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Review: Zanki Zero: Last Beginning (PlayStation 4)

Reviewed by relauby, posted May 17, 2019, last updated May 24, 2019
May 17, 2019
  • Release Date (NA): April 9, 2019
  • Release Date (EU): April 9, 2019
  • Release Date (JP): July 5, 2018
  • Publisher: Spike Chunsoft
  • Developer: Lancarse
  • Genres: Dungeon crawler, RPG
  • ESRB Rating: Mature
  • PEGI Rating: Sixteen years and older
  • Also For: Computer, PlayStation Vita
  • Single player
    Local Multiplayer
    Online Multiplayer
    Co-operative
The new game from the creators of Danganronpa!
relauby
Zanki Zero: Last Beginning is the new game from Spike Chunsoft, made by Yoshinori Terasawa and Takayuki Sugawara, producer and game designer, respectively, of the Danganronpa series. Notably absent from that list are Kazutaka Kodaka, creator and writer of the series, Masafumi Takada, series composer, and Rui Komatsuzaki, concept artist for the series. Being a visual novel, these three are the most responsible for the core of Danganronpa and advertising a game using its name without their involvement feels a little hollow. It's important to note that this is not just a quirk of the marketing; the game itself invites these comparisons with Danganronpa posters plastered throughout the levels, series mascot Monokuma appearing as an optional boss, obvious allusions in the dialogue, similar tone, and certain elements of the setting being very familiar.

Zanki Zero puts you on Garage Island with the last eight survivors of humanity, who quickly learn that they're all clones of their original selves, resurrected through the Extend Machine, a cloning device of mysterious origin. They are greeted by Extend TV, a black and white cartoon hosted by straight man Mirai and her screw-up assistant Sho Terashima, who tell them that they have been chosen for a mission to restore humanity, but they'll need to restore the Extend Machine to its former glory first. Each chapter is told from the point of view of a different character as they explore ruins that are somehow related to their past, while Extend TV airs the details of their tragic past for all to see. This format works surprisingly well; the self-contained stories are all interesting, and enough breadcrumbs are dropped related to the overall mystery throughout to keep you engaged in the overarching narrative. Getting to play from each character's POV is very effective in making everyone feel like a real person and makes their group dynamic more satisfying to watch.

The cast also has refreshingly realistic reactions to what's happening to them. They're quick to notice patterns and take proactive steps to fight them, such as the character who tries to ditch the party in his dungeon so that all the tapes of his past will have aired before they can see them. They also openly discuss who among them is suspicious without letting that suspicion create manufactured drama or overshadow the bigger mystery, and are realistic about how much they depend on each other in this situation and how that limits how independent they can be. Even the character who often airs these suspicions isn't just a token agitator; he is helping the group and his reasons for doing it in this way make total sense after playing his chapter. The cast manages to be pleasant and mesh together well without the characters seeming naive or the narrative too saccharine.

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The highlight of the game, without a doubt, are the Extend TV segments. Sho and Mirai's routine is genuinely funny and the contrast with the disturbing stories of the survivor's past is unnerving. The retrograde art style and simplistic, limited animation also add to the off-kilter nature of the segments, aided by the spectacular voice acting that taps into the right manic energy to make the corny jokes work. The presentation of each survivor's story is also effective, drawn in subdued colours with sharp silhouette to represent the characters and shown in chunks, creating a sense of urgency and a stronger motivation to work through the dungeon and get to the next tape.

However, about three-quarters of the way through the game, when the game starts to reveal the bigger secrets to the player, the narrative takes a serious nosedive. Almost nothing about the reveal of the antagonist works. His motivation is confusing, his methods range from impossible to unnecessarily complicated, and elements of his plan that were outside of his control feel contrived, like they would only ever happen to help set up a mystery story. For a game that takes such pride in weaving gameplay elements into its script (even minor gameplay conveniences such as resting in the middle of a dungeon to heal is given an in-universe explanation), it's frustrating that such little care was taken with the biggest reveal of the game. It's a reveal so baffling you can't help but turn it over in your head for days to come, subjugating this flimsy narrative to an amount of scrutiny most decent stories wouldn't hold up to. Whether this is a dealbreaker for you or not depends on whether you were more invested in the self-contained stories of the survivors or the overarching mystery of Garage Island, but the rest of the script after the reveal doesn't show much improvement either, save for one sequence in the epilogue.

