Zanki Zero: Last Beginning comes from the creators of the Danganronpa series, and if this game isn’t further proof that Spike Chunsoft loves to torture and torment its poor characters then we don’t know what is. While Zanki Zero doesn’t force a group of school students to kill each other, it still has an equally grim and disturbing story which is all wrapped up with a familiarly zany sense of humour.
This time around, you have eight characters who wake up on a desert island with no memory of how they got there. An old-style cartoon plays on a little CRT TV and tells them that they’re the last surviving members of the human race. As if that wasn’t bad enough they’re also told that they aren’t actually the people they think they are. -- they’ve been cloned. Unfortunately the cloning process isn’t perfect, and so they don’t have long to live. During their brief thirteen-day lifespan, their bodies will quickly age and then they’ll die.
It’s not all bad news though! As long as someone picks up their X-key (a weird metal contraption that’s located where their belly button should be) from their dead body and places it in the Extend machine, then they’ll be revived into a brand new clone body.
The two weird cartoon characters from the TV, Sho and Mirai, will act as your guides and teach the clones about the realities of their new life. They’ll also give out missions to the survivors, which mostly consist of going to the nearby ruins and finding machine parts that can be used to upgrade the Extend machine. While Sho and Mirai aren’t quite as iconic as Monokuma, they do a pretty good job at giving off a vaguely sinister air while also being a pair of goofy oddballs with a very smutty sense of humour.
The game is broken up into chapters and you’ll be playing from the point of view of a different survivor in each one. As each chapter plays out you’ll be steadily shown little snippets of that character’s past, many of which are really quite tragic. You’ll be shown things relating to domestic violence and sexually coercive relationships, to name just a couple of the disturbing themes. While these backstories are shown off in a cartoony way, that doesn’t change the fact that they can be incredibly dark and heartbreaking to watch.
Zanki Zero is not just a visual novel, it’s also a first-person dungeon crawler with survival elements. This means that you won’t just be looking after the normal stats like health and stamina but also things like your party’s stress levels, and even their bladders needs to be monitored. Yup, you read that correctly: if you don’t occasionally stop to let your characters go to the loo, then they'll wet themselves. This doesn’t just cause embarrassment but will also mean that the survivors become gross and stinky, with enemies more likely to spot them, and in turn increasing your characters' stress levels.
If the idea of keeping an eye on loads of different gauges isn’t really your cup of tea then you can tone it down with the difficulty settings, which reduces the number of things you need to manage as well as making enemies easier to beat. On the flip side you won’t gain as much experience and the variety of items that enemies can drop will be reduced. You’re not locked into any particular difficulty setting and can tweak it whenever you’re in front of the Extend machine.
As you progress through the game you’ll gain access to some diverse post-apocalyptic looking dungeons to explore. Each area is related to one of the survivors in some way and you’ll be exploring everything from office buildings to giant tree houses, as well as cruise ships. These areas are filled with creatures to fight, as well as plenty of devastating traps and tricky riddles to solve. The dungeons are well designed and there are also lots of hidden notes which add plenty of flavour to this end of the world setting.
Combat plays out in real-time and it’s fairly simple to get to grips with. You can have up to four characters in your party and you can either attack one at a time or use charge attacks to go in all at once. Every time you attack, there's a short cooldown period which means that most battles will see you attacking and then backing away until you’re able to attack again. As such, if you get backed into a corner, things can quickly get very ugly.
The life cycle of the clones also plays a really important role in your exploration. When clones are first revived they start off in child sized bodies, meaning that they're weaker and not able to carry as much weight. However, time passes whenever you move to a different floor of a dungeon, and as the clones reach adulthood they’ll become stronger. Just like in real life, though, they’ll then start to get weaker again towards the end of their lifespan.
A lot of the time your clones won’t die of old age, instead being killed by an enemy or a trap within a dungeon. Dying can actually be a really beneficial thing, as when revived the new body will be more resistant to whatever the character's previous cause of death was. Depending on the state the clone was in when it died, you might also gain bonuses to things like the amount of stress that survivor can take, or even add an extra day or two to your lifespan. This means that as long as least one of your party members survives and can resurrect the others, death is actually a good opportunity to get stronger.
When you’re not exploring and trying to track down machine parts, then you can take a bit of time out to develop your base and make it more comfortable for the survivors. Using the material that you gather from dungeons, you’ll be able to build places to sleep and a warehouse to store your stuff, as well as a kitchen and crafting station. Of course the most important thing for you to build has to be a toilet -- no one wants to pee their pants while desperately trying to survive.
Zanki Zero is a really entertaining blend of visual novel and survival RPG gameplay. The story is just as eccentric and zany as the Danganronpa series and features that grittiness fans have come to expect. The combat system is a little simplistic, but the human cloning makes it a really unique experience. However, the title doesn't quite hit the same deliciously dark heights as Danganronpa.