Zero Time Dilemma is the third entry in the Zero Escape series. Developed by Chime, Spike Chunsoft and Aksys, it originally released on the PlayStation Vita and Nintendo 3DS. That’s very important to bear in mind as we go through the points of this of this review as my experience was of how well it may or not have translated to console. Zero Time Dilemma makes efforts at messing with the player’s mind in such a way that it has them constantly confused. Its main effort to draw gamers in and keep them there is found in a sense of mystery both in the immediate story and what might be going on outside the game's environs.
The game can be bought on PlayStation Store for $39.99
That sense of mystery is reinforced by several things. The nine characters, trapped in the depths of Dcom Facility, their background stories and what’s really going on topside. We learn fairly quickly that Zero Time Dilemma is based in the near future. Humanity has been desperately fighting off a new disease that threatens extinction, as well as researching ways to colonise Mars.
Our nine characters are unfortunate victims of a mysterious fellow called Zero. He has rigged the entire facility in order to set the stage for his “game”. In order for any of our nine characters to escape the facility, six of them must die in order for Zero to unlock the elevator shaft to freedom. As our characters are split up into teams of three and segmented into different areas of Dcom, they must figure out deadly puzzles or die themselves. Although, Zero has a sick sense of humour and our nine victims often end up killing each other out of sheer paranoia or as a result of an unfortunate twist to a puzzle solution. The game is afoot and it’s up to the player to determine who dies and who lives… most of the time.
Where things get interesting is how Zero Time Dilemma plays on the idea of unlimited probabilities. The player is presented with timelines for events, mapped out with branching pathways yet to be unlocked. As a result, no one story experienced is clearly “the real one”. As the game experiments with a whole host of different eventualities based on player decision, we are presented with a Pulp Fiction style of delivery.
Normally this would be a good thing. Player decision oriented games like Until Dawn or Heavy Rain are universally praised. Where Zero Time Dilemma trips up with its story is how overly bloated it quickly becomes. Between story segments, we can choose to experience what happens next with one of the three teams. One minute, we hear a team has perished and the next we’re playing as them. So far, we’re just experiencing a chopped up chronology. But when you mix in already chosen outcomes from different teams, the timeline of player experience begins to contradict itself badly. When it does, it takes us from pensive intrigue to downright annoying confusion.
I tried to think of games that handled a chopped up chronology of events in a similar way. Quantic Dream’s Beyond Two Souls came to mind. Again, it delivered times of the story to us in a chopped up manner. Yet it stuck to one particular story that never had us doubting what was real and what was just “theory”. That’s where Zero Time Dilemma falls down the most. There’s far too much theory and not enough solid fact to assure the player they’re making progress. At this point, the game will begin to show that it has a great story to tell underneath these layers of confusion and certainly could have been presented with a little more rigidity.
Zero Time Dilemma offers a cinematic puzzle experience that is predictably broken up into cutscene – puzzle – cutscene – puzzle. Credit goes to the developers in coming up with the puzzles and their outcomes. A strongly redeeming feature of Zero Time Dilemma is the level of imagination that has gone into these puzzles. We’ll be guiding our nine victims through escape rooms with a first-person revolving camera. A bit like a point and click puzzler on an axis.
Clues are obscure and well hidden. Keys are even more obscure, asking for the player’s imagination to be used properly. Zero Time Dilemma will constantly ask the player to think outside the box as we guide the nine victims through Zero’s warped puzzle rooms. One puzzle that comes to mind is where Phi is stuck in an incinerator, set to go off in thirty minutes. As we desperately search around, we’ll find a pair of AR (augmented reality) goggles that will reveal the next clue, otherwise not seen. In the end, we can sacrifice a character to save two or try saving all three with a 50/50 risk to one of them.
Moments like this are where Zero Time Dilemma makes its greatest ambitions known to the player. Not only do we have the impending death of a character after solving most puzzles presented to us. But we also have to decide who we’ve taken a liking to and do our best to keep them alive in the wake of Zero’s unpredictable nature. All of this would have been great if the game’s presentation got its act together (something we’ll cover in graphics and sound). But where this great scene lost out on its impact was the developer’s use of time. To start with, we have a frantic pressing of buttons and finding of clues. Eventually, we’ll realise that time moves forward via player discovery. Despite being told the incinerator will activate in thirty minutes, we could take as long as we need to figure this puzzle out. This goes for the rest of the game and sorely removes any tension it so clearly aims for.
Graphics & Sound
An underlying sense of dread is what Zero Time Dilemma desperately needs. Any game developer will tell you that, in order to create atmosphere, a few things need to be thrown into the mix. Moody lighting and effective use of camera, background sound effects and great voice acting. Zero Time Dilemma’s ambitions in story telling are squandered as it possesses none of those things. Graphically, in terms of texture of models and animation, Zero Time Dilemma’s life and soul, is caught somewhere in the early 2000’s.
Like I said at the very start of this review, I understand full well that this game was designed first for handheld gaming. Even with that in mind, Zero Time Dilemma’s characters find no charisma or likeability as they are blighted with a very limited movement set. No emotion can be found on their faces save for the one look of shock, especially designed for when Zero tells them something horrible is about to happen. Even movements like handing an item over or fainting are omitted in favour of the camera looking…. Well, somewhere else. As if the development team didn’t have the time or resources to animate simple movements that we should expect at the very least in our games of today – handheld or not.
Great voice acting is also something that could have saved Zero Time Dilemma. However, with the recent voice actor strikes in America, we have learned that voice actors are simply given their lines. They receive no context about the scene they are voicing. This feels especially prominent in Zero Time Dilemma as dialogue is punctuated with awkward long silences and “home made sounding” sound effects.
Judging from the cosplays I’ve seen around the internet, there is an audience for Zero Time Dilemma. They’re out there somewhere in some niche social media group that is apparently immune to outright bad game design. As I played through Zero Time Dilemma’s many puzzles, I thought this would be great as a handheld game. Forgetting about the poorly told story, the puzzle segments would have made a great time killer for long train journeys. Perhaps things would have gone a little better if the developers had a little more clout in the funding department. Or if the voice actors were able to perform a little better. As it stands, this reviewer remains a little perplexed at how Zero Time Dilemma ever earned its place on a console. This may have scored better if my experience of it was indeed on a handheld device. Now I’m thinking that’s where it should have stayed.
|+ Deep story for those who dig it out||– Player decisions can lead to contradictions|
|+ Imaginative puzzle design||– Deep characters terribly presented|
|+ Ambitious handling of story chronology||– Sound design and animation extremely limited|