Imagine you're out jogging, near home, on your usual route. You come to a fork in the path where you always turn right, but just before you do you spot a snail making its way across the sidewalk. You swerve left to avoid it, and head down the left route for the first time. What would you find there? What could happen to you? How could your life change as a result of that path? That decision? That snail?
That's roughly the parable that opens Zero Time Dilemma, the third and final game in Kotaro Uchikoshi's Zero Escape series, which follows 999: Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors and Virtue's Last Reward, and that butterfly effect-esque allegory stays relevant throughout the twisting, turning narrative that wraps up the trilogy. It's a polished, unnerving experience, and as the final chapter in the Zero Escape saga, well worth the wait for fans.
Zero Time Dilemma sees you guiding nine individuals who've been kidnapped and locked in a bunker by the masked madman Zero as they try to make their way through his deadly 'games' and survive into each next round. Split into three teams of three individuals apiece, Zero's unwilling contestants are pitted against each other in mind games and puzzles backed up with all manner of life-and-death consequences for their rivals and teammates; the basic rule is that once three players die, the other three can leave. Making things considerably more difficult is the fact that everyone's fitted with an ominous, non-removable watch, which serves both to tell the time and to inject its wearer with sleep-inducing and memory-erasing drugs at the end of each 'round'.
It's locked-room drama influenced by slow-burn horror and philosophical thought experiments, with plenty of psychological torture, impossibly cruel scenarios, and unthinkably gruesome violence — bring a strong stomach for sure — alongside well-drawn strained and unfolding relationships between the personable characters caught up in it all. It's far from predictable, and heads off in unexpected directions as it twists and turns towards its eventual conclusions, so if you enjoyed the roller coaster rides of the first two games in the series, you'll feel right at home here. The writing is also several notches above what you might expect from similar games, so while it often feels heavy-handed and preachy in terms of content, the delivery is consistently high-quality.
It's also worth noting that, as the third chapter in a three-game set, Zero Time Dilemma is not a great jumping-in point for the uninitiated. That may seem self-evident, but while direct sequels like Bravely Second go out of their way to be accessible to newcomers, Zero Time Dilemma distinctly doesn't, dropping you right in the middle of an already running, multithreaded narrative and assuming you already have reason to care about its returning characters. Newbies can still get plenty out of a playthrough, but it's definitely worth going through the other games first if you want the best experience.
Like its predecessors, Zero Time Dilemma unfurls through a well-designed visual novel format that makes the most of its medium to tell the tale. Instead of a single linear thread, you'll play through dozens of different 'story fragments', each representing a single chunk of time seen from one of the three team's perspectives, and each involving one or more decisions to be made and/or puzzles to be solved. The puzzles are challenging, point-and-click-style room escapes that play out like horrifying, involved Professor Layton segments, and the fragments are fully cinematic, so you'll watch everything unfold instead of simply reading about it. Depending on the choices you make in a certain scene, you'll unlock different branching paths to take for that team, and you can bounce around between teams and times as you like.
All of this is facilitated by an excellent user-interface, with an OS-style menu holding relevant bits of information, summaries of events so far, and separate, constantly evolving team- and global-level flowcharts laying out fragments and all of their possible branching paths. These flowcharts are especially helpful because Zero Time Dilemma's overlapping narrative routes don't all race towards the same conclusion. There are a half-dozen different endings depending on the choices you make — including one that will roll the credits in under five minutes if you're quick and lucky — and the Picasso-style story encourages replaying fragments with different outcomes to uncover them all.
Zero Time Dilemma is one of the more engaging visual novels we've played in terms of gameplay, and one of the best examples of a uniquely 'video game' way of telling a story. The interlocking threads, the diverse viewpoints, the multimodal exposition, the intricate puzzles, and the malleable sense of time all come together to create a narrative that simply couldn't be told in the same way in a book or movie. It's an impressive feat, and helped us feel entirely wrapped up in the game's intense atmosphere as we played, to the point that it felt odd — but comforting, given the game — to look up from the 3DS and find ourselves back in the real world.
A huge contributor to that heavy atmosphere in Zero Time Dilemma is its audio, with a soundtrack that's immediately unsettling. It's a minor-key tour that uses industrial instrumentation, sparse layering, and a broad dynamic range that swells and shrinks as the drama unfolds. Unfortunately, that range also leads to a bit of a balance issue; when the music is at its high points, it runs right over the spoken dialogue — but if you turn it down, you'll hardly be able to hear the more prevalent pianissimo passages. You'll want to hear that dialogue, too, as the top-notch, expressive voice acting is a highlight of the experience, whether you listen to the excellent English track or the original Japanese.
Zero Time Dilemma's graphical presentation is similarly uneven. The character models are hyper-detailed and lovingly rendered, though they stand out in stark contrast to fuzzy backgrounds and N64-style textures on out-of-focus elements. Animations, meanwhile, are weirdly stiff, and the lip-syncing in particular is oddly slow. Taken as a whole, however, the graphics — complete with quirks — create a unique style that fits the anime-inspired psychological thriller format very well; the combination of bright and slightly cell-shaded characters with grainy, grimy environments looks a bit like fuzzy memories seen in diorama form. Unfortunately, there's no added depth from stereoscopic 3D, as the 3DS' signature effect isn't used at all here.
The 3DS hardware does get put to use elsewhere in Zero Time Dilemma, however. The touchscreen is used to display a wonderfully full-featured backlog, complete with character portraits, where you can tap on previously-uttered lines to hear them again — a real asset when playing through such a complex narrative. It's also used in the 'Memo' feature, which acts a bit like an in-game version of the 3DS' Game Notes, letting you draw any notes and hints you like on-screen. We found the second-screen uses quite helpful, and they're worth taking into account if you're deciding between the 3DS and Vita versions.
Zero Time Dilemma is an impressively polished, unsettling ride, but whether it's worth playing is entirely dependent on your previous experience with the series. If you've played and enjoyed the first two games in the trilogy you'll absolutely love Zero's last stand. You'll find the same twisting, twisted narrative, the same satisfyingly tricky puzzles, and plenty more of Uchikoshi's signature style, and watching the story's climax unfold after three games is a real rush. If you haven't played the first two games but you're interested in the series, this isn't the best place to start — to really enjoy it, you'll want to have both Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors (on DS and iOS) and Virtue's Last Reward (on 3DS and Vita) under your belt before jumping in here.
However you arrive at Zero Time Dilemma, if you're into the series' mix of horror and Hegel you're in for a treat — and you may never look at a snail the same way again.