I'll preface this by saying I have not played either game in Spike Chunsoft's fan-favorite visual novel series. The previous two games, Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors and Zero Escape: Virtue's Last Reward were both released to small success yet overwhelmingly positive reviews, and their loyal fanbase's vocal push allowed for this third game to finally be developed.
I've respected their reputation from afar, but, sadly, I haven't gotten a chance to play them. Both have been piled in my backlog for quite some time. As fate would have it, I was asked to jump into this much-anticipated third game for a review with nothing but sky high expectations generated by word of mouth to guide me through it.
Diving into a game specifically made for the fans with no prep is not a good formula for enjoyment, and, I'll admit, this game has a monstrous hurdle to get over for a newbie. However, after a gripey hour or so in the beginning, exploring Zero Time Dilemma's non-linear, branching story became second nature and ultimately a rewarding experience.
Hello, I want to play a game
Zero Time Dilemma sets up a story of eight H&M models and a kid with a fishbowl on his head trapped in a bomb shelter. Actually, the nine characters are all volunteers for an experiment testing the possibility of human survival on Mars, but all has gone to hell with a homicidal maniac named Zero forcing them to partake in a series of tests he calls "The Decision Game."
And what are these characters supposed to decide? Obviously, who lives and who dies! The nine characters are set into three different groups, and, when six people die, the remaining three will be allowed to leave. Of course, contact is impossible between the three groups trapped within different segments of the bomb shelter, and the door to escape will only remain open for thirty seconds.
Should the survivors be on different teams, coordination is all but impossible!
And to make matters worse, a wristband on our characters injects them with sleeping drugs that cause amnesia, and they are only allowed to be awake for 90 minutes at a time. Afterwards, they will awaken again in a different room with no memory of what happened during the previous test.
Why are there only two of us? Oh, we forgot, our friend died…
As you can see, it's a complicated setup, but it's all necessary to create an addictive storyline that has zero natural flow. Zero Time Dilemma is not told through a single linear storyline, but, rather, in segments that follow along the path of four prominent plots. One major decision in the beginning of the game sets up these four paths, and the game will be spent jumping between 90 minute brain twisters scattered across them.
Confused yet? So was I, at first. Frustration nearly destroyed my freshman outing with the series, but Spike Chunsoft's vision all came together in the end. It's difficult to explain, but the game has six endings, and the whole purpose is to experience the cutscenes in a random order. From there, a flowchart will map every bit of storyline you see, and like a puzzle, will help the player piece the different plots together and see how those endings are ultimately reached.
In practice, by the end of the game, you'll have access to four complete storylines mapped out on your flowchart that can be watched like a normal move, and it'll be totally up to the player to choose which path they want to believe is the right one.
Or rather, which ones are the right ones.
The consequences of infinite decisions
With such a complicated setup, Zero Time Dilemma must tell a really complicated story to back it up. And this is true. In between their decision making and puzzle solving, our characters wax on and on about complex ideas like time-travel, probability, alternate universes in which they made a different decision, and the complete and utter annihilation of the human race.
Oh yeah, as an extra layer underlying our characters' predicament, they hold the fate of 6 billion people in their hands… and they don't know why.
Four of these characters appeared in the previous games, but they were all fresh to me. Each starts as a blank slate, and you'll definitely pick out a few who are your early favorites and those who you want to see get the chop.
From there, the story becomes more infectious once they start to reveal their inner secrets and personalities. Time travelers from the future who want to stop human extinction, childhood friends who survived a previous "Decision Game," lovers who have darker secrets than they let on, and yes, that mysterious kid with a fishbowl on his head.
The deeper you dive, the more and more you want to learn. About these people. About the world. About the outcomes of the game. About how the human race comes to an end. Your favorites will change. You might want them all to survive! You'll be devastated to see a favorite perish, and there is nothing you can do to stop it besides pray for a better fate in another timeline.
An off-putting, frustrating first hour immediately vanishes once the bigger picture becomes more apparent. And, believe it or not, only one character has a lame backstory of epic eye-rolling proportions. The rest are genuinely good characters.
Eight out of nine is not bad.
Of course, any game that relies so heavily on storytelling and cutscenes, roughly three quarters of the game, needs to be able properly tell a story through its presentation. This is bound to be divisive among gamers. Zero Time Dilemma's character models are crude with the deadest eyes you'll ever see, but they ultimately work. Excellent use of "cinematic" techniques like slow pans that build tension, camera angles for mood, and those important cuts that cover up the models' limitations, are more than able to carry cutscenes that can last anywhere up to half an hour.
