Going back to September 2017, my first ever published review was for a little game called Danganronpa V3 from Spike Chunsoft – a few of you may have heard of it… This weekend I’ve had the pleasure of playing the new game from Yoshinori Terasawa and Takayuki Sugawara (the creators of Danganronpa), Zanki Zero: Last Beginning on the PlayStation 4.
Just like with Danganronpa V3, I played the game from beginning to end with very little breaks as I became addicted to the gameplay, mesmerised by the plot, and absorbed by the beautiful visuals. The legendary creators above have once again created a pure masterpiece in terms of narrative, setting, acting, and mindfuck experiences.
So, let’s talk about why I simply love Zanki Zero: Last Beginning and why you need to pick this up if you’re a fan of Danganronpa, The Lost Child, Labyrinth of Refrain or any other Dungeon-Crawling RPG/VN combo game!
* I’m going to avoid main story spoilers as much as possible – we can, for that reason, only talk about the game up to chapter three and I’ll only cover detailed insight into events which happen within the prologue (which you can download and play for free, right now, HERE!) *
Haruto Higurashi is an editor for a prestigious company, yet things take a turn for the worse and he’s down on his luck. As such, he retreats to the roof of the building as he contemplates ending it right here, right now. After this, everything went black – was this the end? Suddenly, Haruto finds himself awakening to the sound of a young semi-prosthetic energetic young girl upon a beach! WTF is going on? How did he end up here? With so many questions and emotions running through his head, he finds it hard to take in everything being told to him – there are only eight people left within this post-apocalyptic world!
After meeting up with the rest of the ‘survivors’, you discover you all have two things in common – you’re all aged 25 (except the young girl from the beach) and you all have a metal X-shaped device surgically inserted into your belly button. Another thing you all seemingly share is the fact none of you can recall your lives beforehand, bar a few odd memories here and there. So, all alone on this deserted island (the town you once lived in is now but a floating island in the sea), what can you do for entertainment? Simple, put on the TV and watch some cartoons! It’s at this point where we’re introduced to Monokum… I mean Extend TV hosts, Mirai and Sho.
In a spin on the ‘Survivors’ TV show format, you’re given tasks via this TV show which, if completed, will grant you food and hints on what to do next. So, off you go to complete the various quests such as building a toilet, talking to the other survivors, and venturing to a nearby island which has seemingly ‘docked’ with yours overnight. However, things take a turn for the worse and two of our protagonists meet a gruesome premature end to their young lives! Thankfully, the task for the day was, in pure Danganronpa style, someone had to die…
However, in Zanki Zero, death is not the end, it’s only the beginning. In death, you grow stronger and are reborn with higher resistances to that which ended your life. But I’m getting ahead of myself… The reason someone had to die was so our loveable hosts could show us how to use the Extend Machine, a video game arcade cabinet which can be used to reanimate the dead as long as you save their X-shape device (do you remember those?!)
So, it’s discovered, within the prologue, that we are all, in fact, clones of our original selves which can be brought back to life via the use of this machine. We can even choose to enhance our new selves based on how we died and how much we’re willing to pay to be reanimated. There’s a catch though – you’re brought back as a young child! Just like in The 6th Day (a cheesy but fun movie) and Bladerunner, the clones have a set lifespan, only it’s a measly thirteen days. So, you’ll transition through puberty as you go from a child to an adult, then middle-aged followed by a senior. Finally, you die.
With our rather cruel timelimit before reanimation, various islands full of mutated creatures (and goats), memories being fed to us as we recall our past, and labyrinth-like dungeons to explore, we must work together and restore the Extend machine back to its complete state so that we can become procreating humans once more. Although, as this is developed by the Danganronpa team, expect everything but a straight-forward adventure!
Zanki Zero is basically two games in one, you can opt to play the game as intended, by choosing a difficulty level of 2-5 and allowing the dungeons to be populated by creatures for you to fight, or you can play the game with no enemies, just the puzzles and exploration at difficulty 1. It’s your choice how you play it, as there is no penalties or trophies relating to it, only you won’t get experience and resources if there are no enemies to kill and the game becomes much more simplistic as it becomes almost Danganronpa-like but with dungeons instead of Class Trials.
On top of the combat, there’s also survival mechanics in place (yes, there’s a reason you have to make a toilet), puzzles, base-building, weapon upgrades, and a whole host of upgradeable skills for you to unlock for each of the eight characters. These are perfectly held together with a Dungeon-Crawling RPG style exploration system (where you draw the map as you explore) and some rather funny, sadistic, offensive, illegal and disturbing Visual Novel-style interactions you’ll have with your fellow colleagues and the Extend TV duo. Believe me, if you’re not laughing at the dialogue, swearing at the enemies, cringing at the events within your memories, or re-allocating your inventory because you’ve grown old and can’t carry as much, then you’re not playing Zanki Zero!
