This is a spoiler-free review. No Zero Time Dilemma (henceforth ZTD) spoilers, no Virtue’s Last Reward (henceforth VLR), and no 999 spoilers. Read to your heart’s content, but know that this is a trilogy that needs to be played in order: 999, VLR, and then ZTD. DO NOT play ZTD with having first played 999 and then VLR because several very important scenes won’t make sense, and moreover, you’ll spoil 999 and VLR for yourself.
It’s no secret that I’m quite a big fan of the Zero Escape series.
Being the finishing piece in a trilogy of critically acclaimed games, ZTD had very high expectations for its release. Ignoring the Amazon snafu (which thankfully, didn’t affect me) it seems to have been very well received within its first week, and definitely living up to the hype. Like many other fans, I’ve been looking forward to this game since before its release was even confirmed. I had high hopes. Seeing as how I picked it up on a Tuesday and beat it the following Friday, I’d say it didn’t disappoint.
Arguably the most important part of a Zero Escape game is its writing. Most notably, it’s unique, almost Bioshock-esque way of strongly yet gracefully breaking the fourth wall—which is stronger than ever in ZTD. The plot, at its base, remains unchanged: Nine people are captured by a mysterious figure going by the name of Zero, who tells them that they must risk their lives and play his game to escape a confined area. Taking place one year after 999, it features the two main protagonists of 999, the two main protagonists of VLR, and 5 new characters. Unlike any other Zero Escape game, , character interactions feel more personal in this game because there are simply more characters who knew each other prior to the events of ZTD. Moreover, they’re the most bold, dynamic group we’ve seen in a Zero Escape game. Watching them interact with each other throughout the course of the game an seeing just how even the smallest things can set them off and how it effects everyone else—very much like a domino effect—is one of the best parts of the game. Moreso than any other Zero Escape game, ZTD truly brings the player into its world with its writing. The only main flaw with the writing is that whereas most of it is so detailed and well-thought out (like these games have been in the past) certain aspects of it (which I won’t mention specifically, but the image will say it all for those of you who have played the game, I’m sure) seemed to be written hastily, as they were never fully explained, and in some aspects, almost seem contradictory to previously established facts and traits of certain characters. Compared to the otherwise stellar writing in the game, it makes it all the more obvious when something wasn’t thought out to the fullest. Fortunately, this only happens a small number of times, but unfortunately, it only makes it all the more obvious and disappointing when it does happen. Although the writing in this game isn’t perfect, and definitely flawed by the aforementioned hasty sections, overall it’s still wonderful: All the questions left behind from 999 and VLR have been answered (albeit, some of them answered poorly, but answered nonetheless.) It’s worth mentioning, however, that this game left behind a few small questions itself. Not a ton of questions, but enough, I think, to warrant making an epilogue.
The gameplay of ZTD consists of 3 major things: Shifting from fragment to fragment, puzzles, and decision games. Without any kind of context, the player is thrown into a story that, rather than being linear, is scattered into fragments. These fragments are bits of the story through the perspective of different groups of characters. You play as the different groups at different times, making different decisions that will affect other fragments. When it comes times to make choices, the story will branch based on what you choose, though you will return later to see what would happen had you done something else. When you switch to a new fragment, it’s referred to as “shifting” and there are characters who become aware of it, eventually, which is one of the major factors that the plot revolves around. Ultimately, you’ll be exploring every possible fragment and seeing every possible outcome and using your knowledge of the story to lead you to one true ending. Through this, you get to see the story unfold in a way unlike any other game. Additionally, there is a flowchart to help you keep track of the chronological order of everything.
Secondly, there are the puzzles. This is wherein the most gameplay resides. Throughout the game, you’ll be trapped in 13 different rooms and, through a series of puzzles and use of just about anything you can fin in the room, must escape. Additionally, many times the rooms will contain something that’s relevant to the plot, as well, so it’s not like you can just escape from a room and be done with it. What you find in that room remains relevant. Just as its the nature of a Zero Escape game to have these puzzles, though, it’s also in their nature to be quite… obtuse. ZTD is very interesting in this regard because there are many escape puzzles in this game which are, for a Zero Escape game (which are already known to be pretty tricky unless you’re using a guide or a walkthrough) pretty easy. These games make it no secret that they want you to use your brain—whether its in the scientifically-inclined writing or the gameplay. Despite that, however, most of the puzzles in this game didn’t feel as challenging as they were in the previous entries. On the other hand, the rooms that were difficult were obscenely difficult. There’s very little in-between, making it really hard to say whether this game is an easy or hard one overall—especially considering that you can do these rooms in any order you want because of the non-linear nature of this game.
Finally, there’s the decisions. Zero has gathered and trapped our nine protagonists to play the Decision Game. Essentially, what that means is, he reveals to them that to escape they need 6 X-Passes. Every time someone dies, an X-Pass is revealed—essentially meaning that to escape, 6 people must die. To add to the suspense, he constantly puts the characters in very difficult situations and puts them into (usually) life-threatning decisions: The Decision Game. You, the player, will be the one making the decision. As mentioned before, the point of the game is to see every possible outcome, so eventually, you will choose every possible answer to every possible dilemma. Rather than taking away from the situational drama, however, it adds to it. The point of the game is to use knowledge that you learned from shifting between fragments—even if it’s something that the characters you’re playing as don’t know. It is explained in-game how it’s possible for them to have this knowledge, but this is a spoiler-free review. One of the most satisfying parts of the game is learning new knowledge that’ll affect a decision that you might not have been able to make, or revealing a new answer that’ll take you deeper into the rich story of ZTD.
Despite all this, it’s worth noting that you will definitely be spending more time in this game watching cutscenes than not. Having such good writing and a riveting plot, I don’t think it’s much of an issue, but if you don’t like games where you watch more than you play—even if there’s still definite gameplay—then you probably won’t like just ZTD, but the Zero Escape trilogy as a whole because all 3 games are like this.
Although the 2D art looks superb—especially next to the art of the previous entries in the games—and the sprites look remarkably better than they did in previous games, the visuals in this game aren’t without sin. Particularly in characters with long hair there are several instances of slight clipping, and mouths almost never sync up to what the characters are saying. Some might attribute that to the fact that this is a Japanese game and that it’s designed for the Japanese voice actors. I find that strange, however, seeing as how Zero Escape is remarkably more successful in the West. Moreover, the English version was released before the Japanese. Combined with the stiff animations, it’s easy to see why several fans were disappointed. Regardless, although noticeable, these aren’t major issues that are so distracting that they detract from the game over all.
Although slightly marred by slipshod graphics and a few dashes of hasty writing, ZTD is the finest entry in the Zero Escape trilogy. It’s been a very long time since a game has put me on an emotional roller coaster as extreme in the one in ZTD. Worth every penny of its $40 price. A must-play for any Zero Escape fan, fans of puzzle games, fans of science fiction, or anyone looking for a few new handheld games to play.