Review: Zero Escape: Zero Time Dilemma (PSV/PSTV)

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Platforms:

  • PlayStation Vita

Extras:

  • PlayStation TV Compatible Yes
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Title: Zero Escape: Zero Time Dilemma
Format: Game Card / PlayStation Network Download (1.1 GB)
Release Date: June 28, 2016
Publisher: Aksys Games
Developer: Chime
Original MSRP: $39.99
ESRB Rating: M
Zero Escape: Zero Time Dilemma is also available on Nintendo 3DS, PS4, and PC.
The PlayStation Vita download version was used for this review.
A copy of this game was provided by the publisher for review purposes.
PS Nation Review Policy

Zero Time Dilemma is the third game in the Zero Escape series, after 999 on the DS and Virtue’s Last Reward on the Vita/3DS. This adventure/puzzle game series is very heavy on continuity, so I would highly recommend playing 999 and VLR before playing Zero Time Dilemma. It might be possible to pick up the backstory from the dialogue in game, but I feel like a lot will be lost on new players of Zero Time Dilemma. Plus, 999 and VLR are good games.

Without spoiling anything, Zero Time Dilemma picks up after the true ending of Virtue’s Last Reward. During a long duration isolation experiment meant to simulate a trip to Mars, nine subjects awake one day to find themselves locked in an underground bunker. A mysterious figure calling himself Zero informs them that six of them must die if any of them are to escape the bunker.

The nine people, split into three groups of three, are then subjected to a variety of “decision games.” These games can have lethal consequences, sometimes for other groups or sometimes for members of their own group. They’ve got to navigate these decisions and locked rooms to escape from Zero’s game.

… the Sleeping Beauty problem or the Monty Hall question …
Gameplay:
Like its predecessors, the gameplay in Zero Time Dilemma (ZTD) is split up into a few different sections: story, puzzle rooms, and decision points. Story sections make up a majority of the game’s run time, however this time the story sections are actual cutscenes as opposed to simple text boxes like in previous games.

I’m actually not a huge fan of this change. I’ll get into it more in the Visuals section but the game doesn’t really take advantage of using cinematics over simple dialogue boxes. Many of the story sections have a lot of conversation and, like the series at large, plenty of waxing philosophical about random topics.

I like those topics ZTD discusses. The game loves to reference, at length, random thought experiments or human social experiments. Things like the Sleeping Beauty problem or the Monty Hall question. These references are usually accompanied by an explanation of them, for players who aren’t familiar.

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What’s annoying about the cinematics is that it ties me to a specific pace. In visual novel-like games, I often skip through the text pretty quickly. About as quickly as I can read it. Which is often much faster than a voice actor can read it aloud. In this game I can’t do that, which can hamper the experience while a character yammers on or when I’m seeing repeat dialogue from a different group’s perspective.

There is a skip function though. By default, it only shows up when going through a scene a second time but it can be enabled all the time in the options. However, this just makes the cutscene play at lightning speed while the skip button is being held.

… like old adventure games …
All that being said, I think the story here is great. Naturally it addresses the twist ending in Virtue’s Last Reward but even on its own ZTD deftly maneuvers some intelligent topics. The characters are endearing when they need to be, which makes the harrowing situations they’re put in all the more engrossing. Best of all, the game knows when to pump the breaks, using some chortle-worthy humor to break up the otherwise tense puzzles

Speaking of puzzles, they make up the next big bulk of the gameplay. Typically, these are locked-room puzzles to test the player’s thinking. In a basic sense, these are like old adventure games. The player must move around an environment finding items or other points of interest, then using those items to unlock a door to escape the room.

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Often though, these are the culmination of a variety of smaller puzzles. One might have to find a clue to a combination lock, which contains an item to use elsewhere, which starts a block puzzle, etc. Once the final puzzle is solved, the characters will find a key or unlock a door or otherwise obtain a means to leave the locked room.

I like the puzzle aspects overall, though I feel like it’s a little on the easy side compared to Virtue’s Last Reward. A lot more of them seem to fall into the camp of finding the right clue rather than testing lateral thinking. Still, I’ve felt my brain teased at least a few times so the game isn’t all just a cakewalk.