Let’s look at the core gameplay aspects in more detail, one by one…
Zanki Zero has a decent amount of puzzles within it, even if they aren’t that complicated (well…). The majority of them will be as simple as having to explore further so you can flip a switch to open up shortcuts or new pathways, finding keycards to open certain doors, or standing/placing items on a pressure plate so you can pass through a door or wall. However, later on in the game, you’ll see things like riddles telling you to place a certain object on a pedestal, having to fall through the floor to enter a locked room below, pulling the right levers, and even collecting clues so you can work out a symbolic combination to a numerical answer!
If you’re not exploring or doing puzzles, you’ll be preoccupied with the enemies within the dungeons. You always take all eight characters into battle with you, yet only four can be in your active party at a time (which can be changed whenever you want). You can assign a weapon, hat, shoes, and clothing to each person in order to increase their attack and defence, or simply hit the touchpad to auto-assign the best items. Combat is easy – hit one button over and over until everyone hits, then move back until they have regained stamina, then move back in for another onslaught of attacks.
You’ll learn new skills further into the game which will give you more powerful attacks at the expense of your sanity and life, but the default attacks are simple. You can also upgrade all your weapons and armour within your camp if you have the right buildings and skills. After combat you’ll find dropped items and spoils of war – again, each of the party members can pick them up with one tap of a button, but they can only hold so much before then become over-encumbered and can’t move. The answer – offset any heavy items to the four reserve characters (if they aren’t dead) as they don’t limit your movements.
** I just wanted to point out – Dungeon-Crawling games usually have the enemies move when you do – Zanki Zero is realtime, with a 1-3 second delay in the enemies movements/attacks. As such, I call it a Dungeon-Crawling RPG but it’s a little different to the norm. **
Inventory management is rather annoying!
The threat of the mutants, creature, and goats, aren’t the only thing you need to be aware of whilst playing Zanki Zero. Just like the Sims, your protagonists require certain ‘needs’. If you’re running out of stamina due to being hungry, then you need to feed your team some of the food you find or cook. If you eat too much, your characters will require the use of a bathroom (either one you build or one in the dungeon). Failing to do so results in them pissing themselves and reducing their efficiency. Also, as you traverse through the dungeons, the days will tick by when you progress to a new floor after a set time – this results in all your characters ageing a day.
Each of the four stages of life (child, adult, middle-aged, and senior) have their own strengths and weaknesses which you can see here:
So, when you’re a child, you are pretty useless at everything, then you become an adult who can carry heavier items. Although, once you tick over to middle-aged, you can’t carry as much anymore so you could become instantly stuck until you offset some of your weight. This happens once again when you finally become old. Also, once you reach your final day, one more progression of the clock will lead to instant death, and you’ll drop all of your items on the floor.
However, as I said previously, as you die via various means, you can make yourself stronger upon reanimation – this also includes granting extra days past the standard 13 days among a bunch of other things…
There’s a reason you’ll be picking up fences and twigs whilst your out exploring – so you can build upon your return home! Once you’ve kitted out your base with a toilet, bedrooms, a kitchen, and workstations, you’ll be able to cook, create and excrete many things, all within the local vicinity of the Extend machine. However, there’s a catch. You can only build these things if you have the required items and if you’ve got enough characters with a certain skill…
Each protagonist is different in terms of their skills. As Sachika can’t age, she doesn’t have any of the skills the others have in regards to offering health regen within a certain age range or increased attacks whilst at a set period. She has a bunch of other skills she can learn instead. There are some skills which are more important than others in Zanki Zero, skills such as cooking and workshop related which will allow you to make more advanced dishes and better gear for the team.
To be honest, I felt overwhelmed a bit by the skills on offer here as I never knew which ones I should invest into as they all seem very helpful and relevant for my adventure. So, I invested mainly into the supporting options, as above, and I’m currently filling up the combat-related ones now.
So, that’s the game in terms of its mechanics and what you can do within Zanki Zero. You inhabit a hub-like island with seven colleagues, all of which are clones. You venture off to explore the various dungeons which mysteriously link to your island over-night in order to reclaim the various machine parts so you can enhance the Extend machine. We are also tasked with various things via the Extend TV show which is a very humous and entertaining animated TV show which is delivered in Fallout-style via a non-plugged in TV.