And don't get me wrong on the crude character models. I am a fan and grew to like them pretty quickly, but I wasn't joking about our cast looking like a group of fast-fashion models after a spring clearance sale. Even better than the in-game, mouth flap models though are the pre-rendered cutscenes that look like they sprang in from an early SEGA Saturn game. Ugh, they're absolutely hideous, and I loved every moment they were on the screen!
The voice acting is okay, about what you can expect from a normal localization. You'll either turn to the Japanese audio track or stick with the English as both are of equal quality. They both create a lot of empathy for the characters, moments where you'll be cheering or genuinely sad about one of the many awful fates that can befall them.
Comparisons to the Saw film series are inevitable, but don't let that stop you. Zero Time Dilemma actually has a refined purpose underneath its sick and twisted delivery.
So, how do I play?
So, lots of cutscenes, huh? What about the actual… you know… game? Zero Time Dilemma is a "visual novel" as the Japanese genre naming goes, meaning traditional gameplay is held to a minimum, but it can call itself a video game through two major elements: the escape puzzles and the decision making.
Escape puzzles simply drop our characters into a room and task them with escaping. Zero has dropped clues to help them escape, but don't expect him to give any hints. Players will have to tap around on shelves, find items, gain clues, and eventually tie them all together to solve the ultimate puzzle that will allow them to escape. It's a totally natural process that never loses an ounce of satisfaction.
Zero Time Dilemma's puzzles don't hold your hand for a second and make you feel like a genius every time.
Naturally, not everyone is destined to survive. After wrapping up these puzzles, escape attempts are usually met with a "decision." A fire has started, gas is filling the room, a bomb is set to go off. Who stays behind? Who takes the bullet for the team? Who kills who out of rage or self-defense? Is there even a choice? Sometimes, the outcome is determined by complete chance!
The decision can lead to a "Game Over" or take the story down an entirely different path, opening new cutscenes.
It is here where the early frustrations come into play. We are trained, as gamers, to live with the consequences of our decisions these days. You make a choice, and the story continues with the results of that choice throughout the rest of the story. At first, Zero Time Dilemma is totally jarring because its choices don't feel like they have any weight. All players have to do is jump back into the previous segment and make the other choice.
Why bother stressing over a decision if you can just go back and make the other one immediately afterwards?
It is only after a few of these decisions that you realize the purpose is not to make the "right" choice, but rather, to make all the choices. This is not a game about winning or gaining benefit from your choices. It's a game about experiencing all that it has to offer, even the "wrong" choice. "Game Over" is just as much of a reward because watching cutscenes, good or bad, is the ultimate goal here.
Of course, there are only a few "true" ways through the game, and the ultimate goal is to find all the endings and piece the storyline together. Why not enjoy all the gruesome outcomes in the meantime, though? It plays right into the game's main themes of alternate universes and alternate outcomes.
Once you clear this hurdle and realize this, that's when the game becomes an enjoyable experience.
The amount you enjoy Zero Time Dilemma rests solely on how much you enjoy watching cutscenes. This is not a visual novel in the same vein as Phoenix Wright where the reading and logic are tied directly into the gameplay. It's about playing for a few minutes at a time and then just watching.
I'm not generally one to enjoy this formula, preferring my games to have actual gameplay, but the non-linear and fragmented story give Zero Time Dilemma enough of a twist by putting the pieces together.
Throughout the game, though, I kept thinking of another Nintendo DS favorite called Radiant Historia. This JRPG from the Persona team deals with similar ideas of branching stories, multiple outcomes, and possible Game Over scenarios. The main difference was that decisions and events in one storyline made an impact on the other one. They actually meant something and had lasting effect on the experience.
It also had a really excellent JRPG powering it!
Zero Time Dilemma does not have that. Decisions don't have weight or any lasting affect on the game, which is why I found initially hard to get into. Decisions affect players on a personal level through pure storytelling, and that is not enough for me to really call this a game. It really is a "visual novel," and if you like the idea of just watching cutscenes, then this is for you.
Luckily, this storytelling is top notch. Only once did I throw up my hands and declare the game utterly stupid, but that was just with one character who is just ill-conceived from the beginning and not from the previous games anyway. The rest of the story carries the 15-20 hour experience thanks to solid writing, good characters, excellent music and use of "cinema," and it even inspired me to finally go back and check out the older ones.
However, I don't recommend you play this first. It's a complicated system, and from what it sounds like, the previous games are much more simple. Play them in order! Each builds upon the previous one, both in progression and the actual story itself. You'll get a lot more of the eye-winking moments with Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors and Zero Escape: Virtue's Last Reward under your belt.
Disclaimer: We were provided a review copy of Zero Time Dilemma from Aksys Games, and we played the Nintendo 3DS version for 15 hours before writing this review.
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