I’ve always been fond of Spike Chunsoft’s eclectic library. They’ve made games of everything from Pokemon to Attack on Titan, huge crossover games like Jump Force and their infamously dark mystery series Danganronpa and Zero Escape. It’s hard, then, to really assign a particular range to them – they’ve just worked on so many genres. Zanki Zero: Last Beginning isn’t too big of an outlier from their previous work. In fact, it channels Danganronpa so noticeably that fans of the murder-mystery trilogy are bound to be intrigued from the start.
I’ve played a lot of Spike Chunsoft games over the years. A few short moments after starting Zanki Zero, I was immediately reminded of Danganronpa 2; the island setting, the cast of unusual characters, and even the menacing cartoon-like overseers watching your every move. Zanki Zero immediately harnesses the best part of its developer’s talents: the ability to make anything, no matter how mundane, feel unsettling and tense.
The concept is simple: a group of eight seemingly unconnected characters finds themselves on a deserted, rundown island, and their task is to survive. As the player, this means you’ll be doing everything from foraging for building resources to killing the local wildlife for food. Your group has a home base, which can be upgraded with new facilities as you find better materials and level up your skills. You’ll have to manage stats like stress, stamina, and even your characters’ bladders.
The prologue introduces the game’s many concepts at a rapid pace, bombarding you with explanation after explanation. It’s more than a little heavy-handed, and it turns what should be a handful of straightforward concepts into a cluster of confusing mechanics. The prologue as a whole is a bit of a slog, with the game unsure how to present itself in a likable, concise manner. The characters are immediately fairly obnoxious and tedious to listen to, and even the sinister sense of mystery is undermined by some impressively cringe-worthy dialogue. Competent and realistic voice-acting saves it somewhat, but the damage has already been done.
When things finally get going, though, Zanki Zero is able to make a better impression. Finally leaving the tutorials and character introductions behind is one of the best moments of the game; you’re finally allowed to explore, fight and gather resources without the game or its characters incessantly bothering you about mundane things. Your party will still blather on about inane things, but mercifully less often.
I was disappointed, then, to find that the survival aspect actually takes a back seat to something entirely less compelling: the character development. The island you’re stuck on is tiny – alarmingly so at first – but as the story progresses new areas will open up in the form of challenging dungeons. These are filled to bursting with enemies, items and the like, and exploring them will grant you a look into the backstories of the characters.
In typical Spike Chunsoft fashion, your group of unfortunate souls do not have happy pasts, and some of the topics dealt with are incredibly dark. The first dungeon sets the tone with a tale of domestic violence, workplace abuse and suicide, and it only gets darker from there. These are at odds, though, with the frequently absurd and childish dialogue, and the occasional outbursts of halfhearted comedy routines don’t help either.
I’d like to say that exploring the island and its dungeons to learn more of your plight is Zanki Zero’s most intriguing point, but it’s marred by some terrible gameplay that feels almost 20th century in its implementation. Movement is a first-person, grid-based affair, which itself is pretty much a recipe for disaster, and combat is trivial to the point that it feels like a last-minute addition to the game. You have two attack types, normal and charged, and the majority of encounters will involve little more than walking up to an enemy, unleashing your attacks and then backing off to wait a few seconds before you can attack again.
Zanki Zero’s most unique feature is its Extend system. Whether through aging or ill-fated fights, some of your party will die. However, that’s all well and good – everyone’s a clone! All eight characters are clones, and they can be cloned again if they die, reverting to a child in the process. In that state, they’re weaker than they would be as adults, but dying actually has its advantages: you can gain resistances to whatever killed you, making each character more resilient with each passing resurrection. The downside is that each cloning procedure costs points, so you need to make a good effort of killing enemies and gathering resources if you want to be able to bring back any defeated allies.
Visually, Zanki Zero is a bit of a mixed bag. The character designs and their respective animations, limited though they are, do an excellent job of bringing out each person’s particular nature and personality. On the other hand, enemies and the environments themselves are bland and lacking in detail. The bright and colorful nature of the setting does a good job of alleviating this, but it doesn’t change the fact that much of the design is rather shallow and unappealing. Even boss enemies, which you’d expect to look worlds apart from standard foes, are surprisingly basic in their designs.
I wanted to love Zanki Zero. The concept of a bunch of strangers fending for themselves in a hostile environment is great and coupled with Spike Chunsoft’s penchant for dark, shocking tales I thought I might be playing a worthy successor to the Danganronpa series. Unfortunately, not even the game’s excellent premise can save it from unwieldy combat, tedious exploration and characters who are often more unlikeable than interesting. There’s a compelling experience hiding here somewhere, but finding it simply isn’t worth the trouble.