Japanese developer Spike Chunsoft or Chunsoft became well-known for their games with a long history of series such as Dragon Quest and Danganronpa. 2019 sees a release of part visual novel, part first person dungeon crawler fused with survival and RPG elements, Zanki Zero: Last Beginning (released on PS Vita,PS4 and PC). If any of those elements don’t appeal, then right off the bat, this game isn’t for you despite an abundance of quirky gameplay features.
The basic premise follows a similar story path seen in some of Chunsoft’s other titles. A select number of characters from different backgrounds forced into an abnormal situation have to work together to overcome all odds. Sounds familiar for anyone previously hooked on Danganronpa. A seemingly malevolent force behind the scenes pulls the strings revealing sordid or hurtful details of the characters pasts. In this case, the 8 characters stuck on an island are led to believe they are the last remaining members of the human race. A dose of amnesia sets the tone and there you have the makings of the next 30-40 hours figuring it all out.
It’s oddball territory here with stages dividing the story into chapters focusing on one character at a time. Without going into specifics due to the heavy focus on story, players work their way through each chapter unlocking more pieces of the puzzle and additional gameplay quirks. As an aside, whilst perhaps somewhat typical, the cast of characters each display unique traits which reveal themselves early-on via the spoken and written dialogue. Often presenting humorous exchanges the core theme remains consistent and makes for an enjoyable romp to find out not only what happens next but how the group move forwards amidst constant revelations of why, where, who, and what.
Gameplay centers around the first person movement which feels somewhat free but locked to a grid. This means some odd controls on PS4 at least due to the need to use a pointer to target enemies and inspect items. The d-pad and shoulder buttons form the basis of directional movement, the latter strafing left or right. It’s not ideal but fairly easy to get to grips with when simply exploring. However, during combat things sort of end up a little fiddly. Rather than facing head-on to an enemy possibly resulting in plenty of bruises and scratches; attacking from the sides and rear or waiting in ambush with a charged attack is a solid approach. The lack of movement though doesn’t help much and if careless, backing into a corner might yield devastating results. Puzzles a plenty present themselves requiring switches, pressure plates, throwing items and all sorts to get through the maze like dungeons. If puzzling isn’t your calling then expect to struggle at times.
An interesting quirk has players age throughout play in a matter of days or turns making for a varied set of available skills. Points means new skills each time a character levels-up. The points exchanged for various skills within the ages of each character so careful selection is key. Naturally some ages perform better in specific circumstances. Players need to be mindful then of the four stages of growth which range from child, adult, middle-aged and senior. Death isn’t final here either, as this occurs either naturally via the passage of time, an attack, or worse, some dodgy food. Once killed, with amassed points characters return to life as a child to start the process again. Obviously if all 8 kick the bucket, then it’s game-over.
With the growth stages of each character, plus the formation of a party of 4 some management aspects take center stage. Not only managing the food, stamina, health requirements but the stress and bladders/bowels as well. Not quite The Sims here, but enough to change the effectiveness of each character.
Back at the upgradable home base, characters cook food, craft new weapons and armour with gathered parts found in the dungeons or from enemies. When inventory space fills, then waste items litter the ground for collection when needed. Managing the right items for the team is crucial to success further into the story. So in all it’s quite an amalgamation of parts to make for an interesting set of gameplay ideas that unsurprisingly work very well together.
Visually, Zanki Zero offers colourful locations to begin but the dark and often corridor-like dungeons initially feel fairly dull until further into the story. An old ship, tourist spa resort, school and more await players as they journey through themed zones based on the post-apocalyptic setting. Character designs look good but offer few animations or scenes to bring them out. The visual novel aspect presents 3D models but it’s rare seeing them in their entirety. With DLC swimsuits giving them a contrasting look for a bit of fun the reality is the changing look of age is the core theme. This is not an intense visual game despite an attempt at shocking scenes. Some potentially controversial scenes are absent in the western release unfortunately. Still, this shouldn’t affect players overall enjoyment other than knowing some of the “edgy” content exists here. Without direct comparison with the Japanese version, western players would be none the wiser not that we condone censorship of these games.
Audio plays a massive role in the overall experience given players spend a fair amount of time reading and listening to the characters. Voice overs sound good with decent performances all-round. Catchy music which players can tune to the tunes of their choice wrap things up. However, it’s the quips and comments from the characters as you move around that offers the most aural colour. Although a lot of phrases repeat, it does add to the atmosphere in a positive way, bringing out the tones of each character as they age.
As previously mentioned, getting through the game takes time, made longer with puzzle moments to keep you on your toes. It’s also a fairly laid-back game with little pressure to push onward at any particular pace. Players can return to past areas to farm for items and experience without penalty which is handy.
Zanki Zero: Last Beginning offers an interesting story, an oddball set of characters and an even crazier scenario. That is without mentioning the rather annoying Extend TV characters Sho (a horny adolescent boy) and Mirai (a talking sheep no less). With its fusion of gameplay styles, it actually works very well when all elements slide into place. This isn’t a game for everyone as the reliance of long conversations and minimal imagery might not suit those looking for more direct action. Still, it’s easy to become invested in the 8 characters and their plight, and if you like laid-back puzzle fueled entertainment then this is a solid enjoyable experience to work through.
Score – 8/10