Zero Time Dilemma, the third and supposedly final game in the Zero Escape series, just came out this week. It happens to be pretty fantastic. Maybe you're interested in diving into the series. Do you need to play the games in order or can you play the third game straightaway? Who are these characters? Why is everyone dying?

Take a breath. Relax. I'm here to explain everything (you're welcome).

So let's start with the basics.

What's a Zero Escape?

Zero Escape is an adventure game series developed by Spike Chunsoft that debuted in 2010 on the Nintendo DS with Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors (AKA 999). 999 centered around a group of nine people trapped on a cruise ship that's slowly sinking into the ocean. The prisoners are forced by a mysterious figure named Zero to play "The Nonary Game," with characters having to solve intricate puzzles to escape from rooms and hopefully the cruise ship itself. The game is split up into two segments: escape room sequences, in which you need to interact with objects and solve environmental puzzles to proceed, and story segments, in which the narrative progresses until you hit the next puzzle. Story segments often require you to make a choice. These choices cause the story to branch, leading to a number of endings. Your character might end up dying a gruesome death or earning an ending where he lives but is unhappy or, if you're particularly observant and stubborn, you can play through the game multiple times to earn the "true ending" and uncover the conspiracy at the heart of it all.

The rest of the series basically follows this structure, casting you as one (or, in the case of ZTD, several) of a group being held prisoner by a mysterious figure, and tasking you with solving puzzles and making decisions that affect how your story plays out.

So what's the appeal then?

Zero Escape has developed a pretty strong following thanks to its combination of challenging brain teaser puzzles, macabre sense of humor, branching storylines with an emphasis on choice, and, of course, its absolutely zany philosophical sci-fi themes. You think Metal Gear's nanomachines are out there? Oh friend, step into my parlor, let's talk about morphogenetic fields. Zero Escape is balls to the wall strange, shamelessly presenting in-depth discussions about the nature of life and memory and The End Of All Things through conversations between characters. The game rarely takes time to break down what these theories mean in layman's terms except for those willing to sift through every inch of each game and even do research outside of it. While this is understandably a deterrent to many gamers, fans of the series like getting lost in discussions about plot threads and the real-world ramifications of Zero Escape's theories, like Virtue's Last Reward's focus on the Prisoner's Dilemma.

Weird, wacky, dark, yeah I get it. I'm in. Do I have to play them in order or can I dive straight into Zero Time Dilemma?

Depends on who you ask, really. I personally believe that you can play Zero Time Dilemma without having played the other two games and still derive a great deal of enjoyment from it since it works well as a standalone game. That said, the third game does offer closure on certain mysteries from the first and second game, so completionists in search of every scrap of narrative will definitely want to play through 999 and Virtue's Last Reward.

What's the easiest, fastest way to catch up?

If you want to blow through 999, a version of it is available on iOS and that version skips the puzzles, thus saving you a huge amount of time. There is no such alternative for Virtue's Last Reward though. If you're set on playing through that one before you touch Zero Time Dilemma, expect to put in 25 hours or so. Wanna see the true ending? Better have 40 hours and a guide on deck to help you get there. Yow ch.

Ugh. That sounds like so much work. Is it worth it?

I mean, as someone who loves narrative-focused games, yes, I think that Zero Time Dilemma is totally worth playing through even if you don't go through the other two games. Zero Time Dilemma's fragment system goes a long way toward making the game work by itself.

Fragment system?

Zero Time Dilemma plays out in a non-linear fashion, letting you jump from scene to scene in the game, playing the story out of order. While this sounds like a recipe for disaster, it's actually pretty neat, letting you see scenes toward the end of the game that further define or color key moments that happen earlier in the game chronologically. For example, a confession of love you see that happens early on in the storyline takes on an entirely different meaning if you've seen the ending scene that shows where that confession leads to. It also puts both newcomers and series veterans on the same footing, so to speak, you're going to be lost whether you've played the earlier games or not. It's just a matter of degrees rather than leaps and bounds.

Any tips for playing the series?

Yeah, here's an important one: for the love of god, keep some kind of notekeeping device nearby.  Whether it's a literal notepad or just a text editor on your phone, you'll need it to remember details. Also, scratch paper for making maps and diagrams and making use of your camera phone to snap pictures of important cipher charts.

O...Okay. Got all that.

Zero Escape is a challenging series for sure but all three games, especially Zero Time Dilemma, are unique experiences that richly reward those willing undergo their trials.

Be sure to read our review of Zero Time Dilemma.