You can find this review in full at GBAtemp.net:
Since the completion of the third Danganronpa game, its creators have been busy. Previously putting their name behind a whimsical tale of world destruction at the mere sight of panties, they continue their trend of wonderful end of worldliness to bring something new and creative, and yet true to each of its roots.
Welcome to Garage Island
Zanki Zero has perhaps the most fluid transition from title screen to gameplay I’ve ever seen, the menu simply fading away, leaving you with a brief overview of the controls and a small area to explore. A deserted and ruined city by the sea, you find yourself chasing a fading image. Walking through the ruin, weaving down alleys until you find yourself in front of an open garage, and in it, a mysterious arcade machine.
This sequence excels in setting a desolate scene with its deliberate ambient and environmental choices. With the game jumping from this setting to a dark cityscape upon interacting with the arcade machine, you almost get a sense of being flung back into reality; you’re drawn into this world so brilliantly before the game gives you so much as a word to read. It gives you an initial set of mysteries to be solved, things you find are slowly chipped away at as you play as if to keep you hooked on that same sense of mystery from start to end. As the intro plays out, you witness a desperate Haruto Higurashi atop a bland and looming tower wallowing, before stepping into the abyss below. Much to both his surprise, and mine as the player, death is not what greeted him in the end. Where there should have only been dark, his senses are overwhelmed with light, water, and shortly after, the voice of a young girl. A familiar island, the one you had previously walked through, is his destination, and it’s here the story really gets started.
Introducing herself as Sachika, the girl takes you to what will soon be your base of operations: the garage, where the game’s remaining cast are waiting to meet you. A total of eight people including Haruto and Sachika, each one is characterised by a deadly sin, with Sachika referred to as ‘The Original Sin’. While these titles aren’t mentioned until later in the game, I found them to be a unique insight into predicting how characters might act and develop early on. Haruto, for example, is revealed to be the ‘Editor of Sloth’ in the first chapter. From this, you begin to cast judgement: is he slothful, a sinner, or is he a victim of others’ slothful tendencies? Thinking down both paths, you force yourself to consider both an optimistic and pessimistic answer to each question, and as the truth slowly comes to light, you find your way of thinking influenced for the next character to be explored. It’s a brilliant mechanism in its simplicity, in how it plays on your preconceived notions and accumulating impressions.
The gameplay loop from chapter to chapter is nothing remarkable. In the garage, you’re introduced to several of the game’s founding ideas: you are the last eight survivors of humanity, you are all clones, and that you should follow the tasks provided by the mysterious cartoon Extend TV. The cartoon and its strange presenters Sho and Mirai stay with you throughout the story and act as your primary source of information, perhaps the most important of this being that as clones, they can be revived endlessly. The caveat however, is that death is no longer optional, rather an cruel inevitability.
As clones, our sinful cast’s lifespan is limited to a meagre 13 days. In this time, they go from children, to adults, to middle-aged, and finally to seniors, before dying of old age. Upon death, their bodies dissolve into white sand, leaving behind a pile of their belongings and more importantly, their X Key. By taking this key back to the Extend Machine, the previously mentioned arcade machine stashed away in the garage, they can be revived; it’s here where my favourite mechanic really comes to light.
Zanki Zero is much unlike any other RPG I’ve played. The single truth I’ve always held so closely, the micromanagement and effort propelled by the fear of death, of missing out on experience and losing progress; all of this is reworked and disfigured in a way so contrary to the genre fundamental. All of this comes from being revived by the Extend Machine, and the possibilities that lie in Shigabane. To be revived, or as the game describes it, extended, you need points. Points are accumulated for various activities, the main two being exploring new areas and defeating enemies, but to reduce this cycle down to gathering points until you die of old age, before extending and repeating, is to do it an incredible disservice. Shigabane are your incentive for death; think of each one as a bonus that can be applied to a character upon being extended. What’s so brilliant about these is how you get them, and how drastically it can affect how you play the game.
