Six years after the US release of 999 and four years after Virtue’s Last Reward made the scene — after the years-long dry spell during which the future of the franchise was looking very grim — arrives the third and final game in the Zero Escape trilogy, Zero Time Dilemma (available on Steam, no less!), the one that was supposed to knock us dead, tie up those loose ends transcending several timelines and dimensions, answer all our lingering questions in a whiz-bang, no holds barred finale, and still get us home in time for dinner.
This week in our Zero Time Dilemma review, we address all the important issues: Is it worth playing? Which game is best in the series? What happened to Snake, Aoi, and Kyle? Who are these ugly new people? When can I express my enthusiasm for pipes?
Following a fumbling in media res, volunteers for an experiment simulating civilian travel to Mars find themselves trapped in some kind of bunker and forced by a man in a plague doctor mask to participate in something called the “Decision Game.” Among the captives are newcomers Sean, Eric, Diana, Carlos, and Mira, as well as returning characters Junpei, Akane, Sigma, and Phi. They are split into three competing teams (C-, Q-, and D-Team) and tasked with solving puzzle rooms in order to find the specific code words that will open the bunker door. Each player wears a bracelet which administers both an anesthetic and a memory-wiping drug after 90 minutes, making players them unable to recall the events of previous puzzle rooms. The bunker door can only be opened once, and one player may or may not be running around in the interim killing people. Violence ensues.
Zero Time Dilemma certainly is no holds barred. It’s as passionate as it is unclever. Sensing it needed a last hurrah, it looks like Zero Escape tried to outdo itself in every regard, and ended up the worse for it. MORE GORE! MORE MURDER! MORE SEXUAL CONTENT! MORE VISUAL NOVEL! (less puzzles!) MORE SCI-FI SHENANIGANS! The problem is that, when the plot elements involve some intricate blend of mind reading and time travel, a PEDAL TO THE METAL can only become a bull in the time travel china shop.
Once the writers decided there’s no where left to go but down — so far down it wraps around to the top again but is also from the past and branched off sideways a few times on the way— Zero Time Dilemma takes the reverse causality and apocalyptic sci-fi shenanigans of its predecessors, both of which we were willing to not think too hard about, and amps them up to eleven, or whatever that is in base-16. Prepare yourself for evil twins, serial killers, aLiEn TeChNoLoGy, “mind-hacking,” a lot of theories suggested by Phi that are never realized, snails, complex motives, even more inexplicable fantasy viruses, and old people.
As the last entry in a series now famous for its unique fusion of visual novel format and time travel, Zero Time Dilemma is not even a little reserved about using its morphogenetic field gimmick. That said, it takes a surprisingly long time for cast veterans to piece together why the newer characters are suddenly acquiring impossible memories. “What do you mean you think you’ve experienced this before? That is absurd and I do not understand,” quoth Junpei, a year after the second Nonary Game.
Zero Escape traditionally has a balance of psychological horror scenarios and
snowman secret meetings off-beat humor, but arguably Zero Time Dilemma is the “scariest” game in the series (none of them are actually scary). The developers retreated into spaceship sci-fi territory following the low number of sales of the more traditional horror-styled 999 in Japan, but now realizing Zero Escape has an enthusiastic and bloodthirsty fanbase in the West, they have eagerly returned to the original realm of explosion-based death and violence.
There’s mutilation by chainsaw, stabbing, stabbing with needles, puzzles with body parts, detonation collars, evisceration, death by acid, death by shotgun, death by machine gun, survival by machine gun at the expense of two human shields, death by revolver, death by crossbow, forced cremation, death by bludgeoning, a button that blows up the entire facility, and references to snails.
I’m sorry to reveal there are no pipes in this game. The puzzle rooms do have comedic dialogue (“My percussion skills are so good that I made five of my friends cry playing the tambourine!”), but this time around the story and puzzle rooms aren’t as romantically involved with one another, making all that incidental funny business seem like an irrelevant side note. The lengthy visual novel sections which make up most of Zero Time Dilemma are 70% serious business, 23% SRS BUSINESS, 5% lousy jokes, and 2% good jokes, like threats to cut off Junpei’s arm.
Many of the characters in Zero Time Dilemma participated in the Decision Game in order to prevent the devastation of humanity by Radical 6 (the outbreak of which has ridiculous origins by the way), meaning the events of Virtue’s Last Reward have been basically relegated to a gameover alternate timeline.
