Visual novels might not be for everyone, but even with that in mind there’s a wide range of quality within the genre. It’s possible to miss out on some quality experiences if you’re unwilling to play a game without a lot of gameplay. That’s why it’s nice that there’s been a trend toward implementing more traditional experiences, as we see with games like Danganronpa as well as the Spike Chunsoft team’s newest effort Zanki Zero: Last Beginning. Can it possibly live up to such a lineage?
Haruto’s had a bad day. Well, it’s probably worse than bad. See, things got bad enough that he tried to take his own life…but even that didn’t work. Instead, he ended up on a mysterious deserted isle called Garage Island with seven other individuals who also have no idea how they got there. Over time, it becomes clear that things are even worse than just being stranded – the world has ended, horrible monsters preside over what’s left, and our protagonists aren’t exactly human anymore…
Well, they kind of are. See, Haruto and pals are clones. Their minds exist on chips known as X Keys attached to their navels. The long and short of this is that death isn’t really an issue anymore. If someone dies, their body dissolves and leaves behind their possessions and X Key. By picking up their X Key and returning it to the Extend Machine on Garage Island, the dead can be “extended” and returned to life.
It’s not exactly a perfect form of immortality, though. The deceased is brought back to life as a young child, first off, so they’re not exactly useful in the kind of survival situation Haruto’s group is in. Second, clones have a lifespan of only 13 days. Since time passes as you explore the world, you’re going to have characters born as children, progress through adult, middle-aged and senior phases, then die of old age only for you to bring them back as kids again. Your characters will cycle through birth to death over and over as the game progresses.
This has several interesting implications. Zanki Zero is, at its core, a visual novel combined with a first-person real-time dungeon crawler along the lines of the classic Dungeon Master series or the more recent Legend of Grimrock. This is a fairly well-understood genre at this point, but the life cycle system shakes things up significantly. Characters are at their best as adults, but that period doesn’t last long and chances are your whole group isn’t going to be in that stage at once.
You’ll need to learn to work with what you’ve got, which often means weak children that die in a couple hits and can’t carry anything or seniors that aren’t much stronger and are also due to die of old age at any moment. Along with all this, you’ll need to manage food consumption, carry weight and even people’s need for the bathroom. There’s a significant amount of tension involved, like a balancing act between life and death. As characters die, they evolve and become stronger, but this also makes them more expensive to resurrect when they die; efficiency is key, to say nothing of also having to manage a base on Garage Island. There’s even more to consider, but even these basic concepts make for a complex and involved adventure.
Combine all this with some of the darkest storytelling in gaming, along the lines of Danganronpa, and you’ve got a pretty compelling take on dungeon-crawling. Zanki Zero’s presentation suits this kind of concept, offering just the right mix between beauty and horror. Special mention must be made for the Extend TV segments that advance the story and the creepy boss designs.
Let’s be real: Zanki Zero: Last Beginning probably isn’t going to be for everyone – the numerous systems that you need to balance against one another are probably going to exhaust players who want a more relaxed experience. Still, there are enough unique concepts here that I think it’s a must-play for anyone who enjoys RPGs or story-rich titles. Much like Danganronpa before it, Zanki Zero is sure to stick around in your head for awhile after playing, whether you’re contemplating the story turns or figuring out how to survive just one more floor of the latest dungeon.