… a possible disastrous, even fatal, outcome …
Worth noting as well, but there are built-in hints for players who might get stuck. Interacting with a puzzle element several times unfruitfully will have the characters in the group offer some advice as though they were discussing the solution among themselves.

The last gameplay element is the series of decision points. Like a normal visual novel, the player is often presented with a decision which will split the story down one path or another. This game makes a big deal out of these moments, and many of them have a possible disastrous, even fatal, outcome for some characters.

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Sometimes the worst outcome is pretty well known. For example a button which will cause hydrofluoric acid to kill some of the other characters. Other times these are tied to the game’s love of probability. Such as rolling dice to determine if a character will live or die.

Oddly though, these decision points don’t play out the same way they would most visual novels because this isn’t told as a linear story. Instead, the player is picking through a selection of story fragments. Not only can these fragments come out of order chronologically, but they can come from any of the game’s several branching storylines.

I’m a little torn on this method. One of my favorite moments in Virtue’s Last Reward was when a character in the game started referencing other branches in the story of the game. It was an almost fourth wall breaking moment, but written into the game’s lore to make sense.

… The characters aren’t well suited to animation …
ZTD has some of that, particularly late in the game, but with the way the game jumps around it loses a lot of the impact. Instead, each fragment feels like just that – a fragment. Fortunately, the game does include a master flowchart which fills in with completed fragments and this goes a long way toward helping the player piece together the story.

Visuals:
Graphics are probably the weakest part of Zero Time Dilemma. Although the 3D character models look overall better than in Virtue’s Last Reward, they’re still nothing to write home about. The characters aren’t well suited to animation either, as they sometimes twist in odd ways when moving their wrists or shoulders.

Perhaps this is why the game’s cinematics don’t use a ton of animation. At first I thought they were avoiding showing some things for the Jaws effect. Essentially giving a scene more impact by cutting away from the action and letting the viewer’s imagination take over. That may be part of the reason, but avoiding the jarring animation from taking the player out of the experience may also be the case.

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The cinematics still work overall though, so I may be a little nitpicky. As I mentioned before the majority of the story sections are written around conversations anyway and those don’t need much animation.

Level design is similarly fine but largely unexciting. Aesthetically, everything works and there are some inventively designed rooms considering the setting. But from a technical perspective, this game is definitely not aiming to impress.

Audio:
Both the English and Japanese voice tracks are available. I really wasn’t a fan of the English though. Something about it just made the game seem more drab than was necessary. The game lets the player change at any time though, even mid-cinematic if they want.

… enjoying the game’s puzzles and sense of humor …
I also found it odd that the character lip movements didn’t match up to the spoken dialogue. At first, when I was on Japanese audio, I assumed that they had perhaps animated it for the English. However switching to English showed that the movements don’t seem to line up to either voice track.

Music is good but can easily start to fall into the repetitive. Story scenes don’t have this issue as much as puzzle sections. Since the puzzles can be quite lengthy, and the music tracks aren’t too long, they do play on repeat. This never bothered me enough to mute the music but I considered it on a few occasions.

Online/Multiplayer:
This game is singleplayer only with no online component.

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Conclusion:
I have a few complaints about Zero Time Dilemma. But I think those complaints come from a place of compassion. I absolutely loved Virtue’s Last Reward and in all the ways that count, Zero Time Dilemma is a worthy successor. My complaints certainly didn’t stop me from falling headfirst into the story or the characters.

For several days, I could barely put the game down. Not only did I want answers to dangling plot threads from the previous games, but I was enjoying the game’s puzzles and sense of humor as well. Again, I strongly advise playing the previous two games before jumping into this one. Anyone who has played those should have a good idea of what they’re in for, which is fortunately more of the same winning formula.

Score:
8.5

* All screenshots used in this review were taken directly from the game using the Vita’s built in screen capture feature.

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Written by Andy Richardson

Andy Richardson

A longtime PlayStation fan who enjoys JRPGs and rhythm games when he’s not tweeting about his parrot.

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  • Joshua Simpkins

    Hella good review, Andy. The game is really that good, huh?

  • Awesome review Andy, I really enjoyed the first 999, but never got around to multiple playthroughs which I heard were a must to get the most out of the game. I got VLR and this game now too, just got to find the time to get to them. Your review was a great setup though letting me know what I am in store for down the line.