Zero Escape: Zero Time Dilemma Vita Review

The journey through Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors and its sequel Zero Escape: Virtue’s Last Reward is one video game memory that will stick with me until my death. Those games manage to create a captivating and engrossing story with many twists and turns that kept me focused on my DS/3DS until finished. What might surprise you is that this isn’t a crazy triple A action game or one of Nintendo’s classic Mario games, it’s a visual novel, a niche genre, but one that is perfectly set up to deliver an amazing story. Magnificently, the director, Kotaro Uchikoshi, smartly blends story elements into the series’ simplistic gameplay as a focal part of the plot (go play them to find out, as I’m not spoiling those games!).

The third and closing entry in this trilogy has finally arrived, a game that nearly did not have a future when the director announced on Twitter that he was having issues trying to get the game into production. Thankfully, fan persuasion led the publisher to accept the demand and went forward with green-lighting the game, and now fans of the series can finally see the conclusion of Zero Escape in Zero Time Dilemma, a worthy end game that upholds everything that made the past two such thrilling and memorable experiences.

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I want to take a small amount of time to stamp this paragraph with a massive advisory sticker – while you can just about get away playing Zero Time Dilemma without playing any of the other games, I strongly advise you do go and play them, understand the characters and the series’ concepts, as there are strong connections to elements of past games – some of the characters and story ideas won’t be as coherent to a newcomer. With that out of the way, let’s get on with it.

Zero Time Dilemma is set a few years in the future on the last day of 2028, where a test lab is situated in an underground bunker of the Nevada desert. Nine people are introduced to us, people who thought they had signed to be part of a scientific logistics test for living in a colony on Mars, but instead, are forced to play the Decision Game, a deadly game of choice hosted by, no, not Ant and Dec, but a person dressed up as a Plague Doctor called Zero (probably just as nightmarish, right?), a name familiar for anyone who has played the previous games. He asks the nine participants one quest, is the flipped coin red or blue? Which leads to the opening of Zero Time Dilemma‘s non-linear story progression.

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Amusingly I picked the right choice the first time around and the outcome led me to the game’s first of many endings, then it told me to go back to the scenario to take the choice again, this time picking the other colour and getting the outcome that kick starts the Decision Game. From this point on, the story is split into three perspectives, one for each of the teams, C, D and Q, that are formed when Zero locks them into their own specific zone in the bunker. This style is new to the series, since before it has always been done from the view of the main character, now, you get a personal approach to these groups of characters, getting to see exactly how they cope with the dire situation.

Zero Time Dilemma has an inventive way with the structure of its storytelling – it is done in an open and unfixed method using fragments as key points to jump to. This allows to switch between teams at different parts of the story whenever a fragment comes to an end. On the negative side, this does mean that the story can feel disjointed, as information is coming at you in the “wrong” order, but it eventually all makes sense, and the concept fits with the events that happen after every decision game, where the participants are injected with a memory lost sleeping drug, waking up later without a trace of what has happened. This translates into the player being just as confused as the contestants, but, at least for the player, the game offers a flowchart of all the events and where they fall within the grand scheme of things.

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This disjointedness falls into Uchikoshi’s planned plot, and while it seems to be fragmented in regards to delivering a coherent story, Uchikoshi manages to make the pieces fit together, building on Virtue’s Last Reward‘s story ideas to hit the player when it clicks as it comes to its closure. Virtually all the characters are well written, and while I find one of the returning character’s personality a little out of wack for them, each brings something interesting to the table, slowly revealing that everyone is not as normal as they might seem. As for a closure for the trilogy? There is certainly rewards here that connect a lot dots and relationships between events and characters, newcomers and returnees, across all three games, but the finale, overall, might be the weakest of the three games for me, not that means it is poor, just I was expecting a little bit more for such a long and larger-than-life story arc across three games.

Having the experience unspoiled is how this game should be played, so I’m going to shut up after my last words. My final thought about the story is that it keeps the series’ tradition of exploring probability puzzles and psychological theories. Uchikoshi has a good way of writing this into the game through the use of the puzzle rooms, areas of the game where the narrative is given a break for the gameplay. The rooms this time around are better designed, with only one puzzle causing me a huge problem that I had to go read up on it, as I was completely misinterpreting what the hint was trying to tell me, but in terms of what they are, puzzle rooms remain identical to previous titles with no core changes.

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The pacing between story and gameplay felt rapid this time around. I found that the previous games had a lot of downtime between each puzzle room, but here, they seem to come fairly often, apart from when the ending is coming up. The cinematic approach to the cutscenes help with the flow, making a sense that the scenes are moving faster than they probably are. Compared to Virtue’s Last Reward, this game is a shorter experience, clocking in around 21 hours for me to find all the multiple endings that branch from different story fragments, but I feel that this is a sign of the balance between puzzle solving and narration.

Zero Time Dilemma doesn’t do anything different for the Zero Escape series. It keeps it safe and follows the same core design as the last games – being made up of puzzle rooms and having a heavy focus on story. The game comes with full English voice acting and fully animated cutscenes with 3d models, which is great at bringing the atmosphere of the game, since the voice over work is mostly decent enough to hear the emotion through their tone. Purist can go with the Japanese option with subtitles if they would like to play that way.

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Moving to 3D models is not without issues, as physics can mess up, especially on hair, where ponytails or other long strands can freak out – trying to take a scene seriously because someone died a gruesome death doesn’t quite work when there’s a rave going on with a person’s hairstyle. While the move to more modelled scenes is a step forward, they animate stiffly, which makes fast action look off, almost robotic in movement. Mouth animation could do with work too, as often it doesn’t fit with what is said, nor do the facial features portray the emotions as well as it could.

3D visuals take a hit on the Vita. Frame rate drops during cutscenes or when moving the camera around the modelled escape rooms, but it does not hamper the experience. There is no timing or quick reactions required, so it is purely a presentation problem that would be nice if it was not there. A note on the control side of things. I personally found that the touch screen was better than using the analogue stick, as the pointer needs to be accurately on the spot being clicked on, which can make for some missed selections when using the analogue stick to move the cursor onto something. Reducing its movement speed to low helps a lot with this problem.

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Following in the footsteps of its brilliant predecessors, Zero Time Dilemma continues to bring a thrilling form of storytelling that can only be done with the interaction of the video game medium. This is a story that is intelligently pieced together through inventive gameplay-story relations, with a great script to make a truly unique piece of narrative that no other series has been able to do. Kotaro Uchikoshi thanked his fans for helping him get the third game in the Zero Escape series completed, and in return he has brought a memorable conclusion for his final act.

8 out of 10