This review assumes prior knowledge of the entire Zero Escape series and contains huge spoilers for a fantastic series.
Usually, before I review anything I search around the internet for other people’s opinions to see what new I can add to the table; not to be contrarian, but to see what else I can add to the discussion surrounding a certain piece of media (whether I’m at all successful at this is highly debatable). When looking for people’s opinion on Zero Time Dilemma (henceforth ZTD), I generally found that my opinions lined up perfectly with the consensus; the game starts off well, has some real highlights in the middle, then falls apart towards the end, when the answers that are provided become unsatisfactory and the answers that aren’t provided become a source of frustration. Ultimately, most people view it as the weakest in the Zero Escape series. Nevertheless, even if I don’t have some new, exciting ‘hot take’ on this game, that doesn’t negate me from writing in-depth about it, so here I go.
Let’s start with the element of the Zero Escape series that has always seemed to take a backseat to the story; the gameplay, but as the director of the series, Kotaro Uchikoshi said; You can’t have Zero Escape without puzzles (as much as a certain iOS port would beg to differ). Luckily, the puzzle rooms are pretty good in this one. Not perfect, mind, but some are significantly cleverer than I was expecting. Take, for example, the healing room, which cleverly puts a button on the wall that allows you to change not just the wallpaper, but also some of the features of the room itself. Or maybe the Pod room, where the room itself is a sliding block puzzle, like a Zelda game (except instead of a heart piece, your reward is the dead body of a heart eating serial killer.) It’s a shame, then that the actual puzzles within the undeniably clever puzzle rooms are so dull and easy. I still had fun solving some of the slightly more ingenious uses of the architecture or visual clues within the rooms that informed how to open a safe or reach a key, but every time I saw another sliding block puzzle, or Tetris-like construct-a-shape puzzle, my heart sunk slightly, in the way that it does when I see similar puzzles in Professor Layton, an inferior series to Zero Escape. It would be false to say that this problem is confined to ZTD, but I certainly noticed it more here than I ever did in VLR or 999.
While the presentation of the puzzle rooms is basically unchanged from Virtue’s Last Reward, the presentation of the story is not. ZTD presents its story through film, rather than the traditional text-based visual novel format that its predecessors conformed to. I was initially excited for the change; an innovative means of story-telling befits an innovative game series, but the finished product leaves a lot to be desired. The animation work is the most obvious and instantly recognizable negative, and all it takes to notice this is a cursory glance at a trailer for the game. Characters move in unnatural ways, their lips don’t even attempt to sync up to what they’re saying (even in the original Japanese), and the hair of some of the female characters seems to have a restless mind of its own, a mind content to ignore the laws of physics and the boundaries of character’s bodies. I understand that this game had a small budget, and screenshots don’t look awful, but I can’t understand why they would drop the simple but effective story-telling method of the past for a new one that is at best, only slightly better, and at worst, downright distracting.
The budget could be one reason why the film sections fail, but they are far from the only reasons; the concept has its own innate problems that the game fails to address. One of the joys of a visual novel or book is being able to control the pace through button clicks. This serves two purposes that I feel aren’t properly credited. Firstly, it gives the restless hands of the tense video game player something to do; this may be a problem only I had, but unlike watching a film, where I can easily remain still for a few hours, while playing ZTD on a small screen, only occasionally expected to do anything, I found myself slightly bored, clicking the shoulder buttons for my amusement. Here we see the second benefit of the standard visual novel format; it allows for the skipping of extraneous dialogue. Face it; a visual novel is much longer than a film and even some books, and not all dialogue needs the same amount of focus and attention as others. Fast readers or those who are just annoyed at the oft-repeated dialogue from Zero will inevitably get frustrated by not being able to control the pace of the writing, and that’s more annoying than you’d expect. What makes it even worse is this; aside from a few sections, the films are very blandly directed. Extended talking sequences in films have a danger of becoming dull, but a well-directed film (see the drone-based thriller Eye in the Sky for a recent example) can turn long dialogue scenes into exciting things to watch. ZTD does not do this, and certain sequences are just dull to watch. Others are much better, some of the death scenes are great and other scenes have the emotional heft in the writing to pull them through. Unfortunately, for a lot of the game, this is not the case.
But enough about how the game plays and is set -up, what really matters to most fans of the series is the story. The story in ZTD is not linear, however, so it becomes a little tricky to talk about. The setup is instead that the story is broken up into small fragments that are not to be played in chronological order, but instead all spin off from different timelines created by an initial decision involving a vote at a computer. This seems initially like a great idea, and at first, I thought it was working great – I felt, much like the characters, lost whenever I started a new fragment, and yet I knew that all would eventually make sense, as indeed it does. But gradually it dawned on me that in practice this idea far from practical, at least in so far as the game’s new mechanic; ‘Decision Time’ is concerned. When I had to make my first proper decision, in terms of who to vote for, I was genuinely troubled, and for the first few decisions after that, the game had me stressed and questioning my moral judgment, just as I imagine it intended to. However, at one point, wherein a decision must be made in an incinerator room, something clicked. I could just easily go back and reverse my decision. In fact, in order to complete the game, I had to. Suddenly, the magic was gone. None of my decisions had any impact, in the short or long term, other than being necessary for seeing the true ending. At least in VLR and 999, the linear nature of the storyline meant that any decisions made would have an effect for that whole playthrough of the story. Here, the impact was lost completely, and I have never felt more disheartened. Anyway, the fragmented nature of the story means I’m going to have to tackle it in a different way, so I’ll break it down into what worked, what didn’t, and then sum up with my final thoughts about ZTD as a whole.
