To talk about Spike Chunsoft’s newest game, Zanki Zero: Last Beginning, we need to bring up the Danganronpa series, since both share members of the development team. The Danganronpa series nailed suspense and mystery. Each entry had the player guessing until the very end, which made every death game a thrill to experience.
As easy as it would be to take everything about the Danganronpa series and crank out a new adventure, the developers decided to try something new with Zanki Zero: Last Beginning. While it still borrows elements from Danganronpa, which it unapologetically promotes throughout the game, Zanki Zero: Last Beginning presents some incredible moments of not only storytelling but dungeon crawling and survival systems as well.
Zanki Zero: Last Beginning begins with a tragedy, players assume the role of a journalist named Haruto Higurashi who finds himself washed up on a strange island with a hazy memory of what happened prior to him arriving. Haruto comes to find out that he is joined by seven other individuals who each arrived in more or less the same way. Furthermore, each of the characters has a strange X on their belly button that they can’t remove. Before too many questions build up, Haruto turns on a TV and is introduced to two of the greatest characters in video game history along with their show, Extend TV.
On the screen is a sheep named Mirai and her human assistant Sho Terashima. Both of the characters inform the group of survivors that they are the last remaining humans on Earth and they must collect machine parts in order to restore life to the planet. Premise aside, these two characters will pop up countless times throughout the adventure on various television sets. They’re personalities riff brilliantly off one another and the writing for their conversations had me constantly laughing, even during some of the darker moments of the game. I couldn’t help but love to see them pop up after something serious happened because they always seemed to brighten up my day even though it’s tough to gauge whether they are good or bad.
Gameplay has the player searching through dungeons to find a boss and retrieve a machine part upon defeating it. The machine parts are used to upgrade the Extend Machine, a device that the player will be pretty well acquainted with within the first few hours of the game. You see, each character has a lifespan of the 13 days. Following their allotted amount of time, they’ll die and will need to be taken to the Extend Machine where they’ll be reborn and given a new life. Since characters age so rapidly, they’ll begin their lives as a child and age their way to an elderly adult over the 13 days, which can be extended from time to time.
Dying in the game isn’t the worst that can happen since the characters are able to use their gained experiences during their life before. Things like upgraded strength or defense aren’t uncommon depending on what killed them. While I found this system interesting, being able to constantly revive the character no matter what does make every difficulty below the recommended III a little too easy. Similarly, points are used to revive characters, but I never had a moment where I was low on points so this made them feel unimportant overall.
With that said, I love the aging feature and how each character has various skills and abilities depending on which age they are. In dungeons, some areas can only be accessed depending on if you have a character of that age in the party. Characters also have a set weight of items that they can carry which makes managing items something else that needs to be kept in mind while exploring.
The survival systems in the game can get pretty deep, from managing your character’s hunger and anxiety to relieving their bladder in a proper restroom. While they don’t get too crazy with this system, harder difficulties definitely make this game feel like a true survival RPG where managing all these systems as well as planning out your days is important.
To help with keeping all the characters in high spirits is the base upgrading feature. Using items found in dungeons, players can upgrade their base. The upgrades that I found most important were storage and crafting since these are both pretty important to have early on in the game. However, gaining access to these upgrades also requires characters to use skill points received from leveling up. As you can see, there are a lot of things that the player must keep in mind during the game. While understanding these features was easy enough and they are clearly explained, Zanki Zero: Last Beginning has several different menus that are attached to different buttons which makes remembering where everything is located pretty confusing in the beginning.
Dungeon crawling in Zanki Zero: Last Beginning is not like your typical turn-based dungeon crawler. Everything moves in real time so this means that some tough battles can be fudged, but also getting corned by an enemy will almost always result in death. Every time a character attacks they suffer a cooldown period upwards of three seconds. However, enemies don’t seem to work like this and can typical attack pretty consecutively if you’re just standing in front of them and because this game is in real-time almost every attack can be avoided by simply moving to the side. Furthermore, there is a special charge attack that can knock parts off of enemies which can be used to power up characters later on.
Boss battles are what every dungeon leads to and they are all worth it. Each boss is connected in some way to a character. Throughout the dungeon, Sho and Mirai will deliver clues in the form of video cassettes explaining how they are connected. Nothing is really off limits here and some of these stories are pretty dark. It’s been a while since I’ve had to put a controller down and take a break after experiencing some of the emotionally traumatizing events these characters went through, but the game is made better because of it.
When it comes to mystery, Zanki Zero: Last Beginning changes in tone each chapter as the player is put in the role of a different character. Throughout the game, we learn more about these characters and their thoughts as well as how some of their memories just don’t add up to how many characters there are. The story really takes off after the third chapter and doesn’t really slow down as it has the player questioning each character until the last moments of the game.
The game also features a sort of dating element that more or less happens at random when characters are bunked together for a sleepover. One negative part about these scenes is that the child bedtime scenes have been removed from the western version of the game. However, these scenes are pretty random and don’t actually add anything to the main plot of the story outside of the player getting to choose which characters they want to ship. It doesn’t really change the main story and only offers some sexy CG scenes of the characters. I felt that the whole experience only hurt the pacing of the game more than helped it. On a positive note, the characters share dungeon skills after spending the night together which makes things a bit easier during exploration.
Where I found the game lacks is overall music sound design, which is basic short 8-10 second loops of repeating audio. There’s not one real stand out track that plays throughout the entire game. However, the voiced audio tracks are done quite well. While there is a Japanese voice option, I used the English audio for the characters throughout most of my playtime, which I found to be really good. Another issue that holds the game from greatness is that the dungeons reuse assets a little too much, which makes every floor of stage confusing to find your way around especially when traveling to older dungeons for the extra events.
I found very little not to like about Zanki Zero: Last Beginning, even though continuously returning the Extend Machine can get annoying in the later chapters and managing the age of the characters during exploration is always something that has to be on your mind. However, all of the systems in the game add up to make it a strong mystery visual novel with decent survival and dungeon crawling mechanics, which I enjoyed.
Zanki Zero: Last Beginning is not Danganronpa, and I don’t think it’s trying to be. While it didn’t leave me with my jaw dropped as the Danganronpa series did, I can’t seem to get some of these character’s stories and their sins out of my head. So perhaps the emotional damage that the game caused me is enough for me to say that Zanki Zero: Last Beginning is a powerful adventure visual novel that this development team should be proud of.