The visual novel has been around for a long time now, and like all video game genres it needs to evolve to survive. Horror games get darker, RPGs get deeper and shooters need more than just bullets. The Zero Escape series of visual novels is back with its third instalment and it’s done exactly what it needed to do to survive. With full 3D animations and writing that is tighter than ever, Zero Time Dilemma is easily one of the greatest visual novels ever made. Yes, I said it. That indeed just happened; now let me tell you why.
One of the hooks of the Zero Escape series has always been the horror and simplicity of its premise. While these games always have a lot going on, it’s really the thought of people locked up and forced to off each other to survive that reels us in. It’s the same slightly sick urge that makes us watch films like Saw and Cube. We want to see what people will do to other people when their own lives are in terrible peril, because perhaps on some level we’re curious about what we would do in those situations. In Zero Time Dilemma nine people are shut in a bunker. The only way out is an impenetrable doorway controlled by a keypad and six passcodes. One passcode will be revealed for every death. Six must die so that three can escape. Oh what a pickle, but oh what a story, and it is one hundred percent as exciting as it sounds.
Everything starts with a game of chance, a coin toss, but very soon descends into death and executions. The villain, none other than Zero himself, offer choices and opportunities for both survival and murder but sits passive himself. It’s up to you to decide, much like in the previous Virtue’s Last Reward, whether or not you’re going to betray your friends. In true visual novel style, of course, your decisions are rarely final. You’ll need to eventually both kill and refrain if you’re going to enjoy every last drop of what this game has to offer. Multiple timelines are the answer to your characters woes and only by exploring them all can you get to the game’s ultimate meaning.
Rather than just using a flow diagram to follow, plan and remember your timeline, Dilemma uses memory Fragments. Your characters are split into three teams and you can play any team’s unlocked Fragments in any order. At first everything feels random, disjointed and a little confusing, but as the story builds, everything starts to fit together. You’re presented with a multitude of mysteries and seemingly random events. Hey, how is that person dead!? I don’t remember choosing that! It will all make sense in the end. Even though you get a whole load of free reign over what to do and when to do it, the game design is so clever in the way it holds back Fragments and unlocks hidden scenes. The build-up is just fantastic and by the time you hit the last few hours of the story your arse will no longer be on the edge of your seat but flat on the floor on top of the cat instead.
Every story needs conflict and tension, and to hold onto a reader you need to trap them between these two elements. Certain things can and will throw a reader out of the story and the two biggest offenders are waffling and bad pacing. This is where some visual novels trip head first into the gutter, but notZero Time Dilemma. Considering its fragmented presentation, the pacing is remarkable. There doesn’t seem to be that middle-of-the-book sag that so many longer stories suffer from. Dialogue is relevant and the characters don’t bang on like old ladies at a church coffee morning. They say what needs to be said in ways that are fitting to the situation at hand, and then the story moves on. You won’t be listening to a giggling Japanese girl babble on about curry for twenty minutes. The story takes itself appropriately seriously and stays on track from beginning to end. It took me just short of thirty hours to complete the game 100% with all timelines, and a fair chunk of that was the Escape Room puzzles (yes, they’re back!). This probably sounds quite short when you think that Virtue’s Last Reward took about double that, but however much you loved that game (It’s one of my favourite Vita titles), remember how much those characters went on and on and ON. Zero Time Dilemma is all story development, absolutely no waffle. It’s beautiful.
Another change is the visual style. Gone are the pristine static images and in their place are 3D animations. Story segments are played through in Telltale-style cut scenes with a choice of English or Japanese voice acting plus subtitles. Essentially your visual novel experience has turned into more of a film, and I think that in itself has worked wonders for the pacing I mentioned earlier. Screenplay writing is quite rightly a lot tighter than novel writing due to its very visual output. There’s less temptation for thought bubbles full of angst-ridden internal monologue and more opportunities for concise visual conveyance of conflict and tension.
The animations themselves are pretty good. They’re not perfect and they’re not ground-breaking, but they do the job very well. The characters look great with some lovely detail, although I could have done with less of Mira’s boobs. Why the creators felt the need to make her look like a streetwalker I’ll never know, but they made up for it when they gave us the rather yummy Junpei. All the characters are distinct in looks, behaviours and voice. Unlike the previous game, and carefully putting aside Mira’s prostitute costume, the characters are all reasonable normal. Well, they look normal anyway. This is a Zero Escape game so while there are no ringmasters (I love you, Dio!), do expect some fantastic background stories. Every character is such an individual and all of them are interesting and relevant to the story.
As you progress through the plot and subsequently around the bunker, you’ll stumble across Escape Rooms. These are locked rooms and in order to get out you must find a key or a code (or a few other things). The whole room is a giant puzzle and to beat it you’ll have to solve a series of smaller individual conundrums. You’ll need to search the room for clues, notes and objects, and figure out the starting points and the end game. Completion of an individual puzzle will often result in gaining another object or further intel needed for the next section of the room. It’s really really easy. And that last bit was a lie. Make yourself a stack of sandwiches because you’re going to be a while. While nearly always fair, many of the puzzles are rock hard. You’ll need a logical brain, a calculator (I’m not joking) and a notepad. There is a built-in memo function that allows you to write notes on the screen but it’s not enough. Get yourself a nice pad and a decent pen that doesn’t require a scribble before it starts writing because sometimes you need to be quick. Expect each room to take at least an hour. I did a couple in under that time but others took several hours each. One or two of the puzzles are almost beyond human comprehension, but mostly they are enormous fun and the feeling you get when you escape a room is completely exhilarating, particularly as there is no hint system or easy option to help you. It’s do or die, so to speak.
There are thirty three trophies to collect including a Platinum. If you’re intent on finding every ending on your way to the true path, then the Platinum will pretty much fall in your lap. Towards the last few memory fragments you’ll find yourself desperately searching through the different timelines looking for new unlocked paths and the route towards completion. Once you’ve hit the end, the chances are you won’t have missed much. Just make sure you pick up all Quest notes as there is a trophy for finding them all. Because they are usually essential, they are hard to miss. I overlooked one note and thanks to a fellow unfortunate on a forum who coincidently missed the same one, I was guided in the right direction.
With its new 3D animations and top quality voice-acting, Zero Time Dilemma feels more like a cinematic experience than a visual novel. The writing is tight and tense, and the story is beautifully crafted. Dialogue is kept on-topic with no waffling, and the characterisations are sublime. Topped off with tough puzzle rooms that have no hint system, this game is a thirty hour treat to yourself. Zero Time Dilemma now stands proudly alongside the greatest visual novels ever made.
S J Hollis Rating 9.5/10