The authors of Danganronpa bring to our shelves an atypical role-playing game, with a survival imprint: here is our review.
Zanki Zero Last Beginning is the latest effort of Spike Chunsoft, a team with a prolific past in mechanical games closely linked to the concept of Japanese “light novels”. Like the famous saga of Danganronpa, Zanki Zero tries to put the player at the center of a story full of mysteries to be revealed and catapults him into situations at the limit of reality: all manifestations of a strong stylistic identity, an element of fundamental importance to create empathy ties with the characters and their vicissitudes. In this case, the elements of mystery have a predominant presence in the development of the plot from the very beginning of the game, interlaced with a gameplay full of interesting ideas and mechanics often far from the established standards of the market. A characterization that makes Zanki Zero a game with a strong personality devoted to overcome narrative barriers and to play with stereotypes and industry rules but, at the same time, makes it a product not suitable for all palates. Let’s try to understand why.
The game opens with a scene of strong impact: on the roof of the building of a successful advertising company, Hiroki Haruto, the first protagonist of the work, is determined to end his life. After the last thoughts full of remorse, the fatal launch leads to an unexpected conclusion, accompanied by the sound of a dive. Awakening on a deserted island, Haruto immediately makes the acquaintance of the other seven main characters of the title, while the player is revealed a shocking truth: somehow, suddenly, humanity has come to an end.
The adventure of the last eight members of mankind begins on Gareki island, the theatre of history. As if this preamble weren’t already alienating enough, a few moments later the mascots of a television program – the only TV working on the island, despite the absence of electricity – warn us that the protagonists are not just humans, but clones with only thirteen days left to live. During this short period, the protagonists will quickly go through the three main phases of life (child, adult, elderly), each characterized by significant effects on the gameplay and skills of the cast. At the end of the thirteenth day of life each character is destined to die, and then be reborn in the form of a new clone child. Tackling death in all its facets is therefore a central theme in the title: everything seems to revolve around death, whether it is real, virtual or simultaneously necessary. Not only is the player obliged to accept this cycle as the basis of the narrative, but death also becomes an essential element of gameplay.
We will have to pay close attention to the missing days of life of each character and, strange to say, death can also be used in your favor, at least as long as you have one of the eight characters still standing, otherwise, you will meet the game over.
Goats, goats, goats
In strictly ludic terms, Zanki Zero is a hybrid of dungeon crawler, role-playing and micro-management. It’s definitely difficult to frame the game in a specific genre, especially for the strong component of light novels that affects every aspect of the gameplay: a basin that collects a long series of mini-games. The main point is the exploration of the dungeon, the place where you search for materials, and you discover the mysteries about the island, the fate of humanity and the stories of each character.
In these stages the player moves with a first-person view in environments divided into boxes, in the classic style of Japanese dungeon crawlers, where you can interact with objects, solve puzzles or fight with the inhospitable inhabitants of the island. Goats, wild animals, aliens will be the opponents who can be faced in fights carried out with a system similar to the Active Time Battle of the old Final Fantasy. The low mobility of the characters within the game spaces, sometimes frustrating, helps to make potentially difficult even the simplest fights, especially if you do not have in mind the characteristics of the battlefield. Being caught unprepared during the clashes, and suffering massive damage, can have major repercussions on the progress of exploration, forcing the player to return to the base to recover before he can continue the dungeon. It is therefore necessary to evaluate well – preferably in advance – every move, trying to best balance the desire to explore every gorge with the imperative of survival.
Dying or being reborn, that’s the dilemma
As mentioned, therefore, part of the experience offered by Zanki Zero has exquisitely micro-management connotations that in some ways bring the game closer to the survival game genre, with a whole series of parameters to be taken into account, such as hunger and stress. It will therefore be necessary to keep an eye on indicators such as hunger, to be restored by cooking, if necessary, the meat of the animals faced in the dungeon, although it will not always be easy to better manage the needs of the characters.
The stimulus to go of body, for example, does not offer a real indicator, and it will therefore be necessary to build toilets on the island to respond promptly to the onset of sudden biological needs. Otherwise, not only will the character suffer a surge in their stress level, but the smell generated will end up attracting animals and wild monsters.
Zanki Zero seems to be basically a game full of “double-edged mechanics”, elements that can facilitate the adventure or make it really difficult. Another dynamic that reflects the peculiar identity of the product is the special attack Clone, a very powerful assault that can easily defeat any enemy, but with the side effect of sucking the user’s life accelerating his race to an untimely death. Again, Spike Chunsoft packages a product that is difficult to decode, where each choice of gameplay has a rather consistent effect on the progress of the game.