In a way, it’s brilliant; the game tries to pull some bizarre moral gimmick in the final act that maybe it’s wrong to jump across timelines for survival, because somebody still has to live through the sub-optimal outcomes. How fitting that person was us for the entire second game, and that you may or may not have spent 30+ hours playing out another game’s bad ending. (Of course, I could tell it was a bad ending the minute I saw the dice puzzles.)
Unfortunately their sacrifice was mostly in vain, as the information they discovered in order to save humanity is all pretty lousy. For example, we learn that Phi is Sigma’s daughter — hey, remember all their swimsuit- and boob-based conversations in VLR? — one of the twins Diana bears him when they’re stuck alone in the bunker in one of the bad endings (because that’s what you do when you have less than ten months of canned food by conservative measurements: make more humans). As you probably guessed, Diana shows no romantic chemistry with Sigma prior to their copulation, nor does she look a day over 19. She apparently has an abusive ex-husband and a remittent drinking problem.
Not only is baby Phi named after regular Phi, but she’s given a brooch by her mother Diana, who in turn received it from Phi, who in turn received it from Diana. Also there are two Phis (something something ALIENS!), the one in-game and another one in 1904 who grows up and is suggested by fans to have been one of second-Phi’s foster parents.
What if Phi accidentally had a thing for Sigma, or vice versa? I just hope the people who formerly shipped Phi and Sigma are not the same people who formerly shipped Layton and Descole, because otherwise they’re probably going to be dealing with some trust issues.
Zero II’s identity is also pretty embarrassing. I won’t reveal it here, but just know that the best description of that particular twist I’ve seen so far is that it encompasses “Layton levels of stupid.” The foreshadowing is on a level so trivial that if it actually gets noticed, one assumes it was a mistake. Therefore, while this might have been a cool idea in some alternate reality, it employs a great level of what critics less generous than myself might call RETCONNING AND OUTRIGHT DECEPTION.
Speaking of outright deception, I have this vague memory of being told we would learn what happened to Santa and Snake in this final entry of the series, or at the very least what’s the deal with Dio, and whether his Dio friends all wear dumb circus outfits or if that’s just a Dio thing. I’m afraid the answer to all of these questions is no. We’re given a brief sentence-long summary of what’s happened to Lotus and Seven, and although Aoi is referenced, it’s only done as an elbow nudge to players who remember the first game and how much probably better it was.
On that note, series veterans might be excited to know the main heroes of 999 and VLR return as players in the Decision Game, three of them in order to alter the events leading to the Radical 6 outbreak, and one because he can’t get over his crush on Akane, not naming names.
But alas, this is not as exciting as it sounds. The writers tried to go to a dark and edgy place with the 999 pair and it will forever go down in history as a science experiment gone awry. Glancing at the early concept art and profiles included in the Steam DLC artbook, I can kind of see what they were going for (I might have called Junpei’s original outfit “lovably dumb”; the developers opted for “childish”), but the result is a vacuum-pressed, unlikeable version of two erstwhile charming personalities. Unlike the more obvious Sigma and Phi, Akane and Junpei are so different, and their hair so inexplicably purple, that the game’s opening cutscene requires an awkward beat to simply reveal their identities.
The one making wisecracks and lounging around is allegedly Junpei. Junpei — hitherto that ordinary, young, doe-eyed college guy who emerged as a heroic badass but still had time for a sense of humor — totally sucks. In the year that’s passed since the events of 999, he claims to have lost faith in humanity and taken to drinking due to the Traumatic Events™ he’s witnessed with Seven in the criminal underground(???) while searching for Akane. This time, he says, he’s done “playing the action hero.”
Akane is the one that doesn’t look like Akane. I think her transformation might be even worse. At one point, I remember she was some kind of fandom-dividing, morally ambiguous character with any complexity. But complexity doesn’t sell, cried the producers, the people want yandere!
ZTD Akane is neither the delicate and troubled childhood friend of the first game, nor the the godly figure beyond virtue of the second. Now she rotates through a couple of modes, at once cutesy, overly maudlin, self-righteous (at one point she chastises Zero II for playing God), and yes, even revenge-type yandere.
One year ago Akane had mental breakdowns seeing the death and destruction caused by the second Nonary Game. She probably used to have mental breakdowns whenever she encountered the daily crossword. This time, however, Junpei’s premature death sends her not once, but twice into a murderous frenzy, at the expense of their third and objectively best teammate, Carlos. As a firefighter, Carlos defends himself with a fire ax while Akane brandishes a chainsaw and zero self-awareness.
