Platforms: PC (reviewed), 3DS, Vita

There is an old saying: “there are no bad ideas, just good ideas that go wrong.” It’s a quote that has been paraphrased in 30 Rock and The Vampire Diaries and plastered on motivational posters everywhere, all to get us to think that even the most insane and crazy idea can be somehow done right.

Zero Time Dilemma is proof of this notion. On paper, it sounds like a bad idea. Heck, pitching the game to a friend sounds like you are describing some guy’s hallucinogenic fever dream had after a night of hardcore physics cramming during a Saw marathon. But it is so well crafted that it manages to be one of the most enjoyable gaming experiences released in this generation, despite its bonkers premise.

Murder, Time Travel, and Amnesia

Zero Time Dilemma’s greatest strength is its plot, which is, once again, hard to pitch not only because of its complexity, but also because the slightest spoiler could ruin the experience. The game is effectively a mystery, and putting together plot elements is part of the experience, so any spoilers would also be a sort of accidental walkthrough. So bear with me as I give you the barebones of it all.

Nine people decide to volunteer for an experiment meant simulate the social conditions of the first manned mission to Mars. They were to be locked inside of a compound in the middle of the desert, isolated from all outside contact. But before the experiment concludes, the nine volunteers wake up in an underground bomb shelter with strange devices strapped to their wrists. There they meet Zero, a strange man in a plague-doctor mask who gives them an ultimatum. Flip a coin. Call it in the air. If you are right, you are all free to go. If you are wrong, then you stay locked in the shelter until six people die.

Now here’s the hook. That coinflip, it’s actually random. You do have a chance to just guess correctly and waltz out of the compound. Roll credits.

But, that’s the problem. There is no game if you guess correctly. So you’ll go back and make the characters guess wrong. What follows is an incredibly mind twisting tale of torture, as all nine characters progress through gory torture-puzzles designed to kill them once by one, in the hopes that they can escape. It’s then that the game gets meta, as certain characters realize they have the ability to see and even transport themselves into different timelines. They then use this information to try and outsmart Zero and find a way out of the compound in at least one timeline.

There’s just one other catch. That device strapped to their wrist? It limits their memories to 90 minute intervals. Every 90 minutes, it injects an anesthetic and an amnesiac into their blood stream, causing them to pass out and wake up with no recollection of what they just did. You, as the player, share this experience since you can only progress the story through selecting “fragments” from the menu screen. These fragments can take place any time during the game’s timeline. Completing a fragment will map it out chronologically in relation to other completed fragments, but still won’t tell you exactly when they happen. To figure that out, you need to piece together the evidence you find in each fragment, which is difficult because the characters will largely forget everything they have done in prior fragments.

This makes the whole game a puzzle. You can’t just passively enjoy story cutscenes. You have to constantly put the clues together as you watch. But that’s what makes it so interesting; you are constantly involved in everything the game has to show you. As characters talk, you will find yourself writing down passwords and solving math equations. In fact, you’ll routinely encounter roadblock puzzles that can only be solved by getting information from other fragments. Even choosing which fragment to hop to next becomes a puzzle, and your only clue is a screenshot of the events that occur.

Also there’s time travel, alien technology, a viral outbreak, a serial killer, robots, quantum computers, and even some spooky meta-storytelling that involves you, the player, in the plot as a character. I told you the narrative was bonkers.

Escape the Room

The more “traditional” gameplay of Zero Time Dilemma can be described as “escape the room” puzzles. Each fragment finds our protagonists waking up in a new locked room in the shelter and you have to figure out how put together whatever is at your disposal to escape. Open a drawer to find a hammer. Use the hammer to break some glass holding a note. Read the note to find a passcode. Enter the passcode into a computer to shine a laser at a mirror to light a rope on fire to drop a weight onto a lever that lifts up a hatch that holds a key... You get the idea.