Put simply, your characters adapt to survive. You died because Monster X clawed you? In your next life, you might take less damage from Monster X and claw attacks. You died carrying too many items? In your next life, you might be able to carry more. You died as a child? In your next life, you may live another day before transitioning from a child to an adult. As a system, it’s not one I agreed with at first. It felt as though the game was fighting against me, enemies doing too much damage, the aging process seemingly always killing somebody as each day passed, but as I began to adapt to this myself, so too did the game’s cast. As I entered a new area, I made it a priority to have my party killed by the most common enemy as preparation; I wanted to explore, to experience everything the game had to throw at me. The game drove me into a mindset of suffering as means of preventing suffering later, and to see just how resilient to this harsh environment I could make my party. The requirement of points to extend limits this process, making it overall far more strategic than it otherwise may be. Do you use up all your points killing and extending one character to have a single monster, leaving the rest of your team vulnerable when your solo force eventually falls? Do you distribute your deaths to create a team that can handle the common threats? Or do you simply accumulate points and only use them when death catches you off guard? As you progress and get more Shigabane, each extend costs more and more points, making these choices more difficult. With the option of extending without the effects of your Shigabane for your new lifetime costing a fraction of what you would otherwise have to pay, you always have some degree of fallback for when your plans go off course.
To some extent, the game gives you an ultimate failsafe in Sachika. While she too can die and be extended in the same manner as the other characters, she is unique in that she doesn’t age. What this means for your adventuring is that as long as you keep her healthy, you’ll always have a way out. You can always push on just that little bit more safe in the knowledge a complete party wipe-out, the kind that painstakingly forces you to continue from your last save, can so often be avoided with foresight. You have the freedom to die knowing you have her as your trump card.
Into the Ruins
Dungeon crawling in Zanki Zero is fairly basic, and whether that’s a positive or a negative will depend entirely on what you want from the game. The world laid out as a grid, you’re able to move in each cardinal direction, with a pointer available to inspect items around you and certain areas. Everything is just about as you’d expect; the map is filled automatically as you walk, puzzles and traps litter the world, and there’s a plethora of things to uncover, enabling a vigilant player to enrich the overall narrative. Where the game tries to be interesting is in two key areas: survival meters and combat.
As a whole, survival meters are a huge negative for me. Forcing miscellaneous and unwanted micromanagement, you often find them unbalanced in a way as to pad out otherwise-trivial games with menial and repetitive activities. Does Zanki Zero break this trend? I’m sad to say it does nothing revolutionary in this respect, and much of what I dislike is still present. For each character, you need to watch their stamina, stress, and bladder. Needing the toilet leads to an increase of stress, an increased stress level reduces your stamina faster, and your stamina reaching zero means your health will gradually be reduced. On top of this, replenishing one meter will often have an adverse effect on another; to recover stamina you might drink water, which naturally will make your character more desperate for the toilet. Using the toilet in a rundown building might make your character more stressed, it’s a balancing act that you’ll likely either love or hate. While the way I describe it is largely negative, but it’s not without merit. Where it excels is in fitting with the rest of the game. It’s awkward, it’s a system very much against you as the player, it almost wants you to fail, to force you to pay more attention to it and plan. This planning and strategy is at the core of what makes the game so fun and interesting despite containing a few otherwise-irritating features, and this is highlighted further in the harder difficulties where the world is at its harshest. With everything against you, every small victory feels like a triumph, you get an incredible sense of gradual and consistent progress.
Combat is about as simple as you can get in a dungeon crawler. Enemies move around the map in real time and attack you when you’re in their range. Each attack has its own range and cooldown, and learning these is the key to succeeding. Instead of focusing on high levels and outrageous skills, Zanki Zero tests your dungeon crawling, observation, and patience. It forces you to be constantly aware of your surroundings and encourages a thorough job scouting the area, the game once again rewarding the prepared. The bosses of each area are where the game tries to be creative, despite the relatively few options it provides to you as the player. While you can dumb it down to attack, dodge, wait for your attacks to recharge, and repeat, bosses try to mix things up. Whether they show off a new attack type for the first time, allow you to utilise traps, or even feed you information on how best to handle a given enemy through inspecting elements of the environment, each one felt grand. Combining puzzle solving, analysis, and patience, they stand as genuine barriers on harder difficulties.
If combat and survival meters really aren’t something you enjoy, the western release features the addition of a new difficulty setting, completely disabling enemy encounters and all survival aspects. With this, you can appreciate the game for its environments, exploring and puzzle solving your way through its interesting storyline. While I wouldn’t recommend starting on this difficulty for the vast majority of players, it does well in allowing just about anybody to experience and enjoy a good chunk of what the game has to offer, and with New Game+, those same people can go in a second time slightly stronger, perhaps more confident to try something different.
Overall, Zanki Zero is interesting. Though the writing and character motivations can feel a little muddled towards the end of the game, I found myself thoroughly enjoying both the narrative being presented and the one I uncovered by analysing my surroundings. It’s hard to pin down exactly the type of person who will have a good time with it, but if you’re in the mood for a wild ride of post-apocalyptic and sometimes-unintentionally nonsensical drama mixed with a dash of puzzle solving, give it a shot.