Zanki Zero: Last Beginning is the newest game to be developed by Lancarse who have worked on Persona Q2, SMT Strange Journey and Lost Dimension. Published by Spike Chunsoft, who may be most well known for their work on Dragon Quest and Danganronpa. Following a group of 8 middle-aged people who have to suffer from their sins by dying over and over again whilst isolated on an island surrounded by monsters. With a unique take on survival, Zanki Zero aims to be new and exciting in both terms of gameplay and story.
Zanki Zero starts off very depressingly, as one of the protagonists of the game, Haruto, is preparing to commit suicide by jumping off a building. While we see his face hit a car below he instead awakens to find himself underwater, moments later opening his eyes to the sight of a young girl who welcomes him. After a short while, Haruto figures out that he has either been kidnapped or transported to an isolated island with 7 other victims of around 25 years old.
The main aim of the game is to find out why they are trapped here as well as how to leave. As their guide, several TVs will come to life with a show called Extend TV which gives them missions for survival as well as figuring out the mystery. Detailing their new lives as clones, the 8 protagonists have the ability to die and be cloned at a nearby Extend Machine, making their memories immortal but essentially dying and restarting each time. Their lifespan is also constrained to a range of 13-18 days depending on their skills, and so their aim is to upgrade the machine in hopes it will stop the ageing process. As the last 8 surviving members of the human race, after an apocalyptic event, these clones must find a way to bring back humanity whilst not losing their own.
Exploring through 8 separate dungeons, you will be going through long-winded, backtracking and grindy experiences one after the other. While the beginning areas aren’t too bad, the farther you go into the game the more you come to understand the lengthening mechanics put in place to keep you playing longer.
For a normal run of Zanki Zero, you will need to pour in between 30-40 hours, depending on how often you die and how much time you spend upgrading the base. There isn’t a whole lot of additional content, aside from several hidden notes which are easy to find or the materials needed to upgrade the base to the max. Getting the game to 100% will probably land you around 60-80 hours based on your own opinion of 100%.
Zanki Zero is foremost a Dungeon Crawler, in the style of older games in the RPG genre, though some may liken it to the Etrian Odyssey series from Atlus. The entire game is played on a square grid, with a 1st-person view all throughout, conversations instead pulling up animated pictures of the characters. The survival aspects are very light, with you adding materials into a menu to then get access to new crafting, you cannot choose how many buildings or where to place them.
Combat within the game is very basic, you only have the square button for attacks, holding it down for a charge or to fire your ranged weapons. While you can hop between squares on the grid to avoid attacks there are plenty of attacks that occur too fast or are wide-spread, causing your dodges to become inefficient. For general play, you can clear the dungeons without too much hassle, though later segments and some boss fights can feel unfair at times due to the controls.
As you defeat enemies you will gain EXP and Score, the 1st being used to level up your characters and gain skill points and the 2nd to allow you to revive your characters. Levels don’t affect your stats, instead allowing you to unlock new skills that open up new mechanics like hunting for food or boosting you combat proficiency like increasing damage done by slashing weapons by 10%. For reviving characters you need to spend at least 1000 score points, which on normal difficulty is gained via killing 3 or so foes, which is incredibly easy to do. I never felt I was running out of Score points, ending with several hundred thousand of them.
Targeting specific parts of enemies also allows you to deal increased damage and break off parts of their body. This mechanic is useful when gathering materials as you can take the horns off goats or the shells off crabs. As an addition to the items and damage increase from hitting parts, you also gain more Score points when breaking segments off an enemy, making Score gathering even easier.
As your characters die and get revived you will unlock new Shigabane for them, though they only gain the benefits of what they were killed by, not the other members. These come in the form of becoming immune to past allergies, resistant to status effects, increased stats and even longer lifespans. While this mechanic has been done before it is a welcome sight in this game as it is quite a rare mechanic to find.
Your main base in Zanki Zero is the garage island, which is where you will also revive your characters at. There are 5 facilities to build and upgrade from the Warehouse, Workshop, Kitchen, Bedroom and Toilet. These facilities and subsequent upgrades allow you to store materials at the base, craft and upgrade equipment, cook the meat and foodstuffs you find out in the dungeons, sleep and relieve your bladder. Due to how basic the base upgrading is I never felt too attached to the mechanics, as it is simply menus with some aesthetic changes at the base.
As you progress through the 8 chapters of the story you will unlock a new upgrade for the Extend machine each chapter, up to chapter 5. While 2 of these are useful, there are quite a few that are mostly a side addition or a nice to have. Sadly, you unlock a video player to see past events, a minigame and 1 upgrade that does absolutely nothing. For how much hype the game gives to the upgrades they felt really lacklustre after the first 2 dungeons.
After some time in the game you will unlock the ability to attach tentacles to your characters, called Clione. These give you more options in combat as well as outside of combat, unlocking ranged attacks, status attacks and even healing abilities. You cannot use these abilities all the time however, as they build up a rampage gauge that when full can kill the character instantly if used again. Throughout my playthrough, I got probably 20% of all the Clione which is a surprisingly low amount, even when I killed every enemy I saw and broke their parts to gain the Clione.
After a few hours into the game, you will unlock a music player, while normally a nice addition to other games that allows you to change the music, in Zanki Zero this is pretty much the only way to hear music outside of talking or cutscenes. A majority of the game is devoid of music aside from ambient sounds or boss encounters, the music player being one of the only ways to hear some of the great tracks on offer.
The graphics of Zanki Zero are rather pleasing to the eye, from the destroyed buildings to the foliage still surviving in the harsh lands. While it does take on an anime style aesthetic, Zanki Zero doesn’t shy away from demonic creatures and gory details that would normally be found within the Shin Megami Tensei series.
While one of the main mechanics of the game is to alter the difficulty for increased rewards, the difficulty of the main game is rather consistent. Setting up both your party and enemies as glass cannons either side can only take a few hits before death, turning the game into more of a hit-and-run experience rather than something you can rush through. There are plenty of beginner traps around, with pitfalls into a group of foes, traps that can instantly kill your party and sneaking enemies that can trap you against a wall. Only a true masochist would enjoy all the game has to offer, as many times it forces you to die to gain new power.
Thankfully the game lacks any form of bug or glitch, except for the 1 game breaking one I found in my playtime, which concerned a certain boss later on who died but didn’t progress the story. Thankfully the game autosaves on map load, along with my own keeping of separate saves, so I reloaded and killed the boss again to which it then progressed the story. My suggestion is to keep a few saves in backup.
Due to the central mechanic of dying and reviving, Zanki Zero sets up its gameplay in a way that lengthens your time in dungeons and tries to kill you at every turn. Once your team is too old, or dead, you will have to return to the base to go through the whole process again, however, you will have to wait around for 5 days to become an adult from the child stage of cloning. Feeling like poor padding, a lot of your game time will be wasted on backtracking and passing the time to get your team set up for the dungeon again.
Overall, Zanki Zero gets a 6/10, it has some amazing gameplay and mechanics in place but lacks a lot of polish and development time to really make them shine. Combat is fun for the first 5 hours but with a runtime of over 30 it becomes repetitive and boring, especially when you only have a single attack button with limited dodging potential. The base and upgrade system also aids in your progression and allows for some customisation, but they are wholly underdeveloped and basic. As the main focus is the story, it should be more grandiose and getting me invested, but with so many clichés, drawn-out segments, lack of voice acting and non-rewarding endings it didn’t grip me as much as it should have. If you’re getting this on PS4 or PC hoping for a AAA standard or high-end game you may be disappointed as it feels like it was designed with Vita in mind first and foremost.