Unless you follow your visual novels closely, the odds are you may not be too familiar with the Zero Escape series. Debuting on the DS with 999: Nine Persons, Nine Hours, Nine Doors, the game became a cult smash, leading to a 3DS/PS Vita sequel, Virtue's Last Reward. Effectively interactive stories, along the lines of a choose your own adventure novel, the games tow the line somewhere between sci-fi, horror and mystery, with some philosophy and supernatural intrigue thrown in for good measure. Filled with choices that can alter the course of the story - and cause it to branch towards different endings - they're games that are designed to be played over and over, as you try out different options each time, with each path sowing the seeds for a final, true ending that ties up all the loose ends.
For those that like their games with lots of story though, the Zero Escape games are pretty much essential playing, up there with the likes of school kid murder mystery Danganronpa. Which is why visual novel fans were thrown into disarray following the release of Virtue's Last Reward, when it was announced that the third entry in the series had been cancelled, due to the series' poor performance in it's native Japan! Given that the games were always conceived as being part of a trilogy, that meant there were more than a few gigantic plot holes and question marks that were threatening to never be answered, much to fans' (and our!) disappointment. Until now.
Promising to pick up where the earlier games left off, Zero Escape 3: Zero Time Dilemma is set in a mysterious Mars testing facility, where, to be as non-spoilery as possible, some things have happened. Presumably the story will be following on directly from the events of Virtue's Last Reward, despite being set decades in the past - a juxtaposition which may sound a bit crazy if you haven't played either of its forebears, but which actually does make sense with the game's plot - assuming you managed to make sense of Virtue's Last Reward's true ending, anyway.
As is now tradition, Zero Escape 3 tells the tale of nine folks, who awake to find themselves trapped together in an underground bunker, with an unusual bracelet fixed to their wrist. In order to escape, they must play a game of life and death. A game which has the entire fate of humanity, all eight billion of them, resting on it's outcome.
Split into three different teams, each trapped in a different part of the facility, the aim of the game is to make your way to the X Door in the centre, which just happens to be the way out. But the path to said door is likely to be a complicated one, and we imagine you'll have to make your way through a number of locked rooms to get there, each filled with fiendish puzzles. Then there's the small matter of the fact the X Door is locked, and requires six passwords to open; passwords which can only be obtained through someone's death. With a dark, foreboding, and oppressive atmosphere, the game looks set to very quickly turn into one of survival, as it falls to you to decide whether to try to search for an alternate way out, or play the game as normal, even if that means killing your team mates to get the codes - all while hoping that none of your companions crack under the pressure, and do the same to you.
But that's not the only way Zero Time Dilemma puts you on the spot - throughout the game it sounds like there's going to be all kinds of hard decisions to make; decisions which could easily end in the death of a team mate. For example, one room sees two familiar faces from Virtue's Last Reward in trouble - protagonist Sigma sits locked into a chair, while the stony Phi finds herself locked inside an incinerator - and newcomer Diana is presented with a difficult choice. The gun next to Sigma's head has three live rounds and three blanks, and in order to shut down the incinerator and stop Phi being burnt to a crisp, she needs to pull the trigger. There's a 50/50 chance that by doing this, she'll kill Sigma - but if she dithers too long, the incinerator will start and kill Phi anyway - so what do you do? Apparently there's real randomness built into some of the decisions too, so when you pull the trigger, there's no way of knowing whether Sigma will live or die each time.
Speaking of Sigma and Phi, both 999 and Virtue's Last Reward were very much about following the tale of one guy, as he got to know his companions, solved fiendish locked room puzzles and generally tried to escape from the facilities in one piece. Originally, Zero Time Dilemma was to follow the same formula, following the story of returning protagonist Sigma, from Virtue's Last Reward, as him and Phi (also from Virtue's Last Reward) willingly enter the facility, and get involved in the deadly game, hoping to save mankind (it's a long story...). However, given his knowledge of the events surrounding this new nonary game, the developers decided it might be a bit too spoilerific for folks who've yet to play the previous games in the series, and believed a protagonist change was in order - or three.
We're imagining this means that there'll be one 'main' character in each of the three teams trapped in the facility - in the case of the Sigma/Phi group, we already know things are to be focused more around the new girl, Diana, instead, as she knows about as much about the situation as any new player will. For the remaining two teams, newcomer Carlos is another main character, as he's paired up with 999's main characters, Junpei and Akane, who'll likely be in the know about what's going on too, while the amnesiac child Q, whose head is locked into a mysterious giant helmet, is the final protagonist, in a team with a young couple, Mira and Eric.
The way Zero Time Dilemma approaches it's story will also be different this time round, with the developers taking a decidedly non-linear approach to the tale. For starters, you'll be able to switch between each of the teams throughout the story, with each of their separate tales running concurrently alongside each other. But the main hook this time round is that each of the bracelets the participants wear contain a drug that gets injected into their arms at 90 minute intervals, and causes them to black out and lose all their memories, effectively having to work things out all over again. Because of this, no-one has a clue what's going on or where they are, or even what's happened before, which feeds directly into the new 'fragment' story structure. Essentially, the larger story is split into chunks, and such chunks can be, and generally are, played out of order, gradually piecing together the tale and filling in the gaps as you play. For example, you may play one fragment and find that there's only two characters left in a team, with little to no explanation as to what happened to the third, then, later, you'll play the scene that technically came before, and find out what went wrong. It sounds a little confusing on paper, and indeed it's intended to be to reflect the participants' confusion too, but we're hoping it'll work in practice.
Zero Escape 3: Zero Time Dilemma will be hitting the PS Vita and 3DS in just a few short months time, on the 28th June, with a PC version via Steam in the works for some time later. While the USA, where the series has enjoyed more success, will be getting physical copies of the games, the UK will be solely a digital release, with a price yet to be announced. Why not check out the new trailer below: