At the start of Zero Time Dilemma, the player is asked to predict the outcome of a coin toss. Should you guess correctly, the game ends abruptly. All nine protagonists are released from the death trap-filled bomb shelter in which they’ve been imprisoned, leaving the game’s many philosophical and moral questions not only unanswered, but unasked. This is, of course, the titular dilemma, and it’s one that sneakily questions the nature of “happy” endings, as it dares players to explore a deadlier alternative scenario if they want to actually experience the game. As with the previous two installments of the Zero Escape trilogy (9 Hours, 9 Persons, 9 Doors and Virtue’s Last Reward), the familiar trappings of a visual choose-your-own-adventure novel are used to demonstrate the complex many-worlds interpretation (MWI), just as mathematicians once used the game show Let’s Make a Deal to debate the statistical merits of the Monty Hall problem.
The way in which Zero Time Dilemma uses overlapping narratives and divergent timelines to actively explore concepts like the Sleeping Beauty problem and anthropic principle is engaging. But such theories are also likely to make players acutely aware of the fact that if there’s a “best possible world” out there, this version of Zero Time Dilemma is merely in a “pretty good” one. Animated cutscenes, which replace the flat text boxes from VLR, help to make the experience of playing the game more cinematic, but they also call attention to Zero Time Dilemma’s threadbare and muted graphics, especially in some of the game’s deadlier showdowns.
Splitting the narrative across three sets of three protagonists helps players to more quickly bond with each character, but the limited cast also quickly exhausts conversation topics. Eric is defined almost entirely by the love he professes for Mira, and Q, a strange boy with a locked helmet around his head, is ill-equipped to form deep emotional bonds with his companions. Akane and Junpei (from 999) and Phi and Sigma (from VLR) have preexisting relationships, but you wouldn’t really know it from Zero Time Dilemma.
Instead of moving forward with the information longtime fans already have about these characters and their extraordinary abilities, the game caters to series newcomers. This creates a bit of a dissonance between the hard work being done to close the loop on the trilogy’s past and the secrets still being held in the future by newcomers like Carlos, a firefighter, and Diana, a nurse; imagine a sports announcer simultaneously trying to explain the rules, the in-game action, and the expected results. Moreover, with the teams kept separate, players are too easily able to distance themselves from the ramifications of the gory Saw-like “Decision Game”; it’s no wonder that the game’s strongest sections are those in which the members of each team must turn on each other in order to satisfy antagonist Zero’s conditions for unlocking the exit: that at least six participants must die.
However, Zero Time Dilemma’s most polarizing choice is how it presents these multiple timelines in fragmentary form. Every 90 minutes, the bands locked around each character’s wrist inject them with a sedative and an amnesia drug. These hard resets encourage players to use the in-game flowchart to jump around the various plots and perspectives instead of getting mired in a linear timeline; they also help to better illustrate some of the hypothetical conjectures raised by the game, especially those dealing with positional probability. On the other hand, it also leaves many of the game’s early scenes feeling like disconnected filler episodes, with the results of player decisions either deliberately withheld or abstracted by each team’s lack of memories. For the more self-contained vignettes, that’s okay, but far too often, especially in the repetitious first few hours, the results of player decisions are withheld, or abstracted by each character’s jarring lack of memories.
Thankfully, even when the narrative fails to drive the plot, Zero Time Dilemma’s well-designed room-escape puzzles pick up the slack. With the exception of Manufacturing’s annoying bomb-defusal minigames and the Study’s overly explained cypher, each area offers a uniquely themed series of riddles. In the Pod Room, players must reorient the various walls; in the Trash Disposal Room, players need to swap between two different, isolated characters to solve an interconnected puzzle. Deciphering the Transporter Room’s alien numerology is logic at its best, and the casino-related challenges in the Rec Room find new uses for familiar objects like playing cards. At their best, these scenes even manage to foreshadow bits of the story, as with the mannequin parts found throughout the Pantry or with the Power Room’s revelation that there are hidden cameras throughout the complex.
If only Zero Time Dilemma found a better way to tie its concepts together. As is, it feels like the third draft of a philosophy thesis: illuminating and at times vital, but also still overflowing with a surfeit of content, from epigenetics to metempsychosis. Pacing is especially problematic: The final quarter of this 24-hour game is completely devoid of puzzles. Such a lack of control threatens to gets in the way of an otherwise well-earned conclusion, as it’s hard to take a call to action seriously in the middle of a 30-minute cutscene that emphasizes (and literally demonstrates) both passivity and predestination.