Zanki Zero: Last Beginning is a new game from the creators of Danganronpa. For people who are unaware, Danganronpa is a series of games where gifted children fight one another in a death game. Through investigation, and criminal trial gameplay the players aim is to survive. Interacting with the world you gather clues and attempt to deduce who is the secret murderer. Zanki Zero may have moved away from that genre and into a dungeon crawler format but it's impossible to deny Spike Chunsoft's distinct style and tone. Danganronpa veterans will immediately be drawn to Zanki Zero for its similar look and feel. The gameplay changes may be what appeals to a whole new crowd.
The first character you meet is Haruto Higurashi. In his first on-screen moments, he steps out off the edge of a rooftop plummeting towards a parked car below. Instead of hitting the car Haruto wakes up on the shores of an island filled with ruins. After waking up Haruto gets introduced to the other seven people who also recently woke up on the Island. Characters include a police officer, a farmer, and even a doctor. What they all share in common though is metal X's over their bellybuttons and a lack of memory on how they ended up on the island.
Some of this is cleared up when watching Extend TV, a strange omnipotent show that gives missions to the group. It's explained that they're all imperfect clones with lifespans of only 13 days. The X-keys that they noticed are what stores their consciousness and will allow them to be reborn once again after dying. The Extend Machine, a large arcade looking cabinet, creates new clones at a young age. At certain points during the clones lifecycle, they'll rapidly progress from child to adult, adult to middle-aged, and then on to being a senior before they die once again.
The mascot characters of Extend TV, Ryo, and Mirai, mirror the role on Monokuma and the other Danganronpa bears. It's quite clear that they know more than they're letting on. Still, they play dumb or act on your site to push the protagonists to learn about the world on their own. The group then gets their first mission: explore the ruins that have just floated up next to their island for a machine part. With each Machine Part recovered, they'll be able to add new features to the Extend Machine and fix their failing lifespan. Immediate intrigue works to draw the player in, you get just enough about the characters and world around you to make you want to continue.
Each chapter of the game has you fill the role of one of the eight protagonists. You experience cutscenes through their perspective and hear their inner monologue. The first island having a tie to the previous life of Haruto it's as him that you begin. Exploring dungeons you learn each character's backstory. Each expanding on the dark secrets that the protagonists hide. The protagonist's stories reflect the seven deadly sins with one member among the group a representative of Original Sin.
What character you're playing as each chapter doesn't change any gameplay aspect. This process deftly fixes the issue of having a large party. Because you always shift perspectives, no single character gets the short shrift. There are more than enough JRPGs where one of the main characters might not even end up in your party let alone gets an even slice of the pie. Zanki Zero really works well to build all of its characters equally. A post-apocalyptic setting with the fate of the world resting on the shoulders of a few kids is frequent story fodder in the Danganronpa series. While the gameplay is different the high stakes/high danger of the story is persistent.
You move around the Island and dungeons on a grid board where everything is from a first-person perspective. Exploring each dungeon your aim is to find out the character's story and reach the machine part. However, there's still a lot to do on the way. Interacting with different world elements you'll gather more information, find items for development or food, and fight off enemies to strengthen your party. While there are eight characters for your active party you can pick 4 of them to bring with you. Each character has their own limit to how much they can carry so luckily while you only fight with four all eight are still along for the ride. You're able to pass off items to characters in reserve but watch out as each character dying will leave you less carrying capacity. Finding yourself a few characters down retreat is always a good option.
The gameplay of Zanki Zero is a constant balancing act that can be a real struggle when you start out. You need to keep track of your characters in a number of different ways. There are the basic JRPG elements that you'll take care of like Stamina, Health, and individual upgrade trees. Added management includes keeping track of character ages, stress levels, and even when they need to go to the bathroom. Each of these meters requires you to have the correct items to balance them out.
Too stressed? Have a glass of water. Your character is getting hungry? you can give them rice or a steak. Do they need to go to the toilet? If there's not one nearby then here's an empty bottle... Through exploration, you'll also gather resources that you can bring back to your Island and work to build facilities. A kitchen to cook in, a workbench to craft weapons, and bedrooms for a good night sleep. These upgrades also have skill tree requirements that you'll need to meet to build. By the time you get to a point of wanting an upgrade, you'll more than likely have the points for it.
Honestly, this game starts out pretty tough, and there's a lot that gets thrown at you very quickly. The story and survival mechanics are a lot to take in initially and might take some re-reading to fully understand. It's likely that you'll suffer from a lot of early deaths. You'll soon find that each one is a good lesson to be learned. As expected the more that you play the more you understand and deal with so many spinning plates. There are still surprises that can catch you out even when you feel you have a good grasp.
You can only imagine the shock when you stumble upon a characters allergy and kill them yourself. The speed of the learning curve increases via access to new items like medicine, or upgrading facilities like the bedrooms. It means you never are really starting from the beginning. Characters stressed out, hungry, and half dead was something early on that would bring worry. After having time to stock up supplies, knowing where to get certain items, and a place to heal takes a lot of player stress away.
Zanki Zero is a stressful and complicated but incredibly fun game. Through the interesting plot and art style, Zanki Zero immediately brings comparison to Danganronpa, but so much is also different. Pairing a rebirth mechanic with upgrading facilities and semi-simulation levels of needing to take care of characters even reminds me somewhat of games like Digimon World: Next Order. That being said, this level of micromanagement gameplay certainly won't be for everyone, there are lower difficulties with some mechanics removed. Zanki Zero mixes together some challenging simulation mechanics with a dark and intriguing story, this is a great game for someone wanting to sink their teeth into a long JRPG.
TechRaptor previewed Zanki Zero: Last Beginning on PlayStation 4 with a copy provided by the developer. A free demo that includes the first chapter of the game is available on PSN.