I think we’re supposed to root for Akane because she’s supposed to be cute or something, but if you had to determine the killer among these guys, would you choose a firefighter opting for a fire ax, or a schoolgirl who can wield a chainsaw? I know they do some weird shit in Japan, but in AMERICA-PLACE, we have concealed carry laws for a reason, and the reason is chainsaws.
It’s not like changing his personality is inherently bad. By the time Junpei is known as Tenmyouji, he develops a cold exterior and is not quick to trust people, a college fledgling who ended up scavenging garbage in a post-apocalyptic wasteland for a living, abandoned by the woman he loved and never gave up searching for. But dynamic characters have to make at least a little more sense than JuNpEI ThE EPSeR. Tenmyouji took in an abandoned baby, Quark, as his adoptive grandson. There is something in him that still reaches out to people because he was still Junpei.
That Tenmyouji would spend his whole life pining for his childhood best friend only to be shunted one last time before her death in the name of humanity was another excellent element, but
good writing Tenmyouji is not a figment of the “ideal” universe. Like many of Virtue’s Last Reward’s thornier plot elements that this game either couldn’t work around or completely forgot about (Kyle), Tenmyouji’s tragic tale is mostly retconned. He did in fact find Akane again and worked with her in the Decision Game, for the VLR route she erases his memory and escapes for some reason (her motives are complex!!). In the good ending they get married and probably have a million esper babies together, just like in my fanfiction! :>
Sigma and Phi are mostly the same and don’t warrant much mention. I wasn’t huge on the running cat puns in VLR but they’re almost a relief here.
To make the game more friendly to series neophytes and perhaps to make Junpei even less relatable, each of the team leaders is a new character, and thus someone who knows nothing about the events of the last two games.
Carlos of C-Team is a confident, all-American firefighter who’s always willing to self-sacrifice in order to help those in need, especially his little sister Maria, who’s been diagnosed with the fictitious, untreatable Reverie Syndrome. Unlike Junpei and Akane, who won’t stop MAKING OUT IN THE CORNER OVER THERE JESUS CHRIST, Carlos has no time for romance on account of caring for his sister.
It’s he, if anyone, who takes up old Junpei’s eagerly-abandoned role as the action hero, except it’s clear this guy’s actually well versed in the art of self-sacrifice. He’s presented early on as the leader of the bunch, and I’m sure he would be really good at being the hero if he were actually relevant to the storyline.
Sean, who is implied to be Q but isn’t (TWISTS!!), claims to be an amnesiac child whose face is obscured by some kind of diving helmet. The helmet can’t be pulled off, but there is a mysterious keypad on the side of it that might offer some clues. He acts as the Q-Team leader.
Eric and Mira join him on Q-Team, and effectively the ZTD “couple.” They’re not actually that important though, and are really only thrown in the game to create more bad endings and rustle jimmies. Eric is arguably the most human of the cast; his model has the most ordinary, realistic appearance, to the point the devs had to omit some of his facial details in order to keep the model cartoonish (i.e., he was not sugoi enough), and he lives an ordinary vacuous life working in an ice cream shop.
My heart goes out to characters who embody the futility of existence in works of fiction I use to distract myself from the futility of existence. Eric is a totally irredeemable prick, but I like him because the universe very clearly doesn’t; you are supposed to hate Eric and all is well. No such distinction is made for Akane and Junpei, who more closely resemble tragic teen idols the developers have a crush on.
Mira is the game’s token has-boobs character. She’s supposedly participating with her boyfriend Eric, but that’s really all the info we get on her. She has a DARK SECRET that gets dumber as a function of time, but for most of the game I liked her, because she broke the annoying team pattern of leader + chaotic neutral guy + humanitarian by not giving a shit what choices you make. Akane and Phi might harp for days if you press the kill-your-friends button, but Mira merely finds each new development iiiinterestinggg. This is significant because you are required to view every outcome in the game, and the writers decided it would be hilarious to tell you what an awful person you are every time you pick a bad non-optional option. What’s next, a GAME THAT BLAMES YOU FOR PLAYING IT?
The good news is that you can feasibly release a 15-hour game for $40 on major platforms. The bad news is that I paid $40 for 15 hours of game. This is a bargain when converted to hours-per-movie ticket, but I got my copy of The World Ends With You for $5 so I’ve got pretty high standards for cost-effective gaming. Zero Time Dilemma is the series’ shortest entry, clocking in at around 16 hours, puzzle head-banging time included. It eschews the repetitive intro room puzzle in favor of honestly pretty boring cutscenes (which go on for about 20 minutes before a single puzzle is to be had), and the lack of a final boss puzzle of the kind which made 999 so memorable makes game progression feel especially anti-climactic.
