Imagine the producers of Saw and Memento got together to make a story-driven puzzle game, and you will be imagining Zero Time Dilemma. Zero Time Dilemma is a game full of interesting puzzles, meaningful choices, and a story which successfully draws you in more and more over time.
Gameplay is broken up into a number of interrelated segments which contain lengthy bouts of dialogue between the characters, puzzle rooms, and/or decisions that have the potential of ending with the death of the other characters. Unlike the previous games in the series which followed a single main character, Zero Time Dilemma separates its cast into three teams, each with a different team captain that acts as the main character of the team. Once you have finished the opening segments, the game gives you the option of choosing segments relating to any of the three teams.
The puzzle rooms of Zero Time Dilemma are generally enjoyable. There were moments in each puzzle where I felt lost as to how to proceed, but none were egregious enough to cause me to look up the answer. Difficulty curves tend to be confined to the individual rooms. So a single room may contain multiple puzzles of the same type with increasing complexity, but each room tended to be on par with the others.
One interesting aspect of Zero Time Dilemma is the way in which choices affect your game. Instead of the modern method of having a base story that is partially changed by individual choices, each choice in Zero Time Dilemma branches the story, allowing you to view the results of your actions and encouraging you to view the results of making the other choices.
In this manner, Zero Time Dilemma re-contextualizes the idea of a win state from being a linear playthrough to an exploration of the different branching paths. In fact, if you make the first choice correctly, the game ends with everyone leaving happily. It’s only by making the wrong choice initially the the player is allowed to actually play the game. Throughout the game, this dichotomy between the desire to make correct choices and the need to make incorrect choices continually follows you. Sure, not letting anyone on your team die seems like the best choice. But if you don’t let this one person die, you won’t learn the information needed to get further with a different segment.
Unfortunately the choice aspect becomes an illusion as you continue to play the game. In the beginning, you are given the option to play through any scene in any timeline, thereby allowing you to switch between a world where everyone is alive and a world where half the characters killed the other half. As the game doesn’t initially tell you which timeline you have selected when you select a new segment to play, the game seems to indicate that all timelines are viable options. Yet this concept slowly erodes near the end of the game where it becomes clear that all choices and actions are funneling you back to the one true timeline.
Any complaints I have in the linearity of the game are mitigated by how strongly these features tie into the story. The overarching plot of Zero Time Dilemma is that a group of nine people have been kidnapped from a training facility and forced to play a decision game where most of the decisions center around who is going to live and who is going to die. Each person is fitted with a bracelet that functions as both a watch and a mechanism for injecting the participants with a mixture of sleep drugs and amnesia drugs. The amnesia drugs cause each person to forget the last ninety minutes of consciousness.
The use of amnesia drugs works extremely well in conjunction with the ability to select any story segment to play. When a story segment begins, neither you nor the characters you are controlling have any idea of what has happened previously. Even though you may have played a variety of different segments, there is no definitive way of knowing which ones came before the segment you’re currently playing.
The amnesia drug aspect has both benefits and detriments. Aside from becoming an extremely relevant plot point, the amnesia drug also puts you on the same footing as your characters with both of you trying to determine what is happening and why. On the other hand, since each group of people wakes up for the first time each time, you tend to be subjected to the same backstory repeatedly. It’s easy to become bored of hearing how Carlos is a firefighter or how Eric and Mira met when Eric was working in an ice cream shop.
While the individual stories feel like they drag on too much, the overall story gets much better over time. Initially, a lot of the elements of the overall story seem like they come out of nowhere. Two of the characters, Sigma and Phi, mention early on that they are time travelers from the future while another two characters, Akane and Junpei, indicate that they’ve done this before and they might have some special powers.
One reason for the jarring initial storytelling is that Sigma, Akane, and Junpei are characters from prior games and players of prior games would know who they and how they got there. People who haven’t played the prior games may feel a little left behind initially, though. Fortunately, the different backgrounds of the original characters becomes relevant to the current plot which again ties in well with the gameplay. A mixture of decisions and games of chance serve to separate the timelines of Zero Time Dilemma, thereby playing into a deeper use of the parallel worlds theories.
As Zero Time Dilemma was originally a 3DS game, I would feel remiss if I didn’t discuss visuals, style, and performance. Performance-wise, the game runs smoothly with none of the Telltale signs of lag (yes, I think I’m clever and no, I don’t care if you agree). This is the first game of the series with consistent 3D models for all scenes and, while it looks like the best approach going for, it also does not always come across as aesthetically pleasing. For instance, the mouths of the characters tend to look a little weird when they talk and the words rarely feel like the sync up with the movements of the mouths. That said, the visual style is pleasing in a dark way and the game shows you just enough to make things tense without turning into torture porn.
Overall, Zero Time Dilemma is an excellent game for lovers of puzzles, dark stories, and novel storytelling mechanics. Minor visual and dialogue issues detract a little from the overall experience, but the desire to know more about the world, to see where events lead the characters, and to watch the different outcomes of each choice will keep you playing straight through to the end.
NOTE: We received a complimentary code for Zero Escape: Zero Time Dilemma from Aksys Games in exchange for our honest review.