Originally released for PS4 and PS Vita in Japan in 2018, Zanki Zero: Last Beginning has made the leap out of the country after gaining a translation to English and dropping one of the platforms it originally appeared on. PS4 owners and fans of the Danganronpa series can rejoice as the creators of that game turn their hand to another mysterious sci-fi narrative game that focuses on team combat, survival and a typically bizarre Japanese sense of humour. With a few nips and tucks to make the content more Western friendly, can the interesting blend of first person exploration and intertwining tales of the characters win over new players?
Producer Yoshinori Terasawa and game designer Takayuki Sugawara brought the Dangranronpa series to life and now turn their talents to developing a new type of survival title, compared at least to the ones we’ve seen recently. However, this isn’t centred around school events and mini games, this has a whole heap of different weird stuff going on. Awaking on a beach on the strangely disintegrating Garage Island, Haruto Higurashi can’t quite figure out what’s happened to him. The night before he was on the roof of the building he works in, ready to throw himself off, and now he’s being jabbered at by a young woman with an arm and leg missing and has no clue how he got there. It’s an intriguing opening that gets even more strange when Haruto is introduced to six more survivors of roughly the same age. Where are they? What’s going on? Have they been kidnapped? With the general consensus being that they’re on a reality TV show, they set about getting food and shelter, but it’s fairly clear that it’s not a hidden camera crew making their lives a misery.
Attempting to keep everyone motivated is a TV programme – Extend TV – hosted by Mirai and Sho, a mascot lamb and a naive child that seem to know the secrets of the world and why the eight survivors have been put together. Through this odd pairing the contingent receive missions and head out around Garage Island to make it a more habitable place. Aside from the odd malicious goat roaming around, there’s not a huge amount to see or do, so it’s a good job other islands shift position and become accessible so that scavenging can continue. Unfortunately, heading off exploring starts to reveal the secrets of what has happened to the world and it’s soon apparent Big Brother is not watching and there’s no prize for not being voted off by a baying audience. For all intents and purposes the world as they know it has ended, and it’s up to the eight survivors to repopulate the Earth, though given they’re all clones with a lifespan of 13 days and can’t reproduce, that’s a pretty tall order. Better get thinking of a solution then.
Through a lengthy prologue the story is uncovered and the mechanics of the game laid out, and it creates a really compelling experience that both manages to be amusing and disconcerting at the same time. Gameplay is pretty much split 50:50 with a visual novel style exposition and character conversation used to relay the story, and a first person grid based exploration and real time combat system used for the survival elements. That is the key part of making headway in Zanki Zero: Last Beginning – survival. Whether it’s managing hunger, stress, enemies, sleep or the desire to urinate (yes, really), there’s always something that needs to be monitored and maintained across each of the party members. The capability to maintain each of these levels is improved with character upgrades, and even though there’s a choice for every one to have the same skill set, it’s preferable to spread them out and specialise. The real adventure doesn’t start however until you’ve been killed for the first time.
If a character dies there’s an option to take their X Key from their belly button (or at least where that was) and insert it into an arcade machine at the main base and grow a new clone. Obviously there’s a drawback that they’re a child, and each resurrection costs points, but there’s a benefit in that dying opens up a new shigabane – a buff for the new clone. Each different way of losing a life opens a corresponding shigabane and can offer attack and defence bonuses, as well as increased days of life. With a maximum of 13 days initially, each character rapidly moves through the ageing process and each stage of life means a different way of playing, like children have increased stamina but don’t make for good fighters. Keeping a track on how many days old everyone has reached is as important as making sure they’re fed, watered and stress free. This also leads into ensuring there’s the right party on hand for heading out on missions.
A maximum of four protagonists can be set in a party at any one time, and the remaining ones can tag along as sub-members. This basically means that whilst they’re exploring as a full group, the non-party members can act as pack mules to carry excess items. It also gives a reason why everyone is involved in the conversations that crop up frequently (even though dead characters reappear to take part in these). The skills in the party are dependent on how they’ve been levelled up and which facilities have been built at base camp. Workshops, materials and crafting are essential to kitting everyone out for the best chances of defeating anything that gets in the way, and even if it is possible to attempt to solve the mysteries of the islands with only sturdy stick and some flip flops, expect to spend lots of points on the Extend machine. Fighting foes is a straightforward affair with attacks either being a single button press to swipe or holding it down to build up a combo strike from the party members. There’s a cooldown attached to the weapons so it’s never a case of button bashing to win, more a matter of side stepping and strafing until it’s time to hit again.
Whilst Zanki Zero has a lot of different elements going on at once it doesn’t overload you with complexity. The survival parts are interesting enough and simple to keep on top of, the fighting is reasonably intuitive, and there are levels of difficulty to switch between if it’s getting too tough. What it does expect though is that you’ll do a lot of background reading otherwise it’s easy in the early stages to miss out on getting the levelling up right. From a character perspective Haruto, Minamo, Yuma, Ryo, Rinko, Zen, Mamuro and Sachinka are a real mixed bunch and seem like massive caricatures, though there is a reason for that as the story progresses. You’ll like some, hate others, and not care about the rest. However, Sho and Mirai steal the show (literally) with their TV antics. They manage to be funny and creepy at the same time, and offer up some needed light relief during long sessions of dungeon crawling.
There are a few drawbacks to Zanki Zero, usually in the lengthy interruptions of the team during points where you just want to head out and see what there is to find. It moves the plot along, but it feels like it’s slowing things up when there’s 5 minutes of text popping up every couple of steps. There’s also a strong sexual undercurrent from all the players, and this gets a little uncomfortable with the varying ages of the characters at times. It’s been dialled down in terms of visual depiction from the Japanese version to pass censorship, but the tone is still there, usually when you’re least expecting it. The most overt comments come from Sho, and are quite near the knuckle considering he’s a pre-pubescent boy, and particularly when he seems obsessed with VHS MILF porn. Yes, it can be amusing, but it also rams home significant cultural differences and exposure to this in the earlier stages might be off putting for some. Rest assured it doesn’t cross any lines in presentation even if it does sail a bit close to the wind with the life stages constantly changing.
Without giving anything away, there’s more than meets the eye with what evolves throughout the time spent in Zanki Zero: Last Beginning. Some beats might be obvious from the outset, though others will surprise as they get revealed, but there are enough threads put on show that you’ll want to keep pulling at them to see where they go. The survival and combat parts feel like they’re there to distract from the main narrative rather than support it, and sometimes you’ll just want to bypass the clunkier bits to get to the next epiphany. At least the inclusion of the easy mode means it’s possible to experience the madly twisted tale without too much difficulty. This game is aimed at a particular audience, and manga fans will arguably get the most from it, but if you’re looking for something a bit different to drag you along with it’s distinct style then it’s worth joining the posse.
A PS4 review copy of Zanki Zero: Last Beginning was provided by Koch Media’s PR team, and the game is available now for around £40.