partly because we already know four of the characters from 999 and VLR, and partly because the three new protagonists only act as we tell them to. But, eh, it’s not a big deal. It’s a game chock-full of attractive young people in fantastic clothes. Can’t complain.
Like I said earlier, you’ll do a lot of timeline navigation in this game. This works both to its advantage and disadvantage. The good: it’s a tightly wound narrative that plays its cards close to the chest. As you uncover new revelations, the menus even reshape themselves to follow the plot’s logic. The bad: until those changes occur, the menus are kind of illegible. Too many screens exist to all serve the same purpose. To start, you pick a team. Within that team’s sub-menu, you pick a “fragment” of their plot. From this fragment you can then select a starting point from a small branch of the over-arching “Global Timeline,” which has its own alternate “Fragment” mode. If that explanation confused you, then you know how I felt at first.
Matters somehow manage to get more confusing later on, even after the menus fill out. Normally, you can only access a new fragment from the Team Menu’s sub-menu, but around the three-quarter mark of the game, you run out of new fragments. At this point you have to scour the Global Timeline for little exclamation points which designate previously locked fragments. And after you’ve run out of these unlocked fragments, you then have to return to the Team Menu’s sub-menus to see if new fragments have been unlocked from there. It’s pretty counter-intuitive, but there. That’s all the superficial stuff. Now on to the game proper.
While the vast majority of the game is phenomenal, the early game is kind of sloppy. It all begins with a coin flip; guess correctly and Zero immediately releases you. Roll credits. Ending unlocked. Again, thematically this is actually pretty brilliant, and it ends up being important to the plot. But 999 and VLR both begin with intense puzzle sections to hammer home the gravity of the situation. Zero Time Dilemma begins with very little tension in that regard. If you follow the pacifist route at first, like me, it takes about two hours until you reach a puzzle room. I honestly worried during those first two hours that there wasn’t any gameplay to be found.
Fortunately, once you do open up the puzzle routes, Zero Time Dilemma becomes a well-blended avalanche of slick cinematics and brain-teasing escapes for the next 20 hours. This grand middle chunk contains all the Zero Escape fare you know and love. Characters will be shot, stabbed, strangled, eviscerated, dissolved, decapitated, burned alive, and blown up quite graphically, often by people they care about. Unassuming firefighters and ice cream clerks will discuss high-concept probability theories, like the Monty Hall Problem, Sleeping Beauty Paradox, and Anthropic Principle. Morality comes under scrutiny as Zero tests our “heroes'” values.
The puzzles themselves are competent as ever. Items, images, and machines cover creepy rooms where everything is significant. The developers strike a good balance between obstacles in the environment itself as well as Professor Layton-esque box puzzles. I will say that the latter could have used a little bit more variation – one room has you complete six sliding-block doodads in a row – but it never distracted. My favorites were the incinerator room (which utilises multiple perspectives), the healing room (which features neat holograms), the study (for the kicking soundtrack and shooting puzzle) and the bomb room (which contains one of the creepiest robots I’ve ever seen).
At first I had doubts about the decision to use full cutscenes over the previous games’ static visual novel styles. But Zero Time Dilemma won me over quickly with its presentation and voice acting. You do have to be a bit open-minded about it, though. Yes, many of the cutscenes stick the characters into the same poses, sitting/standing/leaning on the same furniture. And yeah, it’s pretty obvious when the devs didn’t have the time or budget to animate every violent act. But what the visuals may lack in AAA substance, they more than make up for in style. Camera angles and shaky-cams inflate moments of anxiety, while the sharp geometric faces capture extremely animated (if not entirely realistic) flashes of horror and confusion. I’ll admit, I still prefer the sleeker appeal of 999 and VLR. However, for around 20 hours of cutscenes on an obvious budget, I applaud the experiment.
Both the Japanese and English voice casts also deserve proper recognition. Each actor brings their character to life. The emotions they convey are complex and multi-faceted, so their success cannot be understated. Personally, I left the English cast on for the majority of my playthrough. Their voices seemed to match the bodies just a little bit better. However, you have the option to change them on the fly, so if you like one team’s Japanese VAs more than their English VAs (or vice versa) it’s just a button press away.
Aside from strange menu systems and a slow early game, Zero Time Dilemma marks an incredible conclusion to the Zero Escape franchise. Both the puzzles and the plot will give your brain a workout, but give you all the tools necessary to work them out. More importantly though, long after I’ve finished playing, my thoughts have lingered in this game universe. Kotaro Uchikoshi has given us one of the finest gaming trilogies of the 21st century, which has shaped me both as a gamer and a writer. Zero Time Dilemma is a must-play for any fans of the franchise, or indeed for any puzzle game fan.