The Zero Escape adventure series has earned a dedicated fanbase following the release of first Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors and then Virtue's Last Reward, successfully combining visual novel and puzzle gameplay, in particular thanks to its clever use of the former genre's penchant for multiple routes. Although its performance in Japan meant that a third game seemed unlikely, its western success thankfully encouraged publisher Aksys Games to ensure that a third game was made. Zero Time Dilemma is a fitting follow-up to those games, offering a worthy conclusion, even if it leaves a few issues and some questions remaining.
Zero Time Dilemma takes place at the end of the year 2028, a key date for those familiar to the series. Although it is not necessary for players to have gone through 999 or VLR first, it is highly recommended for players to learn more about the returning characters as well as the key themes revolving around the multiple routes. The game moves away from traditional visual novel style storytelling, instead using cinematic cutscenes to show events. With this comes a more striking visual style than prior games. Despite the initial shock, I very much grew into the style and was very happy with it by the end, even if Akane's hair had a habit of doing odd things.
As in the previous two titles, the game is all about following the possible outcomes of a game of life and/or death orchestrated by the mysterious Zero. ZTD splits the nine participants into three groups that sick together from the outset, each separated from the others. Rather than being restricted to the viewpoint of one character and encouraging players to stick with a route for as long as possible, the game takes a more scattered approach, with the routes themselves split into individual fragments and players following every group. The approach works well as players slowly understand how all the fragments tie together in first the individual routes and then the story in its entirety.
Kotaro Uchikoshi's story brings together both key characters — Akane and Junpei from 999 and Phi and Sigma from VLR — and many underlying questions from the previous two games and plays them to great effect. Certainly, there are a few questions left unanswered, with a few more also raised within the game, but Zero Time Dilemma very much concludes things in a satisfying manner. The only issue I had with the story was that the existence of one particular item feels a bit too convenient, though the effective use of it makes it more forgivable. ZTD is the darkest of the three just in terms of the amount of death and how much of it is actually shown; the game is more than happy to dish out the red stuff, which could be an issue for some. It's also noticeable that there is less amusing banter within the puzzle section, but this makes sense considering the raised stakes and darker nature of the game.
Puzzle are again enjoyable, but are quicker and not as deep as those in the previous entries. There are a few controller issues on the Vita, with the touchscreen being far too sensitive when looking around areas countered by the analogue sticks being too clunky to use when selecting specific objects to investigate. The standard complaint against many adventure games applies here in that one or two necessary items can be hard to spot and a few item combinations are not especially logical, but these times were few and far between for me and there are already answers available online for those that need them. Certain puzzles and story choices require players to do other fragments first in order to complete them fully, but it's usually apparent that there's another fragment that is yet to be done.
Shinji Hosoe's understated score is effective at complementing the scenes and enhancing the atmosphere when things start to get serious. The voice acting is generally excellent throughout as well. One complaint that could be directed against it, though, is that Zero's voice can sometimes be hard to hear, though the game is sensible enough to allow subtitles to be kept on at all times.
Despite the few nagging issues, Zero Time Dilemma is a success. While personally I enjoyed the longer puzzles of 999 and VLR more and though the gory elements sometimes feel a bit extreme, ZTD is a fitting way for the series to go, leaving things on a high note and keeping all three games together as high recommendations from me.