Zero Time Dilemma Review
Nine people trapped in an underground shelter. One locked door to freedom. Six passwords needed to open that door — each of which will only be revealed once a person dies. Who will survive the night?
Zero Time Dilemma is the third game in the Zero Escape series, a combination of escape the room puzzles and visual novel dialog and decision making. While it loosely continues from previous titles — a few earlier characters return, and a couple of brief nods to older events — knowledge of other games isn’t necessary to enjoy Dilemma. We dove into this one blind, and enjoyed it all the same.
Live or die: Make your choice
Taking more than a few (OK, a whole lot of) cues from the infamous Saw movies, Zero Time Dilemma puts nine unlucky protagonists into a disused bomb shelter where, thanks to their mysterious host Zero communicating through TVs and monitors, they discover that at least six of them will have to die in order for the rest to escape.
Split into three groups and separated into different wards, conflicts quickly arise as people argue over how to escape, who is to blame, and whether they’re comfortable with the unfortunate deaths — or even murder — of those on the other teams.
A major plot element and mechanic for Zero Time Dilemma is that gameplay is split into multiple fragments, each representing a particular block of time and involving one particular team; for instance, C-Team may wake up at 4pm and find themselves in the infirmary. Dilemma defies expectation by offering up most fragments from the start, allowing and even forcing you to play them out of chronological order, as there’s no way to know the “correct” order of events until you play each.
This is reinforced and explained by each team only being allowed a short window of ninety minutes of consciousness at any one time before being drugged, falling asleep and forgetting everything that happened during that period, including any discoveries or killings. Each time a team awakens, they have no idea whether this is the first time they’ve woken since events started, or what they may have missed.
Strange things soon become apparent as you start playing Dilemma, especially as you start following the perspectives of every team. Regularly scheduled notices of deaths inform you of casualties on other teams that you were unaware of — when did they die? How? Things start getting a little weird, but there’s a solid explanation.
Characters and teams are often faced with “decision games”: choices that impact who gets to live. Teams sometimes get a choice that can wipe out those from other teams, contributing to the six deaths required for escape; other times, perhaps a weapon is conveniently discovered, and just how well do you know the other people on your team really?
Regardless of outcome, you’re able to go back to any decision point and change your mind. Where you had before chosen to kill off somebody to escape, perhaps you want to try and save them all with a different plan. Each decision branches off into its own timeline — you can’t follow D-Team’s exploits in a timeline where they had been executed, for example — and this leads to a crazy flow where each critical decision forms a new potential history.
Between watching plots unfold and making critical decisions, you’ll be figuring out a number of escape the room style puzzles. Teams typically awaken locked in a particular room of their ward, and you’ll need to discover a way out through collecting and combining items, solving puzzles, and a little good old-fashioned thinking. While these puzzles can be a little tricky and can require some math skills and deduction, they’re certainly not as esoteric or obscure as many titles in the room escape genre — nothing stands out as a “what the hell?” logic jump or ridiculous notion.
One area in which Zero Time Dilemma does falter, however, is exposition and dialog. Conversations can feel stilted at times, and much of the dialog feels forced; it lacks an organic feeling where you can imagine real people saying or feeling the same as the protagonists do. Story writing and dialog writing are very different skill sets, and while Dilemma does a good job of the former, the way characters talk and interact has a janky “off” feeling. In reality, people simply don’t finish each others’ thoughts or randomly bring up some psychological or philosophical dilemma out of the blue.
Conversations also fall prey to an occasional holier-than-thou attitude when they begin talking about paradoxes, philosophical arguments, and backstory, taking far too long to explain basic concepts as if they were trying to explain things to a five year old. While well-meaning, it comes off condescending — and yes, repeatedly telling a story of something that happened years ago for the umpteenth time gets annoying, especially when the game isn’t difficult to figure out as you go. Grating, but not obnoxiously so, and it doesn’t detract too much from the overall experience.