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Zanki Zero: Last Beginning Review

Zanki Zero: Last Beginning Review

Horror themed RPGs aren’t new. They aren’t even that uncommon, though they are varied. One thing they tend to have in common is wearing their frightful nature on their sleeves, displaying them proudly for the world to see. Looking at the peaceful loading screen of Zanki Zero: Last Beginning, you’d be forgiven for thinking this game was a relaxing survival sim. In truth this is post-apocalypse done exceptionally well; underneath those blue skies and sandy beaches, lies a game fraught with gore, unnerving environments, and unsettling enemy design. That isn’t to say the game starts off tranquil, that veneer is only skin deep, within minutes of starting a new game its true nature is hinted at and it only gets darker from there.

The day is Sunday, 8th July 2018, Haruto Higurashi, weighed down with guilt and wishing the world would end, steps off the top of a tower and into the summer night. Expecting to hit the street, he’s surprised when he lands in water instead. Even more surprising is someone is talking to him, telling him to ‘illuminate a brighter future for humanity’ before he passes out. When Haruto comes around he finds himself trapped on an island, surrounded by the ruins of civilization, with only seven other survivors. Informed via a strange television show that they are all that remains of humanity, it soon becomes apparent that these strangers have to come together if they are to survive. It’s only through cooperation, and exploring other ruins, that they can find out the truth of this world’s fate.

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The game begins by throwing you into first person, putting you behind the eyes of the character, to explore a destroyed island town on foot. A giggling ghost runs across the street before you, urging you to follow, as the wind whistles through the destroyed and weather-beaten buildings. Using the directional pad to move and the right analogue stick to interact with your surroundings, you follow the apparition and it leads you towards the island’s main hub, the garage in which most of the game’s story revolves. It’s here that you’ll find the television that shows ‘Extend TV’, a program that gives missions and information to the survivors, and the Extend arcade machine. The machine is the key to restoring humanity, but is currently incomplete, thus giving the rag-tag group of islanders an ultimate goal; explore the surrounding islands, fix the machine, and fix the world.

The show then drops another bombshell, revealing everyone is actually a clone of their past selves, a clone that can be revived again and again using the X Key on their belly button. Each clone has a limited lifespan of 13 days, with each time you move to a new floor in a dungeon aging them by one day. Each time they are brought back they retain their level and skills previously obtained. This all means that dying in dungeons you’ll be exploring isn't the end. The characters’ limited lifespans tend to limit how large dungeons can be, and it can be annoying having to be forced to leave once a character dies of old age. Even on the easiest setting managing your time remaining is crucial, and can leave you forcibly wasting days in order to bring everyone's time remaining to a similar point.

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Each time you die your next clone will be given a bonus resistance to what killed it, or a stat boost or life time extension. For example, being killed by a goat’s headbutt will result in the revived clone having a resistance to damage from goats, and headbutts. Being killed by a food that character is allergic to will make subsequent clones no longer allergic. It's worth collecting as many deaths as you can.

Yet, despite offering incentives to get your team killed in as many creative ways as possible, cloning isn't free and costs you score points, costing more points depending on how many of these bonuses you wish to actually use. Score points are obtained through combat, with more points being given for breaking an enemy's body parts off, or getting a high chain combo. The necessity of these points urges you to go out into the ruins more often, and for longer, or even taking on multiple enemies at once to build your combo chain, meaning a higher risk of death. On higher difficulty levels combat rewards more Score points but the punishment for dying becomes far harsher. It’s all a delicate balancing act that can seem daunting at first, but is easy to master if you don't mind switching between difficulty levels. Farming lower difficulties can leave you in a position where you don’t need to worry about score points, allowing you to try harder ranks of dungeons and the higher experience points these tiers offer, switching back after your points have taken a hit to begin the process again.

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Since certain items required for the game’s crafting mechanic will only be dropped at higher difficulty ranks, and even the most basic monsters do huge amounts of damage at the higher tiers, it can be a fine balancing act between progression and survival. Enemies may prove to be so hard you can only take on one at a time, until you get some of the better equipment and skills, but you can only get the better gear by taking on these harder foes. Zanki Zero delights in the notion of the ‘two steps forward, one step back’ approach, yet the progression you make feels palpable. Indeed getting one skill through leveling, or managing to make a stronger weapon, can make such a difference in how you were doing until now that it never feels like you’re up against something impossible.

As far as first-person dungeon crawlers go, Zanki Zero is a bit different. If you’ve ever played Pokémon Mystery Dungeon or Grimoire then you’ll recognise the grid based exploration. Imagine a floor where everything is laid out in tiles, like a chessboard, and the map fills in for each step you take. That’s the basics of this type of dungeon crawler. Normally for every move you make the monsters of the world take one after you; It’s turn based exploring where combat happens if you should happen to get close enough to a wandering foe. This isn’t the case here. Enemies won’t passively wait for you to take your turn. Instead they gain a move every few seconds, turning it from turn-based into real time. There’s no standing still to prevent creatures from taking their turn, they will chase you down and attack while you’re twiddling your thumbs.

