Zanki Zero: Last Beginning blends together a number of elements. It is an adventure game, where you might find yourself using the cursor to look around and examine things to solve puzzles that involve a lot of switches. There are RPG elements, since your party members level up, engage in combat with animals and enemies, and earn skills that determine how effective they are at various stages of life and what resources can be crafted. It is even a survival game, since characters age and have bladder, stamina, and stress gauges to monitor. It is that final element that can encourage critical thinking and tactical party creation, while also making it feel like this game is taking place after the apocalypse.
The aging element works well both in terms of advancing the narrative and in helping people make decisions about building characters. Especially since this is present on all difficulty levels. The cloning process wasn’t perfected before the world ended, so there are all sorts of flaws. Clones age rapidly. The growing process between different age brackets is incredibly painful. They only have a certain number of days they can stay alive. It is impossible for them to reproduce. This means we can’t focus on only four party members in a group, the maximum number of people who can be active at a time. We have to always be preparing other characters so if someone ages or dies, you have another person who is ready to step up and fill their position.
It helps that Zanki Zero: Last Beginning helps nudge you in certain directions. Certain people are more effective at different periods in their lives, with different skills opening up if you invest in those aptitudes. Let’s use Ryo as an example. He is at his best when he is middle-aged. Yes, his Adult Aptitude can unlock Outrange at level two, increasing his attack in the back row. But when he hits middle-age, he can learn Cooperation, Resolve, and Tension skills that boost his stats. Meanwhile, as a senior, he has no additional skills. In comparison, Zen rocks the adult stage. At level two, he can have Infighting, which increases his attack if he’s in the front row, and Thrill, which increases his attack even more if there are only one or two people in the party. (Thrill can come in very handy in Stage 2.) If you invest in Infighting, Farming Muscles increases his Charge Attack damage. He has Outrange, like Zen. If you get Outrange to level three, Endorphins can make his finishing blows lower his stress gauge. If you get Endorphins to level one, you can learn Riposte and maybe attack again with no cooldown after a Charge Attack. It allows for a lot of planning and working to make sure people are at certain stages at specific times.
The concept of every character having biological needs is another element that really makes the situation feel real. This is especially critical in the ruins, since you won’t always know when you’ll stumble across the buildings’ bathrooms and kitchens. If you are playing on the II or III difficulty levels in Zanki Zero: Last Beginning, people are going to have needs. Stamina will wear out, which will cause health to gradually go down until you can get them something to eat or drink. Eating and drinking will cause people’s bladders to fill, requiring them to use a rest room. If people are carrying too much, eat food they dislike, or wet themselves, then their stress will increase. (It is especially harrowing when you discover someone has a food allergy. Don’t give Mamoru any bananas or prepare fish for Zen.) People who are stressed lose stamina faster. It is a lot to keep track of. Especially since death means fewer people in the party, needing to go to the Extend machine for a revival, and being unable to open certain doors in dungeons that require all eight party members to be alive. (On the easiest difficulty level, the game will behave as though everyone is alive at these doors, even if they are not.) While these elements can be more frustrating in the larger dungeons that begin to show up around the halfway point, they really hammer home what life is like when the only people who seem to be left are eight clones in a dilapidated world.
While these added elements can add a sense of urgency or make someone feel additional pressure when going through civilization’s ruins, there is something to be said for going with the easiest difficulty level that essentially turns Zanki Zero: Last Beginning into an adventure game. This is a title where the focus is on that character development and solving its mysteries. Having to worry about making sure everyone has been fed, getting them to bathrooms in time, and caring for needs and take away from the general ambiance. After having played it both with survival elements on and off, it feels like this can pad out the experience, but also might prove more frustrating once people reach the school and hospital ruins.
Zanki Zero: Last Beginning can sometimes feel like an experiment. Which is appropriate, given that its characters themselves have become test subjects. This is a case of the team behind Danganronpa trying new things with some gameplay concepts and ideas we have seen before. Some people may prefer playing it as a more traditional adventure experience, which is absolutely fine. Others might want the extra pressure of having to search for resources and care for people, and that is great too. In any case, the concept of aging, ability to build up skills, and need to work for the betterment of the group does help make it feel like this is the end of the world and we are a part of the Humanity Restoration Mission.
Zanki Zero: Last Beginning is available on the PlayStation 4 and PC in North America, Europe, and Japan, and there is also a demo that unlocks an item pack for the full game. The game is also available on the PlayStation Vita in Japan.