However, there’s still more to talk about such as the characters and their reasons for being here (which I obviously won’t tell you!). There’s also the Extend machine – just what is it and why are we repairing it? Also, is there any references to Danganronpa within the game? Let’s look at these next…
The last time I played a game with a lovable cast of characters, which made me truly emotional and upset to see them leave, was Danganronpa V3. So, as you’d expect, what we have here is a brilliant cast, both in terms of their English and Japanese voice actors, and the personality they have been created with. There is also a reason for these particular characters, just like how in Danganronpa each student was the ‘best’ at their particular subject.
In Zanki Zero, Each of the eight characters are sinners, they have either sinned or been involved in a sinful experience within their past at some point. As you traverse through the various dungeons, you’ll be shown videos which outline and describes what each person has been through, thus making them remember previous events in their life, whether they like it or not. Also, this being the Danganronpa team, expect incest, abuse, paedophilia, guilt, shame, and more. So much for the censorship issues guys! Everyone was angry because the 12yr old girl doesn’t show you her panties in the western version, there’s a lot more within the game that got through with no alterations at all!
So, as a rather cool flip to the character development, each protagonist is labelled as one of the seven deadly sins. We have Sloth, Envy, Lust, Gluttony, Wrath, Greed, and Pride – with the eighth one being the Original Sin. I keep calling them protagonists as you’ll be playing as seven of the eight as you rotate each chapter. The characters are all really well written and were a joy to get to know, from Minamo’s overprotectiveness to chubby Yuma who’ll start eating the air at the mention of food! Each one has their own quirky situations and brilliant personality. This is also true for Sho and Mirai from Extend TV – they are basically a combination of Monokuma, Usami and the MonoKubs with their sarcastic and witty banter.
The Extend machine
Fans of Danganronpa will know that the developers usually place games within games with secret/cryptic meanings behind the actual game – Zanki Zero is no different. As you find various parts for the Extend machine and bring it back to its former glory, you’ll unlock new features to play around with. Initially, you’ll only be able to set the difficulty of the game and revive fallen colleagues, but you’ll soon get the ability to unlock much stronger attacks and play a mini-game. That’s right, it may only be a single bonus game this time around, but there is a side-scrolling shoot-em-up which may serve a deeper purpose than a casual escape from the chores of surviving…
As I mentioned previous, death only makes you stronger – this is because you can opt to pay more ‘credits’ to revive a character with a bunch of enhancements you unlock. The credits are earnt by killing enemies and completing dungeons then returning to the machine to rack up your points. The enhancements are cool but also very hard to obtain as they require you to die or get injured in a certain way. For example, one wants you to die of old age, one as a child, one has you die at the hand of a female mutant, another wants you to fall into a pit, etc…
This wouldn’t be an issue but if you’re going for the platinum, it looks like you have to unlock every single ‘Shigabane’ skill (the enhancements above) for each of the eight characters! The main story took me about 40 hours to complete, obtaining these is going to take a lot longer! Thankfully there’s a NG+ mode to play through if you want to replay whilst trying to earn the others.
I absolutely loved Zanki Zero: Last Beginning, I couldn’t stop playing it once I started – which resulted in me falling asleep holding my controller at one point! The narrative, the voice acting (both English and Japanese), the visuals, the tongue-in-cheek humour, the crude nature of certain characters, the combat… it’s all combined into a perfect package which leaves you feeling intrigued as to what’s going on and excited about where you’ll get to explore next.
The one thing which surprised me the most is the difficulty of the game. Supposedly, difficulty 1 was added for us, the westerners, so that we could experience and play the game as a ‘walking simulator’ where the only hazards are the bosses and traps (yet that doesn’t matter as you’re invincible as well). The PR lady who gave me the game said that she played it through on difficulty 5! I’m sorry but that’s Sekiro and Souls-like difficulty there! I won’t be touching that until I’m on NG+++++! I played the game, for the majority, on the third option, which was the recommended one for me. This wasn’t a walk in the park though – I was dying a lot, having trouble with bosses, had to reload numerous times, and it felt like a real challenge. Even though you technically can’t die (providing at least one person gets back to revive the others), you still need points in order to do so otherwise you’re buggered!
Full disclosure, I did drop it to difficulty 2 in order to get past an annoying boss and I tried the Funky-Kong difficulty for a few hours in order to see what that was like. It’s great they have added this mode in my opinion as the combat and toughness would have put some people off, especially those who like the adventure of Danganronapa but aren’t too keen on DRPG combat. However, having the toggle means you can choose how you want to play it based on your skills – plus, if you enable the enemies then you’ll be able to upgrade your base and create better weapons due to the loot they drop!
