Sat. Feb 4th, 2023
Here is your latest masked mystery character.

Here is your latest masked mystery character.

The Nonary Game is back for the third (and presumably last) time, with the familiar structure and tropes of previous games 999 and Virtue’s final reward. If you’re not familiar with the Nonary Game – or the strange-sounding titles I just mentioned – prepare for some spoilers ahead Zero Time Dilemmapredecessors in the No escape franchise.

In fact, “spoilers” are an integral part of it Zero Time Dilemma. As in the previous two games, the mystery is structured as a series of interlocking timelines: branching decision paths that can be accessed and then evaded via the convenient metaphysical explanation of psychological time travel. The plot of Zero Time Dilemma‘s visual-novel-meets-adventure game sees our nine heroes hopping from one untimely end to the next – searching for clues that don’t add up about why they’re where they are.

This time the “where” is a seemingly abandoned nuclear bunker. A cast of new and returning over-20s terribly good at puzzles by Zero, the Jigsaw-like tormentor whose identity changes between games.

Drowning in a sea of ​​exhibits

Loyal to the No escape games of yesteryear, Circumstances and Zero’s rules split the nine characters into three teams, each vaguely seeming to represent a different point in the franchise.

Akane and a much changed Junpei return from 999; Phi and Sigma’s VLR; and a trio of all-new cast members make up the third team. The game really kicks off when Zero forces the three teams to vote for which of the others will die, starting six divergent timelines based on the voting results. The vast majority of these timelines lead to bad and bloody endings for whichever team you control.

If it sounds like I’m spending a lot of time setting it up, trust me when I say this is the short version. Zero Time Dilemma can be incredibly laborious, weighed down not only by its own hefty plot, but also by dense explanations of its psychic time-traveling powers. Like its predecessors, Zero Time Dilemma is a game in which expressions such as “quantum superposition” and “the morphogenetic field” appear as common mechanics.

Just like in those previous games, however, Zero Time Dilemma does a fantastic job of making the characters feel entrenched in the sea of ​​techno-babble, thanks to everything from candid and natural discussions about everyday life to a long section on how Back to the future is actually a pretty dark movie. The Japanese writers and the localization team at Aksys Games have teamed up to create a horrifying, charming, and often amusing final product.

Mixing things up, for better or for worse

Unlike many visual novels, there is basically something to do between exposition and the decisions about splitting the timeline. I am, of course, referring to the “escape quarter” of No escape.

Each team is forced into absurd life-or-death puzzles, as usual in the series. Obstacles run the gamut from effortlessly sliding tile tricks to real brainteasers that will keep you locked in for a while. Really to resolve the puzzles are as satisfying as they are meant to be, and I only found one that felt like a cheesy trial and error affair. More than a few puzzles had me pulling out a pen and paper to track my progress.

Of course, some players have a much harder time with the puzzles, depending on their familiarity with puzzles in general and the twisted logic of No escape‘s designers. I’ve long maintained that there’s no shame in working your way past these barriers to get to the many storylines that form the core of the game. That is, don’t sweat yourself with the help of a guide on the little things.

The big things come courtesy of the decisions you make after completing each puzzle. This time, Zero has added another wrinkle to the classic Nonary Game, renaming it “the Decision Game” in the process. Many of those post-puzzle decisions come down to simply deciding who lives and who dies, but more of them have their own puzzle-like logic to figure out. For example, you may need to decide which of several vials are filled with an antidote to the poison you have just been injected with.

Crumpling the formula further is my absolute least favorite addition to the No escape formula: random chance. The developers have said they want Zero Time Dilemma to reflect the unfairness of life. That idea plays out nicely in the plot, especially towards the end of the game, where the ethics of our cast’s particular form of time travel is questioned.

It is much less successful during the decision sections. That’s because it’s really complete Zero Time Dilemma means seeing each branch end (or at least the vast majority), while gaining new insights and information from previous branches. However, by completely or partially randomizing many branches, the game forces you to slog through those branches a second time, simply hoping for another random outcome to see the new conclusion.

This is not a enormous waste of time, since as in Virtue’s final reward, the game automatically lets you fast-forward past any dialogue you’ve already heard (thank goodness). However, it’s still more of a hassle than seems necessary for a complete playthrough.

Zero Time DilemmaThe second major change is much more satisfying. As dramatic convention would have it, this time Zero uses its contestants to erase their memories between escape rooms. Mechanically, this splits the game into “snippets” that players can work through in any order, meaning that both players and the cast often have no idea when or in what timeline a specific segment takes place.

This design has two major consequences. The first is a greater sense of mystery. Only at the end of each fragment does anyone know where a particular piece fits into the larger jigsaw puzzle. The second effect is that characters regularly repeat the same revelations. That may sound tedious, but in a story as intricately woven as Zero Time Dilemmais it nice to have important information driving home time after time.

Just good enough to make you want to play the first two again

Of Zero Time DilemmaChime’s developers had the unenviable task of coming up with yet another plot twist in the final act that justifies not only the setting, but also the new game mechanics. This is especially difficult in a story where most of the cast already considers time travel to be no big deal.

Without giving anything away, I’ll say that the final twist isn’t my favorite late game reveal of the franchise. Still, it ties most, but by no means all, of the threads that got stuck through the first two games. The real problem is that, even when compared to 999 and VLR, the late game surprise feels cheap. It’s like the developers couldn’t find a way to wrap things up with their existing fiction and put in new rules at the last minute to wrap things up.

Compared to the previous two No escape spell, Zero Time Dilemma definitely on the bottom. Aside from the relatively weak conclusion and annoying random number generators, the game has a “look and feel” that doesn’t appeal to me like the first two games did. Gone is the delicate 2D art of 999 and the soft-edged 3D models Virtue’s final reward. Instead of, Zero Time Dilemma uses rough, pseudo-cell shading that just looks bad in places.

And while the interpersonal dialogue is still strong, it doesn’t hit the same highs as the second game in the series. It’s particularly notable that this newer, more neutral Zero had the admittedly difficult job of following up on a sadistic, hyperactive AI modeled after a rabbit.

No escape still gets credit for doing something not very common for games released in the West – and doing it incredibly well to boot. But time since then 999 hit the scene has also given us games like Danganronpaa series that does many of the same things much more smoothly (albeit with a terribly different tone).

As the conclusion of this chapter of No escape (and arguably the last game of the franchise) Zero Time Dilemma is far better than a usable finale. That doesn’t mean it reaches the same crushing crescendos of sci-fi bewilderment that the series achieved in the past.

The good

  • A gripping thriller with many twists and turns left in the tank
  • Tons of interesting characters you’ll want to see succeed – and fail – in the game’s twisting plot
  • Puzzles are well designed and satisfying if they don’t rely on chance

The bad

  • Compared to the last two games, Zero Time Dilemma sometimes downright ugly
  • Our newest Zero isn’t quite the villain that its predecessor was – not even close
  • Random puzzles mean you have to repeat certain sections more than you already have to

The ugly one

  • Staying up until 5am, trying to unlock the next suit, only to realize chance was holding you back

Verdict: You definitely want this if you liked the previous games, but newcomers should at least play it Virtue’s final reward first.

By akfire1

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