Crowdfunding has become a popular way of reviving old video game franchises or bringing spiritual successors to life. Given the way the market tends to skew towards this idea when a game has any sort of trouble, it is a surprise that Zero Time Dilemma was never given a crowdfunding campaign. It is also surprising that the game made it to store shelves given the rocky and tumultuous development it had. Following 2012’s Virtue’s Last Reward, development for the third Zero Escape game was rumored to have begun, but shortly after news spread of the game going into an indefinite hiatus with low sales in Japan being the reason. Fortunately, thanks to fan outcry and support, the third game went back into development and was able to be released.
As the third game of the Zero Escape series, the story is technically the middle chapter, but also allows for the narrative to finally reach a conclusion. It is of course hard to discuss the story in detail without diving into spoilers, but each action and choice you make will lead the player to the finale. How the game ends may leave fans with a mixed reaction with certain elements from 999 and Virtue’s Last Reward either being retconned or forgotten in the four years of on and off development. Major storylines from the first two games are addressed and mostly solved with some that fans will figure out early on and others that will have the player shocked in the game’s final moments. The returning characters are what you would expect with perhaps Junpei seeming the strangest at first glance. New additions Carlos, Diana, Q, Eric, and Mira offer fresh characterizations from the characters from 999 and Virtue’s Last Reward with some potentially becoming fan favorites in the future and others who are garbage and make you want to yell at your screen while playing.
One of the biggest changes that Zero Time Dilemma offers is going from the virtual novel model of storytelling when outside of puzzles to using cutscenes. Using a new style to show players how the story unfolds gives the developers more of an opportunity to play with how characters interact, react, and uncover the despair inducing events within the game. While these cutscenes give the game a more cinematic experience, it does show how much Zero Time Dilemma is pushing the PlayStation Vita and Nintendo 3DS to their limits. Graphically the game does look great on both handhelds, with the 3DS being the lesser of the two versions, but outside of puzzles, the framerate does tend to drop often when in a cutscene. There were times on the Vita version that the framerate seemed to drop to sub-30 FPS which led to some stuttered camera movement. There were also times when Akane’s hair would randomly start moving on its own. The 3DS version also does not support 3D for either the original 3DS or the New 3DS, which is not the worst feature to lose and given the supposed limited budget the game had, it is a small sacrifice to make. It does beg the question of whether or not Zero Time Dilemma would have been better suited on a home console rather than a portable one. With the amount of touch screen usage in puzzles though, it might have been their only option. It is important to note that the PC version seems to be the best version of the game as the framerate seems relatively smooth. As of 7/1/16, PlayStation TV support has not worked for the game since launch, but is supposed to be patched within the coming days.
If you are a big fan of the puzzles in the Zero Escape series, you will be happy to know that they are still here and what you would remember from the first two games. It is hard for me personally to compare the puzzles to the past two games since I played 999 via the iOS version which stripped out all of the puzzles and Virtue’s Last Reward with a walkthrough. As someone who is usually pretty terrible at puzzle games, I was able to complete this game and all the puzzles with only having to look up a solution a handful of times. Perhaps that means the puzzles are easier in Zero Time Dilemma, but each one was unique and different from the rest, even if some were very frustrating like the block puzzle in the Pod Room. Weirdly, considering I usually do not touch puzzle games, completing this game was immensely satisfying. Perhaps it was the fact that I was slightly intimidated given the heavy puzzle nature of these games, but to be able to walk away knowing I beat everything the game threw at me was highly rewarding. For veterans of the Zero Escape series, they might not get the same satisfaction that I did, but know that it is possible to beat the game if you are terrible at puzzle games. Just don’t make this your first Zero Escape game as nothing will make sense.
Often, when games are brought back from the brink of cancellation, the end result is less than ideal. While still having some technical and overall story issues, Zero Time Dilemma brings and emotionally packed experience filled with mind boggling puzzles. It is a game that could have never seen the light of day or been a horrible train wreck, but it was released and succeeded in more ways than one. It will be sad to see the Zero Escape series come to an end, but perhaps we are one step closer to what Danganronpa writer/director Kazutaka Kodaka proposed, a project working together with Zero Escape writer/director Kotaro Uchikoshi. For fans of the first two games, they will feel at home with Zero Time Dilemma and be able to finally achieve some resolution for their favorite characters.