Narrative-heavy games always have a particular set of challenges to overcome to bridge a gap that makes them worth a player’s time. The story has to be good enough to carry a lack of actual gameplay elements without overdoing it and collapsing upon itself. Furthermore, the gameplay elements that are present have to be meaningful and interesting enough to maintain engagement without weighing down the story in something too meddlesome or extraneous. For Zero Escape, a series that has previously seemed to delight in the convoluted, balancing story and gameplay has been hit or miss. Thankfully, the third game in the series, Zero Time Dilemma, is an adventure full of disturbing and compelling twists and turns with gameplay to make it interesting and inviting, even if you haven’t followed the series from the very beginning.

The story opens on a remote bunker where nine individuals are held captive without any memory of where they are or how they got there. An ominous figure quickly arrives and informs them that they have all been chosen to participate in a game. They will only be allowed to escape if six of them die, after which passwords will be revealed that can be fed to the only door that will allow them to exit from the facility. To make matters worse, the nine individuals are split into three teams scattered in three wards of the facility and are almost entirely isolated from one another. From there on, the individual, who introduces itself as Zero, engages the teams in a series of trials that push their propensities for trust and betrayal to horrifying extremes.

Spike Chunsoft

Zero Time Dilemma is a game that treats players who have followed the series to quite a few nods of the previous entries. Fans will recognize Junpei and Akane from the first game as well as Phi and Sigma from the second game and there are numerous moments that reference previous events in the series. That said, these events don’t have a drastic effect on the story at hand. They mostly provide a little contextual backdrop and are used fairly well to fill out the personalities, backgrounds and motivations of each individual. The only time this is unfortunate is when, occasionally in the midst of a stressful scenario, characters will go on long expository diatribes. There’s points where character exposition or technical jargon regarding something that is going on or has happened feels a bit like verbal diarrhea and just slightly out of place. Thankfully, the game often has enough sense to pull its unfortunate protagonists kicking and screaming back into the fray to put the tension right back on target.

The game is split up between two primary forms of play between narrative moments. The first is critical decisions. Most of the time you’re following one team in an event and these are points where the game’s path diverge based on a key decision made by the team being handled in the event. These range from moments that affect the team itself or key individuals or can drastically alter the course of one to all three of the teams. Even further, making a bad decision doesn’t necessarily end in a game over. Sometimes, despite a death or several, the story continues along a certain path that allows some insight into how the story carries on without the deceased as active members of the story. The overall narrative has an almost dizzying array of paths, but when you’ve figured it out, it all comes together in a rather unique and cohesive way that lets players see the story from almost all angles.

Spike Chunsoft

The second form of gameplay involves environmental puzzle solving. Several times throughout the story, players will find themselves trapped within a room. At these points, the player is tasked with examining the room thoroughly for clues and obtainable items that will allow them to solve a progressing stream of puzzles that will allow them to read the room. At times, these puzzles can be almost frustrating as they rely on the player exploring practically every nook and cranny of observable space and having the sense to put everything together in a row as the proper linking parts of the whole are discovered. Occasionally these can take up a bit too much time, but they are contextually appropriate and once you’ve got the answer, the puzzles feel like something that belong in this game. One particular puzzle had us exploring several presumably fake severed body parts in order to put it all together. The outcome turned out to be a much less than favorable result for one of our team members.

It leads to a very notable point. Zero Time Dilemma is quite gruesome at times – not just emotionally, but viscerally as well. This is the first game to have 3D character models acting out the entire display and their actions and reactions when things go off the rails – and they will – are something genuinely disturbing. There’s a point in the game where a decision causes acid to spray out upon the unlucky participants unfortunate enough not to pass a trial. The game isn’t gruesome enough to let you see the whole display, but the sounds and implications are quite horrendous. More than that, the emotional reactions of the survivors are appropriately more unhinged as a result. This is the kind of stuff that fans of psychological thrillers and slashers of yesteryear will embrace wholeheartedly. Unfortunately for others, there are certain elements of the game that making seeing some of these unfortunate ends unavoidable. They’re not all as disturbing as the aforementioned scene, but they each often contain some sort of stomach churning consequence.

Spike Chunsoft

That said, there’s an element to this game that makes it very interesting. Most of the game is split up into these brief moments where you pick and play one team or another. The scene is spread out along a web mentioned earlier and you can freely stop a scene and jump to another available option at your leisure. This is more than a convenience. It’s actually considered within the story. The game goes to quite the depth to explain it, but essentially the characters experience events from bad end timelines as premonitions of what could have happened. The importance of this is that sometimes clues are hidden within certain paths that will illuminate an otherwise unanswerable puzzle within the desired route. It’s a somewhat clever way of getting players to see the bad along with the good, although sometimes the arrangement of events in the web can be frustratingly vague. Each team’s events is presented as a pool of screenshots the player can choose from and sometimes there’s no way of knowing which path you’re taking until you’ve committed to one. Occasionally this can make trying to follow a continuing narrative you were interested in difficult.

Zero Escape: Zero Time Dilemma is a powerful game. The player controls all teams at all times, for better and for worse, and this leads to a bevy of perspectives and outcomes both relieving and horribly disturbing. It allows for countless opportunities to see into the minds and hearts of each character as they’re each presented with joyful survival and devastating failure. Moreover, it’s a game that offers numerous nods that fans of the series will enjoy while inviting rather than isolating newcomers. Its narrative and puzzles can occasionally be long-winded and a bit too time consuming, but it still stands out as one of the more gripping narrative driven games we’ve played. Just be aware: before the moment of final escape, there will be blood and tears.

This review is based on a digital copy of Zero Time Dilemma provided by the publisher for Nintendo 3DS.