A mysterious island, human cloning, rebirth and… dungeon crawling? What more could you possibly want?
Not much more, it turns out. Spike Chunsoft’s latest game, Zanki Zero: Last Beginning packs so much into one package, it’s hard to keep up. But for the most part, it pays off. It’s not perfect, but Zanki Zero goes to some lengths to provide players with an adventure they’ll find hard to put down.
Zanki Zero is, at its core, a dungeon crawler. Each level is about making your way through a labyrinthine multi-levelled dungeon, finding items and defeating enemies as you go. There’ll be a few locked door puzzles to solve along the way, and at the end of the dungeon a boss will be waiting for you. Moving around a grid-based system like any traditional dungeon crawler makes gameplay of these sections easy to get to grips with. Using the d-pad to move, you can also strafe with the shoulder buttons and use the left analogue stick to interact with points of interest. So far, so straightforward.
But Zanki Zero: Last Beginning isn’t just a dungeon crawler. It has an RPG-like equipment system, with each member of your party able to equip a weapon and various items of clothing that will alter their stats. There are survival elements, with each character having a number of gauges to be monitored. There’s a little bit of base building and, most notably, there’s a lot of storytelling and exposition. Outside of dungeon crawling, Zanki Zero feels like a visual novel. And for me, that quickly became the highlight of the game.
There’s no getting around how bat-shit crazy Zanki Zero‘s story is – but that is a large part of its charm. With eight main characters altogether, you start off in the shoes of Haruto. A young city worker, he finds himself washed up on a mysterious island with no recollection of how he got there. It turns out the other seven people on the island have no idea where they are, either. All they have to go on is the information given to them from a strange cartoon that occasionally plays through an old TV set.
It soon transpires that each person on the island is a clone – one with an accelerated lifespan. They’ll age rapidly through each stage of life, dying from old age after 13 days. But all is not lost! As long as another party member can retrieve a strange X-shaped metal pin that sits in their belly button, the deceased person can be reborn – or Extend them, as the game calls it – beginning their life cycle all over again as a child.
As a premise, it’s completely out-there, but it’s fascinating – and delivered by a cast of varied and interesting characters, it’s easy to get swept up in. Each chapter of the game focuses on a different character, putting you in control of them. You’ll learn each character’s back story – each one sad, disturbing, or downright weird – as you go through, with the plaguing questions of why and how they ended up on the island being enough to keep you desperate to know more.
Being a Japanese game, you can expect the odd line of dialogue to feel a little inappropriate – comments about a female character’s physique, or the young male cartoon presenter talking about the tent in his pants. It’s pretty at odds with some of the more serious issues touched on in each character’s backstory, so at times Zanki Zero feels a little all over the place in terms of tone. But it all adds to the game’s bizarre charm, I suppose.
There are several different difficulty options to choose from – you’ll be asked at the very beginning of the game, but won’t be able to change again until a few hours in, when you’ve already tackled the first boss. The difficulty level you choose does surprisingly affect the experience – and it’s easy for the game to feel either too unforgiving or too much of a cakewalk. Zanki Zero‘s combat does let the game down somewhat. Each character can attack once before a cooldown kicks in, so theoretically you can get in four attacks before having to retreat to let your cooldown time out – typically between four to eight seconds. It doesn’t sound like a lot, but when up against a boss, it means combat boils down to little more than stepping up to attack, then sidestepping to dodge. Rinse and repeat. It’s very easy to hit the wrong button or get caught by an attack if you don’t move out of the way quick enough.
Even on “normal” difficulty – the second easiest option – death comes quickly. But turn the difficulty down to easy and you remove all challenge from the game whatsoever. It’s hard to find a balance, but even normal-level combat can be frustratingly dull when all you’re doing is stepping backwards and forwards.
I eventually opted for the easiest difficulty, allowing me to enjoy Zanki Zero: Last Beginning‘s story and gameplay without having to worry about combat. After all, for me, the biggest draw has been the game’s narrative. The dungeon crawling still remains fun, but without random enemy encounters it feels a little more repetitive than it otherwise would. But I’d still recommend you do the same if, like me, you find the game’s ridiculous story to be the most compelling element.
Zanki Zero: Last Beginning packs a lot of different elements into one experience, which at times can leave it feeling a little disjointed. Some of those elements stand out more than others, with some feeling like afterthoughts, but the dungeon crawling gameplay is strong enough to stand on its own two feet. It’s the game’s zany but gripping narrative that’s the real star of the show, though. If science fiction interwoven with tales of family, loss, relationships and survival sounds like your thing, then Zanki Zero is worth a look.