Over the four years I’ve been with Twinfinite, I’ve written many, many words about Kotaro Uchikoshi’s brilliant Zero Escape series. I was also fortunate enough to be given the opportunity to review the series’ third and final chapter, Zero Time Dilemma, when it launched last year. While the series’ conclusion wasn’t quite as perfect as I’d hoped it would be, with a few loopholes and loose ends lingering, Zero Time Dilemma was still easily the best game I’d played in all of 2016 because it did the one thing that most video games these days tend to ignore: deliver a story or experience that can only be enjoyed through the video game medium, and no other.
Zero Time Dilemma isn’t a video game that tells a story, it’s a video game story.
While you can jump into this final chapter without prior knowledge of the first two games in the series, I highly advise against doing so. There are way too many references to past events in the series, and you simply won’t appreciate the game’s cleverness as much if you hadn’t played through 999 and Virtue’s Last Reward beforehand. If you’re still adamant on jumping straight into Zero Time Dilemma, however, I won’t stop you.
The premise is fairly simple. Nine participants are trapped in a facility in the Nevada desert, and they’re forced to play the Decision Game. After being split into three groups of three, they’re told that the game will end after at least six people are dead. The participants are then forced to solve a series of escape room puzzles as they try to uncover the truth behind what’s really going on here.
However, there’s another twist. All members are equipped with a bracelet on the left wrist. Every 90 minutes, the participants will be injected with a drug through the bracelet that puts them to sleep. When they wake up, they’ll have no recollection of anything that happened in the past 90 minutes. The twist is simple, but it adds a lot to the way the game is structured. At any point in time, the player will be able to jump between the three different groups, and play little 90-minute ‘fragments’ of the game without knowing which events came before or after. The idea here is to put you in the shoes of these participants so that you never quite have the full picture of what’s really going on in the facility, and you’ll have to slowly piece the puzzle together.
It’s an extremely jarring storytelling method that will certainly throw you off when you’re first starting out. After all, you could begin the game by playing a fragment of events that occur at the very end of the chronological timeline. But as you continue working your way through all the different fragments, you’ll start to piece the story together, eventually forming a complete picture of the plot. Try not to think too hard about it, though; Zero Time Dilemma has a knack for throwing unexpected curveballs at you right when you think you’re finally starting to get a grasp of the situation. But that’s precisely what makes the game so exciting.
As was the case with 999 and Virtue’s Last Reward, Zero Time Dilemma’s writing is smart and witty. Uchikoshi loves introducing new scientific concepts related to things like quantum physics and morphogenetic fields (is this even a real thing?), but they never feel overly complicated, especially since you’re always able to relate these concepts to events happening in the game. The writing jumps back and forth between scientific jargon and other logic arguments like the Monty Hall problem and probability analysis. The characters themselves can feel trope-ish and archetypal, but they’re all layered with complexity, and there’s not a single dull or boring character in Zero Time Dilemma.
The game has been out on Steam, the PS Vita, and the 3DS for a year now, but it’s finally making its way to the PS4 today. I’ve been playing the PS4 version over the past week, and while I do still vastly prefer being able to take the game with me on the go, Zero Time Dilemma looks pretty damn good on the console. I mean, it’s clearly nowhere near Horizon Zero Dawn levels of pretty, but you can tell that the lighting effects are definitely a lot sharper and dynamic on the PS4. Zero Time Dilemma still looks like a pretty janky game, especially with the weird 3D animations and lip-sync issues, but it’s been cleaned up quite a bit.
For many fans of the series, myself included, the very fact that Zero Time Dilemma exists at all is a miracle. After all, it wasn’t all that long ago that Uchikoshi had been sending out rather upsetting tweets about how the series wasn’t making money, and that we might never see its long-awaited conclusion. Even so, fans rallied together to drum up support for Zero Escape, including launching social media campaigns where everyone shared photos of their game-related merchandise and other items, as well as spreading the word about the iOS port of 999 that had just released. And by some crazy miracle, all of that support was enough to give this series its green light. Zero Escape fans are absolutely crazy and passionate about this series. It’s that kind of game.
And so, I’m once again doing my part to make sure that you, dear reader, are made aware of just how special Zero Escape is as well. There aren’t many creative minds out there that are truly daring enough to craft a product that’s so outlandishly different from everything else on the market. Trying to be different isn’t necessarily always a good thing, but sometimes, it can lead to truly special titles that really change or shape the way we think about video games, what they’re capable of, and the types of emotions or reactions they can elicit from a player. Zero Time Dilemma is one of those games.