Often popping up on lists of obscure games worth trying out is a strange little visual novel called Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors, abbreviated as 999. It was one of the few adult-themed games on the DS it called home, not receiving much attention until well after release. Oddly enough, it wasn’t until Aksys Games brought the game to the US that it started to pick up in popularity. A sequel was released on 3DS and PS Vita in 2012 called Zero Escape: Virtue’s Last Reward.
Once again, the game was successful in the US, but sold poorly in Japan. The series is set to return in June 2016 with Zero Time Dilemma, once again on the 3DS and PS Vita, with a Windows release a few days later. After a four year hiatus, fans have been waiting for this one, elaborating on the story with a midquel.
Note that I’ll be reviewing Zero Time Dilemma as someone who knows next to nothing about the series. I do know that there are characters in those games that are in the newest entry, but I’ll be playing this one mostly blind, with minor research here and there. Lucky for me, Zero Time Dilemma was designed with players like me in mind, while still providing excellent depth for long time fans.
Zero Time Dilemma is an interesting entry that deviates a bit from the main series. While the prior games were traditional visual novels, Zero Time Dilemma is closer to something from Telltale Games. Cutscenes are fully voiced and staged in basic environments with anime stylized character models. The animations are a bit lacking, focusing instead on the context of situations, moral implications, and writing overall. Even with these average visuals, the plot immediately draws in its players, not letting go and sticking with them beyond each play session.
The best comparison to Zero Time Dilemma as a whole is to the Saw series of films. Basically, there’s a group of characters who are put underground in a facility where their human natures are steadily revealed through challenges, guided by a mysterious masked figure with an altered voice named Zero. Players will be unraveling a web of storylines, created by branching decisions, which can be choosing between two things, or as complex as entering a choice into a keyboard. These choices directly affect the story, but jumping back to make a different decision is easy with the game’s interface.
Aside from watching scenes unfold and making choices, gameplay also includes Escape-the-Room style puzzles. These puzzles are taxing on the mind, but I rarely found myself stumped. The way they are designed eventually leads a logical person to come up with the solution. It’s wild how I found myself poking around blindly, while the complexities of the puzzle slowly unfolded in ways that were interesting. This made for some great “Ah ha!” moments.
Plot wise, it’s best to know as little as possible about Zero Time Dilemma. Spoiling the intricate plot of these poor souls would sour the experience. Even several hours into my playthrough, there seems to be tons that I want to know about the characters and the world they live in. The story’s layout with the Global web and the Fragments coaxed me into experimenting with choices, just to see what happens. This also adds some level of replayability, but after watching all the scenes, I would imagine there would be little reason to play through again.
This brings me to an interesting epiphany about Zero Time Dilemma. It’s an experience best shared.
I’ve been playing on the Playstation Vita, with my wife looking over my shoulder on occasion. With her around, I could talk about what’s going on, and it made the twists of the story that much more exciting. Therefore, the best way to play this game would be with a group of people with a Playstation TV, with everyone shouting out what decision to make and solving puzzles as a group. It would be wild fun!
Now, with its high points, Zero Time Dilemma is by no means a perfect game. Several moments in the story would’ve been more impactful with smoother animations. Certain actions lack life and can feel choppy. I also would loved to explore my surroundings a bit, aside from the puzzles. The game maps out the facility in great detail, but much of it goes unseen. Being able to interact with that would’ve made the narrative more gripping.
All in all, diving into Zero Time Dilemma is something I don’t regret. I was immediately struck by the dire situation these characters were put in. The voice acting isn’t the best the industry has seen, but for a handheld game it’s not bad and makes for some memorable moments. The puzzles and plot have a tendency to stick around, well after stopping for the night, often keeping me up at night come to think of it. . .
Now to take a step back and see what the other games in the series were like, but for a newcomer, Zero Time Dilemma was a good place to start.