‘Zero Time Dilemma’ is an engaging horror adventure
The “Zero Escape” series has earned a reputation for inflicting mental anguish on players, combining the torturous mind games of “Saw” with “Choose Your Own Adventure” books to create an experience that puts players through the wringer.
They are strange games that tackle complex theories about the paranormal and time travel, and the games refuse to break things down for easy understanding. The challenges and peculiarities have attracted a cult following. “Zero Time Dilemma,” the third entry in the series, retains those two key pillars while also serving as a more inviting and standalone title thanks to its focus on characters and its impressive non-linear structure.
The setup: The villain Zero, decked out in plague-doctor apparel, is keen on making his nine prisoners (divided into three teams of three) play twisted games to earn their survival. The prisoners are wearing bracelets that inject them with a drug that puts them to sleep and erases the last 90 minutes of their memory. Zero informs everyone that to escape, six of them must die. Each death reveals a passcode, and the final three survivors can use the passcodes to leave the facility, creating a scenario where it’s in the best interest of these teams to kill each other.
From there, the narrative plays out in non-linear fashion, with you selecting a team and a random snapshot from a “fragments” menu in order to play out a scene from somewhere in the game that features that team. You can’t tell where in the timeline you might be before you select that fragment and complete it. Fragments are usually composed of two stages: The escape phase has you trying to escape a room by solving intricate puzzles with objects that have been placed in the area, while the decision phase has you making a critical choice that results in a branch in the narrative.
The structure is confusing. It shouldn’t work, but it does in ways that are constantly surprising and a joy to discover. Even earning a “bad” ending feels like you’re making progress because of how the story is presented and how easy it is to dive back to a critical choice and see how it can play out differently.
“Zero Time Dilemma” works best when it’s at its weirdest, forcing players down strange narrative alleyways or making them scratch their heads over vexing puzzles. That said, a number of small aggravations diminish the charm. For instance, the escape-the-room phases have you searching the environment for necessary objects, but sometimes they are unreasonably tiny.
The aggravations do little to damage “Zero Time Dilemma” when it lets you take control of the interactive story in engaging and memorable ways. The final chapter of the “Zero Escape” series is an excellent horror adventure both for fans and newcomers, allowing them to be storytellers in addition to players, defying time and fate to create their own twisted labyrinths.
Zero Time Dilemma
Concept: Escape booby-trapped rooms and make hard decisions in this conclusion to the cult-favorite “Zero Escape” series.
Platform: 3DS | Vita | PC
Graphics: Character animations and environments are impressive, though clothing textures on characters are muddled.
Sound: The superb voice acting is often drowned out by loud background music on default settings, but you can tweak that with the volume slider.
Playability: The interface for the escape-the-room segments is easy to use, but puzzles can get taxing when you have to search every inch of a room for a necessary item.
Entertainment: Difficult puzzles and a bold, non-linear story structure will challenge your mind, and difficult moral decisions will test your heart.