The landscape of Japanese visual novel games has been in a strange place ever since the release of Danganronpa V3: Killing Harmony in 2017. While reception was overall mixed on the beloved series’ final outing, the Danganronpa series will live on thanks to its lovable cast, fantastic writing and disturbingly quirky tone. The first two games are some of my favourite video games of all time, and they’re hard shoes for any game to follow in, but that doesn’t stop publisher (and Danganronpa developers) Spike Chunsoft from touting developer Lancarse’s Zanki Zero: Last Beginning as the next best thing. From ex-series producer Yoshinori Terasawa and Danganronpa 2: Goodbye Despair director Takayuki Sugawara, it’s a fair assumption that most people interested in Zanki Zero are here because of their mutual interest in Danganronpa, which is why I feel it is important to mention that it is unfair to compare the two, for better or for worse.
Zanki Zero: Last Beginning centers around eight characters, seven of which are based around the seven deadly sins, while also retaining their own distinguishing profession (police officer, farmer, doctor, etc.) and a mysterious young girl with a prosthetic arm and leg. The game opens with the gang waking up to discover that they are trapped on a post-apocalyptic isolated beach with no way back to civilization, if still even exits. Guiding them is an animated TV program named ‘Extend TV’ that randomly airs to relay information to them and is accompanied by two bizarre 1960s anime characters as hosts. The crew soon learns that the Earth has been destroyed and that they are the last survivors and must uncover how they ended up on Garage Island.
While its introduction initially comes off as repetitive and cliched, once it kicks into gear, Zanki Zero: Last Beginning offers an intriguing story with a generally likable cast that it takes equal amounts of time to portray and develop. While other games in the genre usually take the ‘battle royale’ approach to storytelling (no, I do not mean Fortnite), this game prohibits that by revealing that should any of the main cast die, they can be immediately revived through cloning from the ‘Extend Machine’ on the island. While this does mainly affect the gameplay, it does mean each member of the cast sticks around a lot longer than those found in other games. While I’m generally fond of the character writing, and the story did offer enough to keep me engaged, I found the way the writers acknowledged some of the more mature and serious themes found in the plot somewhat disappointing and disingenuous. Zanki Zero includes mentions and some depictions of sexual assault and suicide in a very serious manner. The game doesn’t do this to convey any sort of message or highlight them in any sort of meaningful way, but instead it just does it to intentionally shock the player in a manner I found somewhat uncomfortable, and I would understand if it turned some people off the game entirely. I do believe it is also worth mentioning that this game has been censored outside of Japan to match PlayStation’s strict censorship policies that recent titles, such as Devil May Cry 5, have been affected by. Due to the nature of the content censored in this game though, this is one case where I have to side with the publisher’s decision.
Putting aside the visual novel elements, at its core Zanki Zero: Last Beginning is a dungeon-crawling JRPG with survival game mechanics, a genre through which its developer, Lancarse, has carved out an identity for themselves with titles like the Etrian Odyssey series and Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey, making it even more confusing just how this game’s mechanics conflict with each other on a seemingly never-ending basis. Every chapter (‘stage’, as the game refers to them) a new island will open up for the player to explore from a first-person perspective, and as hinted at earlier, every time a party member dies, they can later be revived through the Extend Machine by using points gained from the dungeons. Each party member has a lifespan of 13 days, after which they will die from natural causes, and the player must remember to keep their stamina up through toilet use and feeding, elements that can be hit or miss depending on your view of survival games. For me, after a while some of these necessities began to feel like chores, and yet they also weren’t deep enough to feel like they were truly relevant to the experience. This is made worse by the fact that in order to fully complete a dungeon or story sequence, the player must keep every character alive.
While the general dungeon-crawling is composed of repetitive settings mixed with uninteresting level designs, the absolute worst part of this game is the barely functional combat system. Combat is done in real-time during the dungeon exploration. Enemies are found exploring the overworld the same as the player; however, in order to engage in combat, the player must move the cursor to the limb they wish to attack and either hit them four times (once for every party member) or very slowly perform a charge attack. What makes this insufferable is just how slowly the cursor moves, with no option whatsoever to change its speed. This makes facing multiple opponents and bosses nearly impossible. Those interested purely in the story will be relieved to know that the game’s Western release introduces a new difficulty mode that almost entirely removes the combat, but I would argue that this is generally a more enjoyable version of the game overall.
One thing Zanki Zero: Last Beginning certainly doesn’t have over Spike Chunsoft’s Danganronpa and Zero Escape series is nearly as interesting an art style or character designs. While the art in Zanki Zero certainly isn’t bad, it’s noticeably uninspired in comparison to others in its genre. It’s also just a generally plain looking title; being a PlayStation Vita port to PlayStation 4 (which is the version I played for this review) and PC, the game doesn’t exactly own its low-budget aesthetic, as I imagine the PS Vita version worked better in comparison. I did really enjoy the English dub accompanying this Western release, as every Extend TV segment is fully voice acted, adding to their charm and humor, although I would have preferred if there were more fully voiced segments with the main cast. The game’s soundtrack was also surprisingly great and adds some personality to the more upbeat story moments when needed.
In the end, Zanki Zero: Last Beginning is a title that manages to carve out an identity of its own through characters and storytelling but at the cost of any sort of well implemented combat system or meaningful depictions of some of its mature and sensitive subject matter. In many areas it comes close to reaching the highs of some of developer Lancarse and publisher Spike Chunsoft’s previous titles, but ultimately, Zanki Zero just refuses to decide if it wishes to be a dungeon-crawling JRPG survival game or a visual mystery novel, and it excels as neither one.
Publisher: Spike Chunsoft
Platforms: PS4, PC, PS Vita
Release Date: 9th April 2019