It’s been four years since Virtue’s Last Reward, the second entry in the Zero Escape trilogy, was first released. And while we’re obviously here to discuss the final game in the series, Zero Time Dilemma, it’s important to note that, for the majority of those four years, it was uncertain that this title would even see the light of day. Fortunately, through plenty of social media clamoring from fans, production on the game began, making a proper end for the series a reality.
I bring up the long period in which Zero Time Dilemma’s existence was left in question because I kept thinking about it while playing through the game. Virtue’s Last Reward ended on a major cliffhanger, with dozens of unanswered questions and the promise of an even crazier adventure on the horizon. The thought that we would never see the final stretch of this journey was one of gaming’s biggest bummers, which makes me all the more happy it actually came out.
I only wish that there was some way in which Zero Time Dilemma felt superior to its preceding games.
Like 999: Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors and Virtue’s Last Reward, Zero Time Dilemma finds a group of nine individuals kidnapped by a mysterious masked figure named Zero and forced to play a deadly game in order to survive. This time around, it’s the Decision Game, a challenge that requires the participants to claim six X-Passes in order to open the bulkhead door keeping them trapped in an underground bunker. The trick? A new X-Pass is only revealed when one of the participants die, meaning that only six survivors will be able to escape.
In order to keep the participants from immediately tearing each other apart, they’re separated into teams of three and put into different parts of the facility. Throughout their ordeal, they’re given multiple opportunities to kill the other teams while also being put into situations that could lead to their own demise. On top of that, every 90 minutes, the teams get knocked out and have their memories erased, meaning the participants themselves are never sure what they’ve done.
These complications are in service of making the plot of Zero Time Dilemma the most chaotic yet. Unfortunately, while the three team structure and memory loss are bold creative choices, they primarily work to make the story harder to invest in. One of the highlights of the previous Zero Escape games was having a central viewpoint character that could interact with the entire cast. It allowed for complex relationships to develop, giving players a better understanding of the characters in question.
The three teams of Zero Time Dilemma necessitate as many lead characters, with each one limited to interacting with two other cast members. It helps a little that four of the participants are returning characters from the previous games, but the relationships this time out don’t feel nearly as deep. It doesn’t help that the memory loss element keeps the cast from truly connecting until much later in the campaign.
Speaking of the memory loss, it feeds into the new fragment system. With the characters experiencing everything in forgotten 90-minute chunks, the player is given the opportunity to play the game in an unknown order. There’s a fragment select screen for each team that shows several possible sections to play, with players only learning their place in the timeline after completion.
Again, though, this new set-up is a disservice to the story. While the beginning and ending of the game are kept fairly rigid, being able to play the middle in any order can be a bit disorienting, while also giving the player the opportunity to see major revelations about the characters before they’ve formed a connection to them. A structured storyline allows for proper foreshadowing and reveals, and the loss of that format in Zero Time Dilemma is a bummer.
It also doesn’t help that so much of the early hours of Zero Time Dilemma is dedicated to explaining developments from previous games. The goal is to make the game accessible to newcomers, but the series’ narrative is just too complex at this point. Zero Time Dilemma has brief discussions about morphogenetic fields, SHIFTing, Free the Soul and several other topics, but these are elements that were developed over two whole games. These explanations are too brief for first-timers, but a bit tedious for veterans.
The upside is that once the story gets going – around the time things become a bit more structured and linear – it rivals some of the best moments from the previous games, offering a number of brilliant twists and yet another major reveal about how the game’s story and presentation are structured. If you haven’t played Virtue’s Last Reward in a while, though, it’s worth revisiting that game first or at least reading a synopsis of what happened there; a great deal of the finale bombards the player with references big and small to the larger narrative.
I’ve gone on a while about the story, which fits with the visual novel structure of the game, so let’s switch gears and take a look at the escape room segments. Overall, it’s a solid line-up of challenges, even if they don’t match the previous games in number or complexity. I’d have liked a bit more from these segments, but I think they’re understandably a bit of an afterthought this time around. The work was definitely put in to make them fun, but it’s clear that the focus of the project was on delivering the conclusion to the narrative.
Which brings me back to where we began. I’m truly glad to see that the end of the series actually exist. That the structure and concepts aren’t as strong as they previously were is a bummer, but it feels unfair to fault creator Kotaro Uchikoshi for that. This game existing at all is a gift, whatever compromises he may have had to make in order to see that we got that gift.
In a lot of ways, Zero Time Dilemma is the game I once worried Virtue’s Last Reward would be. 999 came out of nowhere and blew me – and everyone else who played it – away, providing a compulsively playable fusion of visual novel storytelling and escape the room puzzles. As excited as I was for a sequel, expectations are a hell of a thing, and I had my doubts that Virtue’s Last Reward could live up. Instead, it delivered an even crazier narrative that managed to balance far-out sci-fi concepts with instantly likable characters while also crafting the series’ best puzzle rooms.
Zero Time Dilemma, however, never reaches the highs that preceded it. It’s still a fun experience, and one that every fan of the series owes it to themselves to play through. You’ll get more of what you’ve always loved about Zero Escape; it just won’t be as mind blowing and compelling as the masterpieces that came before.
Final Score: 7.5/10