Zanki Zero Last Beginning Review

Platforms: PC, PS4
Developer: Spike Chunsoft
Publisher: Spike Chunsoft
Release: 10th April 2019
Price: 59.99

Marketed by apparently being made by the team behind Danganronpa, Zanki Zero seems to be another promising hit for Spike Chunsoft, building on top of one of their most acclaimed series and delivering similar content in another way. This time with the addition of classic dungeon crawling with your team of characters instead of trials, it tries to mix up the formula a whole lot. Or so it seemed to most people, however, the fact the lead writer Kazutaka Kodaka isn´t even with Spike Chunsoft anymore nor involved with Zanki Zero, which is a project by the game designer and other members of Danganronpa, this title seems to lack, well, the very heart of what made Danganronpa so unique, flawed and great: Its writer, and it shows.

Shrouding itself in mystery, we´re taking over the role as Haruto, as he just throws himself into death. However, instead of salvation, a destroyed world awaits him at the end of the tunnel, along 7 other survivors of whatever happened to earth. Soon they are tasked with omnious quests like searching a toilet, while surviving against the many obstacles, “enemies” and even their own bodies.

Instantly anyone who played Danganronpa will find many similarities in this structure, namely the characters themselves, being practically another variation of the Ultimates of aforementioned series. Naturally, they´re named after the seven deadly sins this time and stand for different things but the fact they define themselves through these “attributes” early on and face the same despair filled situation in the psychological way like in Danganronpa enforces this feel of … having all of it seen somewhere already. Especially the first hours feel like seeing many elements I´ve known in three other games, this time in a slightly different setting. Combined with the cute TV show featuring a sheep and human cartoon figure dashing out those quests in a sometimes too forced funny way, makes them look like worse Monokuma interpretations.

And that´s the impression you should prepare for and what Zanki Zero may have aimed for initially: Delivering similar dynamics, setting and chore traits like Danganronpa without offering too many unique ideas. Yet, if you paid attention, this is one of the biggest problems in the beginning but eventually, the whole story can escape its shadow eventually, not entirely though. On the one hand, one of its core concepts is the ability to offer a dead team member a clone so he can continue living, more on how that happens later on. The whole name itself is a pun in Japanese meaning “Remaining Lifes: Zero” and the new core theme is the never-ending cycle of death and rebirth instead of pure despair and school trials. It´s an appealing idea that´s tackled quite well on many levels and actually makes sense with the big twist at the end, though also hard to properly describe without spoiling anything. One of the reasons this works so well is also partly because the characters, as similar as they are to Danganronpa, are still likeable because their writing is still funny and it´s generally engaging to interact with them, if you had a soft spot for the whole idea to begin with.

On the other hand and contrary to what I´ve said just now, Zanki Zero´s biggest problem are all those similarities between its arguable big brother, since, even though it tries to add new ideas and concepts to stand on its own two feet. It doesn´t feel a whole lot worse, but the fact I never once considered it a title that would exist without Danganronpa´s existence, makes it seem and feel like a weird spin-off in my head and that feeling never went away. All the while featuring so many identical constructions reminding me of my time with its brother and eventually wanting to return there. Why? Not because it´s a lot worse in terms of writing, due to Kazutoko not being a master at creating stories and dialogues able to truly hold up for 30 hours in retrospective, but because it´s gameplay was never made for me.

Consisting of several quite long dungeon crawling levels, you´re tasked with selecting a team of 4 and fight your way through each of them to unlock new background information about your teammates and … resources. Because Zanki Zero isn´t a simple dungeon crawler, it also features an honestly interesting take on the survival genre, confronting you with the usual array of thirst or hunger bars, as well as a permadeath … well kinda and that´s the most interesting point. While it´s still necessary to gather enough resources to keep your team afloat and starving or other causes of death kill each member permanently, Zanki Zero is all about reviving.

This time though, all of them are able to switch to clones, enabling them to keep their memories and think about how to avoid this cause of death. In practice this results in significant immunity boosts to each cause once they´ve fallen victim to them, teaching both the player how to do it better and adding a little bonus to actually help you to overcome those problems, you couldn´t initially face. As a result, the overarching themes feels a lot more rooted into the world and gameplay itself and at the same time creating an interesting twist on a genre already beaten to death.

Otherwise though, pretty much everything is almost copied from any other decent dungeon crawler. Your team has different abilities, that neatly relate to some of their traits, but otherwise not much. Just with the added weight of balancing a few new meters and puzzles varying in difficulty in quality. Nothing surprising or grabbing, except the slightly censored fanservice episodes unlocked by talking and interacting with the cast in a similar manner to Danganronpa, which is neat honestly.

Graphically, I´m still not too sure what to think about its strictly 3D presentation with occasional 2D shots mixed in. I wasn´t a huge fan of it in the Zero Escape series’ later titles and Zanki Zero´s designs aren´t all that unique or offer a style to make it work flawlessly. Instead, I like the general artstyle and some designs being very similar to Danganronpa but the 3D models take a lot away from them. At the same time, the environments and enemies are mushy as one would expect to the point where I found some of the cramped islands pretty ugly with their lack of good lighting and unique designs. The pixelart of all the items and menues, highlighting this retro feel the “game” aspect of this game wants to invoke is a neat idea though and I never found those elements being missplaced or not fitting, which is probably the most unique visual identity Zanki Zero has to offer. Sadly the soundtrack too isn´t great or bad either, just okay with a few good tracks, the ones you´ll hear more often in particular.

Conclusion

Zanki Zero is a game that doesn´t want to mimick Danganronpa in many ways, offering a wholly different core gameplay loop and setting, yet, never wants to seperate itself from it either. The story is a weird mix between Danganronpa style characters but each of them gets more depth, due to the reduced cast size, than before and I really like the concept of eternity at its core but in the end, there´s always something that reminded me of this other trilogy. Zanki Zero is a decent dungeon crawler with a handful of unique ideas, it´s also a fun visual novel with some interesting themes but I wonder what this game could´ve been if it wouldn´t have been made with the goal to market it as something similarly to Danganronpa. In short, I´m still not sure what this game actually wants to be, a copy or a wholly independant experience because it´s never one of them.

[A Review Code was provided by Spike Chunsoft]