Did I enjoy Zanki Zero: Last Beginning more than Danganronpa V3? I want to say yes but I think it’s about the same. I love the Class Trials in DR, and the exploration for clues/suspects, but I really enjoyed the Islands and the Extend TV show in Zanki Zero. Speaking of which, yes, there are DR references throughout the game in the form of posters on the wall. There are DR 1+2, DR V3, and Ultra Despair Girls posters all over the place – but no reference to Ultra Despair Girls 2 as we saw in Danganronpa V3. I’m hoping that they’ll be some DLC for Zanki Zero in the vein of PixelJunk Monsters 2, a new dungeon to conquer which is full of Monokuma mutants!
Zanki Zero: Last Beginning is a beautiful game in terms of its visuals. The characters aren’t lifeless 2D sprites, they wobble and react in a similar fashion to what we saw in Song of Memories, only not as much. Also, the environments you wander around look simply gorgeous, with some of them looking like watercolours that you can explore rather than hard-coloured objects. The characters are all oozing with personality and charm as they progress through four life stages which offer not only a visual change but their voices alter as well.
My only complaint was that you don’t get to talk to the others mid-exploration by walking up to them and talking, interactions are done via certain points on the maps and usually, you have to meet set criteria, such as everyone is alive or one of them is young/old. Similarly, as you progress through the main story, there are many occasions where the story continues and the VN-like vocal interaction segments pop up. These were a bit presumptuous as the characters you have who have died will also pop up and join in the conversation, even though they’re dead… Although, the age the character is at and the costume you chose for them (if you have any, I had the Swimwear DLC) will alter their avatar as they talk.
The voice acting is perfect, in both English and Japanese vocal tracks. They got actors who suit the personalities exactly. I particularly loved both Sho and Mirai though – they really were a combination of Monokuma and family, and Team Rocket from Pokemon! One downside is that not everything is voiced. All the main VN segments and the banter between Sho and Mirai are voice, but mini-discussion and the actual memories which the Extend TV show presents to us, are text-only or text with random one-liners. This isn’t new, I believe DR V3 also had a similar setup, but it would have been nice if all aspects were fully voiced.
The music and jingles are just as memorable as we saw in DR, with those lucky enough to pick it up on release in physical format getting the soundtrack included within the package! Steam gamers will get a digital soundtrack if they buy it between the 9th and the 16th of April – it’s a shame digital PS4 owners don’t also get it free within that period as I would have loved the soundtrack!
** Just like Danganronpa V3, there is a strict photo and video ban on Zanki Zero. Once you’ve completed chapter 2, the share button no longer works for streaming, pictures or videos, on the PlayStation 4. So, if you want to capture anything then you’ll need a capture card instead. Something to watch out for if you were planning on picking it up to stream via your PS4. **
Zanki Zero: Last Beginning is the best Dungeon-Crawling RPG I’ve played to date, you need to buy this game! As soon as you begin to play this masterpiece, you’ll become absorbed by the beautiful environments, addicted to the combat, obsessed with uncovering 100% of the maps, and in love with the banter being thrown about within the narrative. For a game with so many parts to it, such as survival, combat, exploration, puzzles, and narrative segments, every aspect is presented perfectly to create a rock-solid experience.
The developers clearly wanted to create a game in which any of their fans could jump in and play, as such, the inclusion of a ‘casual’ mode will allow more gamers to enjoy the game without fear of being overwhelmed, and the hardcore can crank the difficulty right up. Also, there were things removed from the game in order to pass classification (noted HERE), yet the game is still populated with implied incest, abuse, implied paedophilia, guilt, sex, and many more disturbing subjects as well as Sho, our animated host who loves his fan service and “big boobed protagonists”…
If you’ve played Danganronpa and you loved its dark sense of humour, crazy shenanigans, brilliant narrative, interesting protagonists, and thrilling storylines with twists and turns, then Zanki Zero: Last Beginning is literally screaming out “buy me, buy me now!”
Illuminate! A brighter future! For Humanity! Bye Bye!
Zanki Zero: Last Beginning£49.99
- - Great story with brilliant narrative, jokes, innuendo, and in-game articles
- - The bonus mini-game is challenging but a great extra
- - The visuals are stunning, the voice acting is amazing, the art direction for the memories is very artistic, and the overall atmosphere is perfect
- - Contains a 'no-enemy' mode for those who are finding it hard or just want to experience the story without any combat
- - Extend TV is brilliant - Spike Chunsoft should present all their messages and announcements like that from now on!
- - The game made me cry...