Are You Ready to Pull the Trigger?: Zero Escape: Zero Time Dilemma Review
Spike Chunsoft makes smart games for smart people. Or at least, people like me, who like to think they’re smart until one of the characters in the video game they’re playing starts to offhandedly shuffle their way through philosophical and logical theories including tautologies, The Anthropic Principle, and the Multiverse Theory. All of those topics are touched upon in a single post-puzzle scene like any other in Zero Time Dilemma, where the player, having just exhausted their mental muscles in a taxing “escape-the-room” style brain-bender, sits back and watches the characters deal with the consequences of the decision the player has just made for them.
Although it may not sound appealing to imagine a game that constantly makes you feel inferior and/or criminal even in the moments where you’re supposed to feel the most triumphant -- that is, after conquering one of its rather complex puzzles and making one of its universe-altering, life-or-death decisions that influence the remainder of the story -- the one thing that keeps you going through the seemingly endless branching paths and story fragments, and saves Zero Time Dilemma from being nothing more than a pedestal for the writers at Spike Chunsoft to showcase their superior intellect, is the promise that everything will make sense in the end. The issue is that you simply haven’t gotten anywhere near that point yet, and are only getting half of the story taking place in any particular chapter, at the most. And of course, you realistically only end up understanding about half of the overall narrative anyway, but it’s still a compelling narrative nonetheless, and probably pads your IQ a little bit along the way.
The thing is, as a reviewer, it’s actually quite difficult for me to explain anything about Zero Time Dilemma, or any Zero Escape game for that matter, in any sort of detail or specifics, because to even begin to touch on anything beyond, say, the names of the characters (Junpei, Akane, Carlos, Q, Mira, Eric, Sigma, Phi, and Diana, some of whom are recurring and some are not) and their setting playing yet another evil game devised by a sinister puppet master who goes by the name “Zero,” would be both unwise and unethical. Unwise because the can of worms that is the weaving, wacky, and woeful story of Zero Time Dilemma and the series overall mythos is best left unopened until you actually sit down and play the game, and unethical because even starting to divulge any sort of information about the story could be potentially compromising to the overall experience.
While I can’t realistically say much in detail, even in basic profiles of the characters (which would already be too much, given there are nine of them), I can definitely say that the cast is fairly diverse, which helps to make the overall experience more welcoming to the player. This isn’t just in the sense that there are some younger and some older characters, and both men and women, but that the characters are individual to the point that each player is likely to make their own decisions about who they side with in the overall arc of each relationship, and make some story fragments more memorable because of how they act toward each other or towards the game itself. In the scene I mentioned above, the character who simply sifts through each of the relatively complex philosophical concepts manages to do so without sounding condescending, even if it’s fairly obvious that the other two characters in the room aren’t quite capable of keeping up with her in their current conditions, making the player more comfortable for not quite grasping the situation as well as they might feel like they have to. On the other hand, there is another character who will bring the conversation around to similar topics with their own team members, and not once ever manage to sound sympathetic as to their lack of understanding. There are also other characters who never seem to think the right way about anything, constantly acting on impulse and focusing on the wrong topics when it comes to escaping the torturous game alive, who offer either comic relief or a target for the player’s frustration in their most pathetic moments.
The Zero Escape games have never been the right choice for players who simply want to get down to business and shoot or slice or drive or what have you, and ZTD is obviously no different, although I’m tempted to say that it offers the best puzzles in the series so far, although they are certainly as few and far between as they ever have been, meaning that players interested exclusively in solving puzzles are still better off sticking to the Professor Layton series. Although there are still definitely a few puzzles with steps that are simply baffling or at least somewhat poorly implemented, the majority of them are better than the series has seen before due merely to the scope of them. Containing large or intricate moving parts such as a trash incinerator, a room with changing holographic walls, and an alien matter transporter, some of the set pieces in Zero Time Dilemma are pretty awe-inspiring and makes each room quite memorable, and even more so when adding in the story-altering “decision” that follows each one, although it can be tough to remember everything about a puzzle or scene when your brain turns to mush in the college-level philosophical discussion following many of them.
One thing that strikes me about the Zero Escape games has always been the music, as the soundtrack in each game seems as though it’s better suited to a survival horror game. I can’t tell you how disorienting it is to be playing a game like this at midnight only to get up and use the bathroom only to feel like you’re in System Shock 2 as you come back down the hallway, with cold and sterile techno beats slowly reverberating through the speakers. It’s a soundtrack that fits the tension and definitely pushes the atmosphere of the game’s cold and industrial setting at times to the next level, but it’s definitely a bit overboard at times as well.
Although the natural continuation of the score has worked out well for the series given its commitment to the overall style of the soundtrack, graphically, I think the new approach is a bit of a mistake. Whereas the first two Zero Escape games relied solely on static 2D images against the 3D settings for its cutscenes, the characters in Zero Time Dilemma are full 3D cel-shaded models, which aren’t quite as endearing as their predecessors, most likely due to the lack of individuality that comes with that transition while still committing to the dark anime twinge that the overall game has.
They would still be rather effective if used in the same manner of static images over the backgrounds, especially because the voice acting overall is pretty high quality, but many cutscenes attempt to work in a basic amount of animation that comes off as cheap or robotic. Facial expressions are left with their integrity due to the greater amount of detail they are able to contain, but more active animations like running make the characters look like C-3PO jangling his way over sand dunes on Tatooine.
Downloading Zero Time Dilemma (or any other game in the series) or popping it into your system is like taking a seat next to a depressed Bill Nye on a train that passes through the Sahara, Arctic Circle, Amazon Rainforest, and five other planets, without a single stop or any idea as to where you’re headed. Should you ever actually work up the courage to get off the train once it’s started moving, you’ll inevitably start to wonder where the hell you were headed and what the hell Bill was talking about when he mentioned the frogs in Venezuela and why it was snowing when you looked out the window as you passed through Arizona and a million other questions that you had along the way and have to assume that the only answers were at the end of the line, wherever that may be.
At various points during the story, ZTD is philosophical, naive, cynical, infuriating, depressing, and even downright evil, but all paced out to the point that the denouement of the story starts to soothe and satisfy the parts of your brain that have been the most ignited and tested by the whole thing. If there’s one really huge drawback to ZTD and the franchise or the genre as a whole, it will always be that visual novels like it only ever consist of about 30% actual gameplay, leaving the majority of the experience to be judged mostly on its merit as long-form television or something similar to account for its 30-hour or so length. Spike Chunsoft, then, might have luck entering their projects, including this, the earlier Zero Escape titles, Daganronpa, and hell, even the Pokemon Mystery Dungeon titles into whatever messed up film festival they can find with only minimal tweaking. Until then, they’ll have to stick to the interactive method and revel in their intellectual superiority along with the knowledge that they have created a game as devilishly sinister as their own demented gamesmaster.