The actual “Decision Game” at ZTD’s core is pretty effective, and certainly more fear-inducing than the digital root/prisoner’s dilemma elements of the first two games. The warning-alarm user interface and sound add extra tension to already difficult decisions which, unlike the A/B game, or the Nonary Game for those with passable math skills, place the lives of your teammates in immediate jeopardy.
Certain decisions which rely on probability require multiple playthroughs. For example, C-Team is given the chance to escape a room full of homing machine guns as well as an actual threat — chintzy furniture — if they all roll a one using the three dice cubes provided (That’s a decision, right? D-Decision Game!! MY MOTIVES ARE COMPLEX!!!) Fortunately you don’t actually have to play the sequence 216+ times, but the fact that risk is programmed into the game, moreso than in typical visual novel decisions, adds a level of excitement.
Rather than a branching yet chronologically linear game flow, Zero Time Dilemma tried a new structure, which shall forever be known as Uchikoshi’s second great experiment gone awry, though not quite as awry as the previous. Players can jump like some kind of mind frog between Carlos, Sean, and Diana, in order to play individual scenes or puzzle rooms called Fragments. There’s no indication of where these fit chronologically, and most begin with the characters waking up in a new place after receiving a dose of the bracelet drugs.
There are a couple of things which make this bad. The first is that the lack of meaningful context for the events and limited character interactions (unlike the last two games, you only solve puzzles using the three predetermined teams) only serve to hinder the story. Secondly, there’s no real freedom of choice here, because many fragments are locked until you do and see everything currently available, including the gameovers. Especially the gameovers. You have to get all the gameovers.
That means you can’t finish one Team’s route and move onto the next with new information. You merely chip away at each layer of scenes for all three groups as they are revealed, and so on, and so on, until even the important endings are done in a set order, so it doesn’t matter which fragments you pick when, and everyone has more or less the same experience. There’s no what-ending-did-you-get-first or what-decision-did-you-make; you did and got all of them because you had to. And with that being the case, what is even the point of the fragment system?
This would make more sense if you were only limited in cases where you didn’t yet know the right answer to a prompt, but more often it’s a matter of some fragments being locked, even though they’re all random entry points in the plot, for which you’re usually missing crucial information anyway.
Zero Time Dilemma boasts the hardest puzzles of the trilogy, though not always out of intentional design. Where Virtue’s Last Reward reduced the sheer level of in-game failure-induced walkthroughs (thanks, Santa), this game went the extra mile, and a number of points are inpenetrable without a walkthrough, mind-hacking, your motives being complex, or the statistically improbable event that you and the game designers are on the same exact brainwave. It has to happen in some timeline, right?
Though there are some genuinely good puzzles, these are the needles hidden in a haystack of solutions I found on accident, unintuitive mechanics, time wasted pixel-hunting, and confused rifling through instructions. As an example, let me attempt to explain my least favorite puzzle, the Transporter Room.
Sigma and Diana have to restart an ancient, defunct transporter system built on ALIEN TECHNOLOGY. After gathering the various alien number-symbol cards hidden in the room, you have to determine their corresponding base-13 digits and order the symbols from 0 to 12. There’s a device that shows whether one card is greater than, less than, or equal to another, and a sheet of equations from which you can derive the values, mostly through mathematical squares and cubes. Some of the symbols are compound, like man-two-moons, the value of which is simply man × moon × moon.
(This already sounds like a lot of work for a puzzle game.)
Still, this process is simple enough. Then you unlock a new machine, which will obviously make a lot of sense once you see it:
Allow me to explain this intuitive device. The blue rings on the horizontal arm have ten sides each, each side showing a symbol from 0 to 9. The pink rings on the vertical axis have thirteen sides, and use all symbols 0 to 12. The blue rings can be manipulated to express a number in base-ten. If you pull the lever on the right, the number will be shown with the four vertical rings, presumably in base-thirteen.
I find myself leafing through online math tutorials an awful lot considering games are supposed to be a FUN activity.
What we need from this conversion machine is the right 4 digit number which will be used as a code to unlock the transporter. There is a holographic 5-digit card sequence depicted above the transporter nucleus, but three of those digits are rather unhelpfully outside the decagon range. A nearby ALIEN BOOK and ALIEN COMPUTER offer some ancillary information:
- Humans have two arms and ten total fingers, so we use base-ten. However, aliens have thirteen fingers and multiple arms. This is why the cards represent base-13.
