The publisher behind the cult hit series Danganronpa is back with another quirky and bizarre experience, though it’s one that I’m sure will prove popular once again. Zanki Zero: Last Beginning certainly feels like a game that’d you’d expect to see from Spike Chunsoft, with its focus on offering a somewhat sinister narrative that touches upon dark themes and its first-person explorative gameplay sharing plenty of similarities with their aforementioned Danganronpa titles. However, whilst those managed to hit the mark consistently with their suspenseful design, Zanki Zero: Last Beginning is guilty of stuttering a little throughout its lengthy adventure. It’s a far way from being a bad game, but it does have as many lows as it does highs.
Zanki Zero: Last Beginning’s tale features a group of eight unique individuals that have all awoken on a deserted and ruined island. Whilst that’s peculiar enough, they soon learn (via a cartoon on some oddly placed TVs) that they’re actually the last surviving members of the human race. Bit of a shock, right? Well, it gets worse – they’re not actually their true selves but rather clones that have been created by a mysterious device known as the Extend Machine. The problem is, whilst the Extend Machine can create endless copies of each person, they can only actually survive for thirteen-days thanks to a sped-up aging process, meaning that they can go from childhood to dying of old age in less than two weeks. It’s up to each person to work together and gather the tools required to revamp the Extend Machine in order to give people longer lives, in turn ensuring that the world can be re-populated once again.
It’s certainly a weird concept, but it’s one that I actually really enjoyed seeing unravel. Like Danganronpa, Zanki Zero: Last Beginning features some brilliant writing whilst the cast of eclectic characters certainly embrace an assortment of creative stereotypes that are presented in meaningful ways. The way that the story is paced is absolutely on point too, with plenty of twists and turns to see unfold as you work your way through the game – it’s definitely easy to say that the narrative is the highlight of the experience.
That being said, it’s worth noting that it isn’t afraid to go to some dark places. Each chapter puts you in the role of a different character, so you’ll not only get to see how events play out from their perspective but also learn more about the trials and tribulations they’ve been through before ending up in this situation. I won’t spoil anything here, but it’s safe to say that a lot of the characters haven’t had pleasant lives, with their history leaning into some taboo topics. It never felt too inappropriate and it shouldn’t make players feel overly uncomfortable, but it’ll definitely raise some eyebrows. It’s all part of what makes Zanki Zero: Last Beginning feel so unique though, and it just adds a deeper meaning to the overall narrative.
Looking after these characters and ensuring they’re kept happy becomes a core point of the gameplay experience. Zanki Zero: Last Beginning has survival elements in place, with each character having an assortment of meters that you’ll have to manage if you want to keep them safe – whilst things like their health or stamina are obvious ones, you’ll also have to keep an eye on things like their bladder or stress too.
This could be a bit annoying, especially with the repercussions that come with each one. Whilst you’ll want to make sure they’re kept fed for obvious reasons, sometimes it can be a burden to make sure they’re not too stressed or that they don’t wet themselves – believe me, nothing attracts enemies more than a piss-filled set of underwear. It means you’ve either got to make sure you’re well supplied with the right items or that you constantly head back to your home base to recuperate, which can break up the flow of the game when you’re out exploring dungeons (more on that in a bit).
In fairness, it does become more manageable as you progress through the game thanks to the fact that you’ll have access to better items and that you can improve your base’s amenities, so those who put the time in will slowly see that looking after the game’s cast does get easier. It’s just a little frustrating to begin with, which is a shame since it can break the pace a lot early on. It’s worth mentioning that players can adjust the difficulty settings though, with plenty of customisable options in place if you decide you don’t want to spend so much time monitoring the team’s well-being or fighting monsters – those who want to stick to the standard setting will just have to grin and bear it for the first few hours, though.
When you’re not looking after your characters, you’ll spend most of your time exploring dungeons. These dungeons are full of foes to vanquish, traps to avoid, puzzles to solve, and items to collect too, so there’s a lot to be wary of as you make your way through. Interestingly, each dungeon is tied to one of your party members, so you’ll find yourself learning more about both them and the world as you make your way through – the environment style will link up to them too, with plenty of interesting locales to explore throughout the game. It ensured they always offered SOMETHING for the player to uncover, whether that’s a new item, a bit of information about the world, or just a dark secret that’s helped form each character’s personality.
Whilst the dungeons themselves are neat to explore, the combat elements that come with them were a bit hit-and-miss. It all takes place in real-time and in the style of the old-school dungeon crawlers of yesteryear, meaning enemies take up a tile in the dungeon and you’ve got to move around them and position yourself carefully to both land attacks and avoid any incoming ones. This can leave you in vulnerable positions though, especially if you find yourself backed into a corner and taking on an onslaught of attacks. You can’t attack freely either, with your abilities having to be recharged before you can use them again, which essentially forces players to constantly move around and wait for their moment to strike as opposed to allowing them to feel like they’re in a proper action-packed showdown. It just slowed things done and left combat feeling like it lacked real strategy, with the player instead falling into a routine of just moving in, hitting, moving out and repeating in order to defeat their foes.
Whilst the combat isn’t the best feature of Zanki Zero: Last Beginning, it does have an interesting twist that’s tied into a character’s death. Given that you’ve got the Extend Machine, you can always clone your characters to bring them back to life, so death is never the end. However, it does take into consideration how each character dies, so if they’re killed by a specific enemy or ailment they’ll have an extended resistance to it in their next form. It’s a really clever feature than helps the player to overcome any challenging obstacle in their way, with nothing ever acting as a hindrance for too long. It’s neat and shows that there are some really good ideas on show in the game – even if you don’t get to appreciate them fully thanks to the lacklustre combat.
Zanki Zero: Last Beginning is a unique and clever game, with the bizarre narrative easily standing out as one of the more interesting I’ve encountered in any game. However, whilst the writing and exploration elements are on point, the stressful management of each character’s well-being and the lacking combat mechanics caused a fair few frustrations throughout.
It made for a mixed experience, though at least it’s flexible in design – those who just want to see the narrative through to its conclusion can even turn off combat completely if they prefer. Those who want to experience the adventure as intended though will need a fair bit of patience to work through Zanki Zero: Last Beginning’s mixture of both clever and annoying design.
Publisher: Spike Chunsoft
Platform(s): PlayStation 4 (Reviewed), PC