WARNING: some spoilers ahead. Easily enough to spoil plot but not puzzles. You have been warned.
Disclaimer: yes, there is data copied and pasted from my previous review - this is very, very deliberate.
Life is simply unfair.
The third and final game in the Zero Escape series, Zero Time Dilemma (sometimes abbreviated to ZTD) is an interactive visual novel game created by developer Chime and published by Spike Chunsoft and Aksys Games. Nine people are abducted and trapped inside a nuclear bomb shelter as part of the Decision Game. Most of the people know each other, having been part of a project called Dcom; others are unknown to the group. When the game begins, the characters are split into three teams by a mysterious masked person named Zero and told that the bracelets affixed to their wrists will inject them with an anaesthetic and another drug that induces amnesia, and that this will take place ninety minutes after they last awoke. In the meantime, they can leave the shelter if they have six passwords; one password is revealed each time a participant dies. The player switches between the three teams, who have been separated into three wards of the shelter: in C Ward are Junpei and Akane from 999, as well as level-headed and fair-thinking Carlos; in Q Ward are Eric and Mira, opposites in almost every way but still in a relationship, as well as the mysterious, no-backstory-given Q; in D Ward are Sigma and Phi from VLR, as well as calm pacifist Diana. Development on ZTD was stalled for some time after VLR's release due to the latter, as well as 999, being received poorly in their native Japan. However, demand from the North America and EU markets' fanbases were enough for the game to finally be completed in 2016. In contrast to 999 and VLR, the game's release on Steam was made very quickly after the initial release onto the Nintendo 3DS and the PlayStation Vita; the game was also later ported to the PlayStation 4.
I was first introduced to this game as I love escape rooms, and because I enjoyed 999 and VLR. My first impression of ZTD wasn't about the fact that the storyline is split into fragments which can be played in more-or-less any order, throwing all kinds of confusion into the mix. It wasn't that four people return from previous installments and that they have all considerably changed. It wasn't that the science fiction from both 999 and VLR has very much been brought to its natural logical conclusion. It was that the game has reached peak "dark and gritty" and it's fucking disturbing to say the least. Seriously. VLR had a kid - couldn't have been older than about 10 - screaming his head off and wanting to commit suicide, and that was hard for me to watch... over and over... but that doesn't hold a candle to the dark bits in ZTD. You're first told to vote to execute a team - an entire team of three - and said execution takes place via collar bombs. If you go down the humanitarian route and have each team vote for a different team (i.e. no majority, every team gets one vote, nobody dies), you're instead locked in a shower room and threatened with death by hydrofluoric acid. Let the party begin. When it ends, every character has died at least three times - the instruments of death include the previously-mentioned explodey neckwear and melty liquid, but also axe, chainsaw, crossbow, shotgun, handgun, grenade launcher, scalpel, carbon dioxide, furnace, revolver, unknown poison, Gatling gun, and several strengths of other bombs - one probably reaching a megaton. Some days it's just not worth getting out of bed.
So, plot-wise, there's some sickening bits1 (poor-graphics-by-2016-standards notwithstanding - more on that later). There's also substantially less comic relief - whereas previous games had nine people and less urgency, this game had three people at once (rarely more at one time), and the dynamic in every team in terms of characters is a lot - a lot - less conducive to humour. Everyone knows that this is the most deadly game yet. Most everyone has been part of Serious Business just before the events of ZTD start. Even the returning characters have lost their sense of humour - it's pretty clear that Junpei's seen some shit in the past year or so. Furthermore, in contrast to previous games, where it was clear that every character could escape, this game forces six deaths in order for someone to escape. It's also thought-out by not only the dev team, but by Zero, that you can't pinch X-passes from one timeline and use them in other timelines. So much for the game's core mechanic of shifting between parallel dimensions to save yourself - death is a certainty and you are going to see an awful lot of it by the end of the game. So, yeah. It's definitely not as light and bubbly as its predecessors.
Throughout the whole series (but noticeably in ZTD) there is some incredibly clever work done by the dev team and by the game's writers. If we skip the anagrams that return from VLR (the game's English title is an anagram!2) we still have some pretty clever parts. Roll up into a three-way Mexican standoff and the game suddenly forces you to decide who to shoot. Junpei, Carlos, or Akane? HE/SHE IS NOT HERE. Diana, Phi, or Sigma? YOU CANNOT KILL DEAD PEOPLE. Gab, the game's messenger pooch? HE IS NOT HERE. "Myself"? YOU CANNOT COMMIT SUICIDE. Q? PLEASE ENTER Q'S NAME. What about Zero?! IDENTITY IS NOT KNOWN. Most every other option leads you to an error. They thought of pretty much everything, and even put some subtleties into the game to make it "obvious" that this game is very, very different to 999 and VLR. It's not the Nonary game any more. The only thing that was a bit of a dick move was the revelation of Q's identity. Mind, by this point I'm used to that kind of dick move, given the previous game showed off ten rules for writing a (fair) murder-mystery and then proudly broke every single rule.