- Aliens have two methods of expressing large numbers: the first is lining up the digits horizontally, which means they must be multiplied. The second is lining them up vertically, but we don’t know if that signifies some kind of mathematical operation. Like many things, it is an ALIEN MYSTERY.
The holographic symbols stand for 11, 11, 11, 7, and 3. Since they’re lined up horizontally, that must mean we multiply them. At least in the PC version, Zero Time Dilemma does not provide a calculator for some reason, so apparently this is supposed to be a mental math process. If you prompt it enough, Sigma Minamimoto will just give you the answer: 27951.
Now we have all the ingredients for some puzzle-solving pie. Let’s get cracking on the recipe:
- There are five decagon disks and five digits in 27951, so will enter that using the disks.
- Wait hold on. These disks are horizontal. ALIENS don’t just write out horizontal numbers unless they’re supposed to be multiplied. But we can’t just stick in the raw pink digits either, because those are using at least base-12.
- Does that mean you… multiply the digits again? Is it turtles all the way down?
- Maybe the machine multiplies them for you and then converts the answer to base-13.
- ok im going to look up how non-decimal systems are actually used hold on
- I feel like a robot now.
- So you’re telling me we learned a base-13 system to get a multiplication problem using >= base-12 digits in order to get a base-10 number, which we enter in the same format, but don’t multiply this time, even though we were supposed to before, so we can get back to a vertical number in base-13?
- What does the vertical number do? Does it multiply? Do you add the digits? Is that ok? Can you just put that in the nucleus?
- Wait! The book mentioned multiple arms. We only have two arms, which means we, uh… Well the machine has two “arms,” right? So is there another layer of conversion to be had? Is there like a z-axis of alien multiplication?
- They must have included the bit about arms for a reason. There’s like, limited real estate in that hint book. It’s gotta be important.
- Maybe the vertical system is the horizontal system but multiply the digits and convert it to base-ten, multiply the digits and convert it to base-13?
- But that’s dumb. You could never convert it back the other way and get the original numbers. These are smart aliens; I mean, we are talking aliens with multiple arms here.
- Oh you know what, the four cards that popped out from the machine were the right answer. Just put those in.
I still don’t know how the vertical system works, or the horizontal one really. I also have no idea why we had to do all that base-conversion, or why aliens have multiple arms, or why they are so bad at writing instructions.
One further caveat for picky puzzlers: a fair number of the ones I actually liked were either slide puzzles, mechanical puzzles, or puzzle puzzles. Thankfully base-conversion is not a recurring theme, but Zero Time Dilemma is especially fond of “match the red x’s on the puzzle pieces to the blue x’s on the board.”
There’s also some sort of heart-assembly puzzle everyone hates, but honestly, as long as it’s not A Duck of Tiles, the puzzle could just be putting your head in a bucket of water and that would be fine by me if it had some mechanical element.
Zero Time Dilemma features a new, beautiful art style for the promotional material and box art, though in-game the developers once again opt for 3D models over simple sprites, and now with full, er, “animation.”
Don’t get me wrong, I love the still models, which look way, way better than those from the previous game (except for Diana, who appears to have glued her eyebrow stickers on backwards). I was enamoured by the very Gamecube-era look of the cel-shading, and I love the way they rendered hair. The problem is when they start trying to move the figures, and realize they are Barbies and Kens designed with only one neutral facial expression.
Whatever horror elements are included get mostly nullified since the fictional characters can’t emote and the blood splatter effects are like several multi-colored cartoon Photoshop splatter brushes. They masked most of the complex and interesting stuff with discretion shots and still managed to animate everything badly. Impressive!
I don’t have a lot of thoughts on the voice acting. Most reviewers who have commented on it seem to have disliked it. Admittedly the voice snippets used in the trailer sound pretty low-energy, but I don’t remember ever being put off by it while in-game, except at points where Diana’s voice starts to get grating. We get it, you’re a sweetheart. Please, please stop saying words.
Music on the other hand is the one aspect Zero Time Dilemma was able to handle. Puzzle room themes have moved from simply ambient to assertively badass.
Is this puzzle shocker worth the $39.99 buy? Those unfamiliar with the Zero Escape franchise might be dazzled by it, though if your bar for twists is the Sixth Sense, I’m going to recommend you stay away from Zero Escape and redirect you to this picture of a hamburger. For the rest of you, I’d recommend waiting for a sale.
Still gung-ho for this game after enduring 4500+ words of lukewarm feelings for it? You can grab Zero Time Dilemma on Steam here.