Each puzzle is pretty much self-contained save for one or two clues that shed light on the greater puzzle that is the plot – a “meta-puzzle” if you will. None are too easy or too hard and they all come together in these nifty little “Eureka!” moments when you figure out what two items to rub against each other to make progress. Most of the puzzles are too big and complex to be brute-forced, especially since some include an element of randomness which seems to be the game’s overall theme.

After each puzzle you are usually given another micro-puzzle or a simple decision which tends to decide whether or not certain characters live or die. Most of these puzzles are based around mathematic and philosophical theories, such as the Monty Hall Problem, the Anthropic Principle, or the Trolley Problem. Usually a character will explain the theorem to you, making the solution obvious, though you can usually get an achievement for solving these puzzles without help. Unlike the “escape the room puzzles”, these micro-puzzles aren’t really a “win or lose” situation. Rather, success or failure splits the timeline and opens up yet more fragments to experience. To beat the game you’ll inevitably have to both succeed and fail at these puzzles multiple times, so they are more like a neat tangential learning experience.

It’s hard to describe what makes Zero Time Dilemma so amazing because of the dire need to avoid spoilers, but trust me it is. The plot twists never stop coming. The characters become more and more interesting as their assorted backstories become revealed. If you are an old fan of the Zero Escape franchise, you’ll be happy to know that Junpei and Akane from 999 and Sigma and Phi from Virtue’s Last Reward are part of the main cast as well, and that Zero Time Dilemma wraps up many dangling plot threads from the previous two games. This was a game that I started playing as soon as it was released, and only stopped playing when I had beaten it. I played an entire day, slept, woke up, and played some more, clocking in 21 hours in just two days! It’s that addictive.

Technical Drawbacks

While nearly perfect, Zero Time Dilemma does have some flaws, but what flaws you encounter will mainly be a function of what version you picked up. The DS version suffers from some pretty hefty slowdowns since it’s the weakest platform available, but otherwise is fine.

The PC version is perhaps the worst version available. The port feels kind of sloppy and rushed. It’s clear it was designed for a touch screen and not a keyboard and mouse. For example, you can’t use your keyboard to type in passwords. Instead you have to click letters on the screen. The backspace button works as a delete function, however. You also have to click and drag your point of view around a room, which makes sense when using a stylus, but with a keyboard and mouse you expect the room to auto-move when your mouse hits the boundaries of the screen.

The graphics are another thing that will vary wildly depending on platform. On the Vita and DS, they are probably some of the most impressive graphics you’ll see on the respective platforms. On the PC, they pale in comparison to other comparably priced titles. They run in a smooth 60FPS, but models come across as jagged and animations feel stiff. It was ambitious to create a puzzle/visual-novel style game where everything (and I mean everything) is voice acted/animated, but it’s clear which platform this was developed for. 

There are a lot of other problems with the PC version. It’s not stable, for one. I had several crashes over the course of my playthrough, and many glitches including animations bugging out and audio simply dropping. Controller buttons are always shown, even if you don’t plug one in. To figure out keyboard and mouse controls you have to go into a separate help window. Heck, the “exit” button isn’t even obvious. It’s tucked away in the Save menu. This, of course, isn’t an issue when you play the game on a handheld and can just turn the power off, but on the PC you’ll likely end up using task manager to end the game more than once.

All things considered, the Vita version is probably the best version of Zero Time Dilemma. The graphics look great. The controls are perfect. The game is stable. The only problem is, you have to own a Vita, and that’s easily the smallest market out of the three platforms it’s available on.

But despite these flaws, Zero Time Dilemma is an absolute treat to play. I played the PC version and I still hardlined it from start to finish, crashes and all. It might have one of the best plots I have seen in this generation of gaming. It’s smart, well written, interesting, and constantly interactive. Its intelligent discussions about game theory and quantum physics are broken up by terrifying execution scenes and intriguing tidbits of the meta-plot. It is crafted to keep you playing and it works. There are few other games that will keep you glued to the screen as much as Zero Time Dilemma will.