I’ve been pretty negative about ZTD so far, so let’s start with what worked. Luckily, Uchikoshi has retained his knack for writing convincing characters, and the new characters all bring interesting new dynamics to the Zero Escape franchise, while the returning characters are, for the most part, still entertaining to be around. Carlos seems like the new face of ZTD, but he’s a little boring. Those around him keep referring to him as the ‘good guy’, and this is never subverted, so his firefighter personality only really works because of its contrast with the other members of C-Team, a gloomier Junpei, and a slightly infuriating Akane. As such, Carlos is a nice balance (although I wish his sister subplot had gone somewhere other than giving him an unneeded creepy edge). Diana is undoubtedly the best of the new characters, her ending with Sigma being one of the best scenes in the entire franchise and actually gives this game the memorable moment that in past games were provided by the final twist. The rest of D-Team basically retain their personalities from VLR, which is fine, considering that the Sigma Phi banter was and remains completely watchable. Q-Team is the only team made up entirely of original characters, and luckily I liked them all. Sean is one of the few well-written ‘child genius’ characters I’ve seen in recent memory, and I had a soft spot for Eric, especially as a rare completely normal person in the Zero Escape franchise (it did get on my nerves a bit that everyone in VLR had some kooky secret). Mira’s character design is hilariously bad, and her serial killer nature hilariously exaggerated, but I was never annoyed by it, and the team dynamics worked, so who cares? I’ve also got to give credit for a successfully darker tone; Zero is seriously threatening in this game, and the violence is fantastic although, like most films and games, most of the real horror comes not from the gore, but from those moments right before, and the best way to tell that the tone is a success is the tension felt when you’re asked to push a button that could kill everyone else, or pull a trigger that might kill Sigma.
Before we end, it’s worth talking about the ending, because it’s one almost universally disappointing feature in the whole game. Going in depth would require much too much writing, and we’re already 2,000 words in, so I think I won’t bore you with an in-depth interpretation of the Delta reveal and how this affects the series (or why Kyle’s absence means he must be Gab), because there are many more places on the internet where you can find that discussion. Instead, I want to talk about the effect the Delta reveal has on the player of ZTD, and why it left such a sour taste in the mouths of myself and others. The first thing to say is that, yes, this was hinted at before it was revealed, but not in a very satisfactory way. In 999 and VLR there was also unsatisfactory vague hints to the big twists, but they felt more earned. Let’s take VLR’s twist as an example to compare against the Delta reveal. The first, most obvious thing to say is that Delta, unlike Sigma just sort of comes out of nowhere. We don’t know his character (more on that later), instead, he is just introduced as the surprise villain. These surprises work best when you know the character; that’s why in Murder on the Orient Express, the murderer can’t just be someone from the outside that no one knows. If that’s the case, then what’s the point of establishing characters and threatning the audience with the fact that one of them could be Zero. In VLR, we know Sigma. In fact, we control him, so the twist is shocking, but also ultimately in character. Talking of character, Delta isn’t really one. We know him for all of fifteen minutes, during which time he reveals his motives to be ‘complex’. Right. Everyone’s motives for most things are complex and just stating that is boring. Why should we care about his motives if they aren’t told to us. When we do learn that it’s all to do with some bio-terrorist, this is so removed from our experience that there’s once agani no reason to care. In VLR the motivation was to stop a terriorist organiztion as well, but we had a physical link to that organization in Dio. Here, Delta might as well be talking about trying to stop McDonalds and I’d be more invested. At least I know more about McDonalds. So Delta as a character is dissapointing. But even if he were as fleshed out as the rest of the cast, the reveal itself is so far-fetched it still wouldn’t work. Uchikoshi really expects me to believe a tenth person was there all along. Yes, I know some people make vague references to him, and you can sometimes see his shadow or hear his voice, but really? This is a bigger pill to swallow than the twists from the last game, and because Delta is an unknown entity, and an uninteresting one at that, it feels forced down your throat, and that’s just painful and disappointing.
So, Zero Time Dilemma. I think that looking back on it, my thoughts have been soured by the ending. There really are some wonderful moments in this game, as there are in every Zero Escape game. But while the highs are just as high, the lows are some of the lowest in the series, and as it ends on one of these lows I can’t help but feel disappointed looking back at this game. As an ending to one of the best series in gaming the impact of this is huge, but it shouldn’t stop this series being recognised as the tour de force of storytelling it is.
I’ve glossed over some areas of ZTD in this review to cut down on length, so if you want my thoughts on anything else to do with this game or the series, just ask in the comments. The Platinum review will come in a few days (I promise), but I’m bogged down in work so be patient!