One marked improvement ZTD makes over its predecessors is that all the dialogue is cutscene-based. No more tapping the screen or clicking the button to advance the gameplay. The advantage is that it feels more like a movie or a visual choose-your-own-adventure novel (except during the Escape sequences); the disadvantage is that it's harder to make a Let's Play video and make witty one-liners in between the characters' lines. On the actual downside, though, is the cutscenes' timing and animation. For a 2016 video game, the animation is rather poor, even for 3DS standards - the characters' facial expressions basically never change, the walking and running animations are very Uncanny Valley, there's a lot of body parts clipping into their own models (most noticeable with Diana's hair, and Akane's too), and characters' stances don't change much either. I get that everyone has a default stance, but keeping the same stance does little to nothing for showing a character's emotion. The same goofy grin should not be used to show all of Eric's love for Mira, Eric's despair at losing Mira, Eric's rage at Q, Eric's fear at being held at gunpoint (well... crossbow-point) and Eric's breakdown over his past. Yes, I used a bad example because Eric's goofy grin does get discussed, but that doesn't excuse seven other characters. Not to mention that there was always a pause in between two different characters' lines, which made basically every scene feel janky and unnatural, especially if one character is supposed to be interrupting another. Admittedly, this is tricky to do in a video game, but still - for a 2016 game that is heavily cutscene-based, this feels a bit poor.
As for the characters themselves: in general, the characters actually reveal stuff about themselves fairly early on this time. After 999, Junpei became a detective to try and track Akane down. Carlos is a firefighter, to whom life and death situations and decisions are commonplace. Diana is a nurse and a pacifist. Eric and Mira met in the icecream shop where Eric worked. Sigma and Phi aren't afraid to tell Diana everything about the SHIFT phenomenon (consciousnesses skipping through time) and Junpei and Akane talk openly around Carlos about the morphogenetic field. Understandably, Q doesn't say a thing - but, of course, we do need to add some suspicion into a game like this. My gripe with character and outfit design from the previous two games holds for this game too, although thankfully it's only one character this time and not two. Again, animating boobs to make them jiggle at the oddest times - not to mention in the oddest ways - is neither a sign of maturity nor skill in terms of character design. Furthermore, the outfit Mira wears is never brought up in-game - at least Lotus was a dancer and Clover and Alice were secret agents, which were slightly more passable (though not truly acceptable) - Mira has no reason to be wearing so little except sex appeal and the aforementioned physics display.
I will say this, though - the characters have been generally written very well. In spite of the hints that the game gives away (which are far more obvious than in the first two games) there's still a lot of depth to the characters. Eric and Mira are associated with the words FOOL and KILL, respectively - pretty clearly Mira is gonna off Eric. "How" is not important. "Why" is fascinating, if incredibly disturbing. In contrast, we've got Eric being quick to temper - in fact, to any mood swing - and at first, he's this game's Dio. Upon revelation of his backstory, I did a 180. Suddenly, I'm feeling sorry for him. But then he picks up a shotgun (several times) and all that is out the window. He does a good one-half-of-an-antihero, and of course he's not the only one. I won't touch on the other characters but they're all pretty much in the same boat. Even Sigma, Phi, Akane, and Junpei get some pretty intense character development (the latter oh so much, even before the game starts).
Finally, it's definitely worth discussing major themes in the game (major spoilers). Despite the return of Junpei and Akane, morphogenetic field theory is briefly mentioned but mostly discarded. The game chooses instead to pick up where VLR left off and discuss in greater depth the notion of being able to send your consciousness across time and timelines - known as the ability to SHIFT. I appreciate the lengths that the game goes to in order to deconstruct this idea. The main idea is that when a SHIFTer is faced with imminent, life-threatening danger - like axes and chainsaws and crossbows and... - they can access this ability and swap consciousnesses with another version of themselves in another timeline, whatever they're doing. Problem is, if you're effectively swapping consciousnesses with another version of you, what happens to (the consciousness of) the poor sucker you switch with? Half a second of chainsaw noise, then lots of blood. The final moral dilemma of the game discusses this exact point in a nifty way - if you've found a way to effectively make your consciousness immortal, would you make all your other consciousnesses die (probably) horrible deaths? Of course, to complete the game fully you need to explore both halves of that dilemma. Being a Zero Escape game, there are a handful of other ideas in science fiction thrown around as well - the butterfly effect is shown in an extreme case (a single snail killing six billion people), mind-reading and mind-control are displayed throughout the game, and of course there's a robot and a brief discussion about the human that the robot was based on. Oh, and a form of time-travel - to the point where we fully learn of the relationship between Sigma and Phi. One thing I enjoyed about this game, compared to its prequels, was that the game was just about the right length (~15h) to discuss these ideas and not be too drawn-out, but leave the player (reader? viewer?) wanting just a little more, real-world discussion time.
Where to from here?
- Graphics: 5/10 Honestly, the devs should have stuck with 2D. The only thing that really spoils the game.
- Sound: 8/10 I've long preferred Japanese voice acting over English, but the English dub is (mostly) passable. The soundtrack is also rather good, as with 999 and VLR.
- Playability: 7/10 Again, the puzzles are up to scratch, and there's been an improvement in terms of dialogue. The cutscenes still don't quite feel right.
- Lastability: 7/10 If you don't have a strong stomach, you won't play this game for long. Otherwise, the completionist in you will probably unlock.
- Plot: 8/10 The slightly unbelievable science fiction elements present throughout the series come to a head in this game.
- Overall: 35/50 = 7/10 A gorier and weirder end to an already gory and weird series.
Oh, yes. With this information, surely some of you at this point are thinking, "How can I kill six people..."
1 Although it's given me an excuse to use - and re-use - a nifty bit of wordplay: "this game takes the term acid wash far, far too literally". Cue the groans, both of disgust and of pun.
2 This is debatable. It's certainly an anagram, but whether or not it was a deliberate move on Aksys Games' part is not known. I'm convinced it wasn't because the anagram in question - "Me? I'm Zero, I'm Delta" - is very clunky, especially compared to the other anagrams. The game's Japanese title translates simply to "Time Dilemma", and I conjecture that all Aksys did was tack the word "Zero" on to it. Without the "Zero", the anagram(s) become even clunkier.