I haven't really been playing all that much, admittedly. Since picking up a 64GB PS Vita memory card I've spent far too much time organising downloads for a bunch of previously deleted games, scavenging for old saves (this was less successful) and shifting whatever content I'd managed to back up over the years from a computer back on to memory card.
Among all the micromanagement I did manage to play something - Zero Time Dilemma weighing 1GB meant it was still on my old 16GB memory card, and thus ready to go. And...it's quite a departure to what came before it, just in ways which don't seem immediately obvious.
It's still a narrative driven experience interspersed with bouts of point and click puzzling, but its differences change how it fundamentally presents its story to the player, right down to each and every scenario. And it's why I shied away from calling it a visual novel in the previous sentence, as I would have done for its predecessors, 9 Hours, 9 Persons, 9 Doors and Virtue's Last Reward.
Unlike those games' first person narratives, Zero Time Dilemma is presented entirely in third person, with animated cutscenes replacing simple text screens and dialogue-in-textboxes.
This shift in narration is certainly unexpected given the series' visual novel roots. But the problem lies in the execution. 999 only had lines of text and simple sprites to work with, so it practically lived or died solely on the basis of its vivid writing.
Zero Time Dilemma replaces the text narration with animated characters and cutscenes, but it's also clearly been made on a budget. What results is the series' trademark tense and foreboding atmosphere is missing.
Animation appears wooden and stilted, making even something as simple as a talking character appear awkward. It's hard to feel shocked about a character's death when you're presented with a scene of some unconvincing blood (tomato juice?) spilling out beneath them. And the camera angles used - presumably to keep the on-screen graphic violence down to a minimum - don't help the narrative's cause either.
So while Zero Time Dilemma sees a return to 999's horror roots after Virtue's Last Reward diverged from them, it's just less effective at realising its scenarios. No longer is it asking the player to read some prose, listen to some music and picture a gruesome scene with their imagination. Instead it's giving them the whole picture, only it's a flawed one.
In a way the developers were in a catch-22 situation: The game wouldn't have existed without the support of western fans, and the switch in narrative style was likely made to appeal to western tastes. But the lack of budget behind the project has meant the game's original vision hasn't been realised.
While I'm not as engrossed into Zero Time Dilemma as I was 999, or even Virtue's Last Reward, I'm still enjoying it. It's just a shame it isn't as fully formed as its predecessors were - moreso as the game's a love letter to fans - but on the other hand you can't accuse Kotaro Uchikoshi of shying away from trying something new.