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A not insignificant part of the game’s horror comes from the fact that monsters are all around you, moving constantly, and knowing they will strike if they spot you. Being in first person means you can’t see to your sides, or behind you, unless you turn around. Often times the ruins are dark, until you turn on a light somewhere, so the eerie sounds of shuffling creatures you can’t see serves to ramp up the tension. This goes doubly so for the humanoid enemies, their distorted voices laughing or mumbling in the gloom, leaving you on edge for fear of an attack from the unseen. Some doors in the ruins only open up if all of your party members are currently alive, putting an emphasis on survival, turning a simple RPG into a survival horror. Death is not something to fear in Zanki Zero, it’s even casually encouraged, but it’s certainly something to be avoided while trying to progress.

Combat has been adjusted for this type of exploration. Instead of giving your characters one attack or move per ‘turn’, you attack in real time, resulting in a short cooldown period before you can strike again. You can chain together multiple hits into a combo, for bonus Score points and more damage, by holding down the attack button to charge up. The longer you hold it down the more teammates join the strike, up to a maximum of four. Once a combo hit has landed a timer begins. The timer lasts the exact length of an attack cooldown, meaning if you go all in with all four team members you won’t be able to hit again in time before the timer expires. This can of course be changed if you have skills to reduce the cooldown period, but it serves as warning to stagger your attacks. Surprisingly this works very well, teaching you very quickly that the best way to beat your foes, rack up high combos and oftentimes avoid incoming enemy attacks, is to hit and run. Strike quickly, side step away to charge another small attack, and hit again while the monster is turning around to find you. It’s certainly not a passive RPG experience.

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Dungeon inhabitants aren’t the only source of danger to your survival. Players have bladder gauges, which increase over time and when eating. Failure to get to a bathroom in time results in accidents, which comes with a debuff making them slower in combat and attracts nearby creatures. You can always use an empty plastic bottle to do your business, but this can lead to characters becoming stressed. Too much stress and your characters stamina will be affected, stamina dictating how long they can move and attack. Stress can be lowered by feeding the character the food they like or drinking water, which in turn fills the bladder. You can find bathrooms in the various ruins, but it always pays to keep a few water bottles on hand, just in case. If this sounds like too much you needn’t worry; you can always explore at lower difficulty levels, meaning your bladder and stress fills slower, or not at all, until you feel comfortable with the mechanics.

Outside of the urban exploration, you are tasked with improving your home island through base expansion. The development of new facilities is tied to what items you manage to find and what skills you have unlocked on a player. Certain improvements are only available once you have put a few skill points, obtained through leveling, into renovation. It’s this way that you unlock the ability to cook food, craft items, and improve your gear. Zanki Zero has some pretty interesting mechanics when it comes to getting resources. Everything requires resources, making it prudent to not only scour dungeons for loot, but to check the island beaches for anything that may have washed up over time. Outside of the usual enemy drops and dungeon loot, some items can only be obtained in rather odd ways. Monkey adhesive, for example, is a widely used crafting resource that can only be acquired by letting a certain enemy hit you, randomly depositing the glue into the inventory of a party member.

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Of course it’s entirely possible to minimize the amount of things you need to deal with by dropping the difficulty down. There are no major consequences for playing on easy; you’ll still make enough points to revive, should you die, if you grind a bit. Players looking to enjoy the story can just play on a lower difficulty, while those looking for a challenge can turn it up. Difficulty doesn’t affect the puzzles, nor the size of the ruins. It’s a feature so interwoven into the gameplay itself that it expects you to be bouncing between the different ranks of hardship, to balance out resource grinding and combat. However, it's equally valid to play on the lowest setting and still enjoy the game, since the game prides itself on the frustration of survival, which isn't for everyone. It leaves the game feeling a bit simple and empty though, and prevents some of the game’s features, such as completing base expansion. Fortunately these aren't needed to progress, and serve only to make the harder difficulties easier.

While Zanki Zero leans heavily on the brutal survival part of the game, it doesn’t have to. By drip feeding the mystery of your identities, and humanity's extinction, during your dungeoneering exploits. The player is rewarded for playing with bite-sized chunks of a story that is engaging and memorable, certainly one that leaves you wanting to keep playing to find out more. From some of the minds behind the Danganronpa franchise, Zanki Zero is well thought out, with multiple twists and turns to surprise any player, no matter how familiar with the genre they are.

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Zanki Zero: Last Beginning oozes both charm and horror in equal measure. It’s a highly enjoyable game that deserves a lot more attention than it’s getting. Perfect for fans of horror, mystery, and dungeon crawling RPGs.

9.00/10 9

Zanki Zero: Last Beginning (Reviewed on PlayStation 4)

Excellent. Look out for this one.

Zanki Zero: Last Beginning oozes both charm and horror in equal measure. It’s a highly enjoyable game that deserves a lot more attention than it’s getting. Perfect for fans of horror, mystery, and dungeon crawling RPGs.

This game was supplied by the publisher or relevant PR company for the purposes of review
Jessica Robinson

Jessica Robinson

Staff Writer

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