You certainly can’t say that Zanki Zero: Last Beginning is not unique. How many other games out there are first-person, real-time, tile-based roguelike horror dungeon crawls featuring in-depth survival mechanics, ensemble character drama, and a post-apocalyptic sci-fi story about clones and the last remnants of humanity? I definitely can’t think of any. But unique doesn’t always equal good, and in the case of Zanki Zero, its interesting, genre-melding concepts wind up a bit hobbled by some not-so-great execution.
Zanki Zero begins as a rogue’s gallery of eight characters find themselves on a strange tropical island with only a few rundown facilities. They all have no idea why they’re here, how they got there, or what connection they all have. But things soon take a turn for the even weirder: TVs across the island start playing a bizarre educational cartoon at set intervals, explaining that the eight are the last remnants of humanity and must work together to survive and build a new future for the human race. Oh, and they’re all actually clones, experience rapid aging, and die after 13 days of life–assuming nothing else kills them first. But it’s okay, because one of the few functioning things on the island is an Extend machine that can clone them after they die, effectively meaning they can live and die forever.
And die they will, because survival in this dilapidated paradise is no picnic. When you begin the game, you barely have any functional facilities to do things like cook and sleep, and you need to collect material in order to build them. Not only that, but you need to effectively micromanage the health of every character. On top of a typical health meter, they also have a stamina meter (which drains from merely existing and goes down faster when doing strenuous activities or carrying lots of items), a stress meter, and even a bladder meter. Letting one element get out of control can have cascading effects; if a character can’t hold it anymore and wets themselves, they become embarrassed and stressed, which makes fighting enemies tougher, which leads to more rapid stamina loss for them and their teammates, which leads to health loss, which leads to death. Scavenging and using food and relief items and facilities like toilets helps, but carrying too much leaves a character overburdened and unable to move, and as time passes, characters age, and the amount they can carry changes.
If that all sounds like a lot to take in, that’s because it really is. The heavy survival elements of Zanki Zero get dumped on you quite early in the game, and with little in the way of resources and experience, managing everything can get extremely rough. And that’s all before you factor in exploration and combat. The game offers multiple difficulty levels (that can be changed mid-game to your liking) to help offset this, but it’s still pretty rough waters in the early game as you try to come to grips with how much you need to micromanage. While there are some tutorials, they are inadequate, amounting to info-dumps that are tough to take in when you’re already struggling with juggling everything else. Once you finally have all of the island’s facilities built and can stock a small safety net of resources, the constant micromanagement becomes far less daunting and even quite enjoyable as you watch your ragtag bunch grow from helpless castaways to capable survivors.
All those important survival elements aren’t even the core focus of the game, either–it’s also a first-person, real-time dungeon crawler. At the behest of the mysterious TV characters, the cast explores urban ruins that drift to the shores of the island to find new parts for their Extend machine and finally remove the fatal rapid-aging flaw from their cloned selves. Each of the ruins is tied to one or more of the cast members’ lives, and you’ll see glimpses of traumatic events from their pasts in each one that reveals more about who they are and, perhaps, why they are here. The unfolding story and revelations throughout the varied environments push you to move forward and discover the secrets of the characters’ hellish situation. You won’t get more story without a struggle, however; the ruins are laden with hazards like mutated animals and trap switches. If the challenge of basic survival and rapid old age doesn’t kill you, the threats in the ruins certainly will.
But character death can have its advantages. Sure, you have to drag them back to the Extend machine and spend your limited stash of “points” earned from dungeon exploration to revive them in a child body. But when you revive them, you can also give them a bonus called “Shigabane:”: based on their life experiences and how they died, they get advantages in their new clone form. For example, dying at middle age from being gored by a giant boar while poisoned will result in the revived clone taking reduced damage from boars, getting poison resistance, and adding an extra day to their lifespan at middle age. It’s a great system that doesn’t remove all of the sting from death but still leaves you feeling like you’re making progress through your efforts.
Unfortunately, Zanki Zero’s combat is easily the worst element of the game. It attempts to marry turn-based, tile-hopping roguelike combat with real-time elements like charge attacks, group combos, and attack cooldowns, but it winds up constantly feeling sluggish and unresponsive. Worse, there’s not much in the way of strategy in most of the fights; you usually want to maneuver behind or to the side of an enemy while charging attacks, whacking them when opportunity strikes, then scurry away to avoid retaliation, charge again, and repeat. (Or, if you have a ranged weapon, you plink away with that.) An additional element where you use an aiming reticle to target specific body parts of an enemy just makes things messier, as you have to spend valuable time fidgeting with awkward aiming controls. It’s the same reticle you use to examine things in the environment, so if your reticle isn’t in the right place (say, you just examined something else not long ago), your attacks can simply miss entirely. It’s a shame that combat’s such a weird-feeling mess, because it drags down the fun of exploring these urban ruins, finding interesting items and bits left behind, and learning about the characters and the world.
Uniqueness is one of Zanki Zero’s biggest selling points, but its myriad ambitions and ideas aren’t enough to obscure the elements that don’t work as well. While the novelty of the game, its interesting story, and engaging exploration do a lot to carry it, it falters in some crucial spots that drag down the whole.