Unfortunately, the story is the only area where Zanki Zero shows any real inspiration. The dungeon crawling ties in with the characters being cloned, a clever idea for how your characters come back after continually dying in dungeons, but it's clear there wasn't much reason for this choice of genre beyond that. To help cover the lack of variety, the game takes a bog-standard crafting/survival game and grafts it onto the subpar dungeon-crawling RPG, with the RPG suffering. The RPG is hurt because the survival elements make your characters too expendable. Clones only have a thirteen-day life span, every floor in a dungeon marks a new day, and clones cycle through the stages of development rapidly, from child, to adult, to middle-aged, to senior. Since your character's stats are constantly changing with their age, you'll be swapping people in and out of your party, but you're unlikely to have eight sets of equipment made, partially because it would be an inefficient and unrealistic use of your supplies, and partially because characters have limited carrying space, plus when they die they just drop all their equipment where they stand, meaning if you had eight sets of equipment on you you'd hardly have room for crafting materials if you wanted to lug all of this back to your base. This means that rather than having a party of eight characters, each with unique skills that you refined to fill a specific role, you have four sets of equipment that can be active at a time, and whoever is adult or middle-aged will end up doing the fighting. It doesn't help that most combat skills you can put points into improve effectiveness with certain weapon types, but the weapon types you're using will be changing as you craft new ones, or are affected by which stage of development they're in, which you have relatively little control over. Combine this with the fact that not every character gets access to the same skills, and you're unlikely to remember which characters have what proficiencies, and so it won't factor into your strategy unless you're compulsively checking the skills screen for reminders on who can do what, and swapping around weapon types to match people's skills. It may not take much time, but you’ll find yourself rearranging your inventory and checking your skills a lot, and the time adds up. All of this combines for loot and levelling systems that feel unsatisfying and like a waste of time to put much effort into.

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Combat is probably the biggest albatross around Zanki Zero's neck. The entire game takes place on a grid. This is great for exploration; it lets you map out every square inch of a dungeon, and conveniently lets you know if you missed something on a wall or desk. For combat, however, this means that every enemy's movement is extremely predictable. Enemies will often take a few seconds to turn around within their square on the grid, let alone move to the next one, meaning timing attacks or keeping enemies in a perpetual holding pattern requires almost no thought. This means that every combat boils down to dancing around an enemy while charging an attack and unleashing it once it's ready. There are penalties for moving while holding a charged attack, but they're so minor as to be inconsequential. Even on higher difficulties, enemies deal more damage and take more hits, but their movement patterns are just as easily exploited, meaning the only difference is that your punishment will be harsher for when you get bored of sidestepping around a room full of monsters and make a simple mistake. The much more attractive option is to turn the difficulty to the lowest setting, which removes all monsters and most survival elements, and allows you to freely explore the ruins and focus on story and puzzle-solving.

Much of Zanki Zero tries to revolve around balancing risk vs. reward. Trying to balance your character's age versus the need to go deeper into a dungeon should be a decision that involves a lot of strategy, but the game doesn't give you enough options to make it a difficult decision. You can't stop your character from aging by, say, leaving him at base, and you need to go further into the dungeon, so it just means you'll end up waiting for all your characters to die of old age, clone them all at once so they're the same age, and then go into the dungeon and turn back around when they're all about to die again. When a character dies in a dungeon, it should be agonizing to decide what to leave and what to take with your limited carrying capacity, but you usually end up being able to stack their items on top of ones your other characters are already holding, and then run right past the useless enemies on your way back to base, and then spend a few minutes in the inventory screen sorting everything out. These shallow mechanics make Zanki Zero feel like a game where you're only risking your time and patience versus what reward you might get out of toiling through its dungeons, and unless you're a big enough Danganronpa fan to be won over by a game riding its coattails, there isn't much reward to be found here.
Verdict
Pros
+ The characters are likeable and generally avoid feeling like caricatures
+ The settings are detailed and fun to explore, littered with small items and flavour text
Cons
- The plot falls flat on its face in the homestretch
- Combat is uninspired and boring
- Inventory management can be a chore
- Characters don't feel distinct from each other in combat
- Survival elements feel like a nuisance rather than something to strategize around
6 Presentation
While the ending might ruin it for some people, Zanki Zero's story is its best element. The dungeon settings are all informative on the characters they represent, and the focus on a small cast keeps the characters well-defined and engrossing, even through the more exhausting story reveals. However, the inevitable comparisons to Danganronpa make a stark contrast and show that it lacks the insight, humour, tight plotting or character development of its sister series.
4 Gameplay
The basic gameplay loop can be addictive, but in a way that makes you regret getting sucked into it for so long rather than feeling rewarded or truly engaged. Exploration is fun, but anything to do with combat or scavenging is a slog.
4 Lasting Appeal
Combat quickly becomes tedious which strongly discourages grinding levels or crafting materials. For the most dedicated 100%ers, there is a ton of crafting and shigabane on offer, but with combat so easy as it is, there isn't much incentive to do so, and it all feels like busy work.
5.5
out of 10
Overall (not an average)
Zanki Zero has a clever premise, but not enough original ideas to carry a full-priced title, and the potential of its good ideas are drowned out by an over-reliance on mediocre dungeon-crawling and crafting systems.


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