Live, Die, Repeat in Zanki Zero: Last Beginning

One of the most pleasantly surprising video game IPs to be released in the last decade is Danganronpa. Coming seemingly out of nowhere with a bizarre plot about a sentient robotic killer teddy bear pitting high schoolers against each other in a game of murder, the game (more of a visual novel) seemed like the definition of niche and something that would become a quickly forgotten import. The game turned out to be fantastic, however, quickly obtaining a following, with Monokuma arguably reaching the same pedigree as other Japanese game mascots like Prinny. Since its launch in 2012, Danganronpa has seen numerous follow-ups and its quality and popularity has only continued to grow. Series creators Yoshinori Terasawa and Takayuki Sugawara could have simply been content to rest on the series’ laurels and continue churning out Danganronpas for years to come, but instead decided to launch an entirely new IP with Zanki Zero: Last Beginning. We caught up with Terasawa-san and developer/publisher Spike Chunsoft at GDC and were treated to the first hands-on demo of the game in English as we picked the auteur’s brain along the way.

Those taking a look at Zanki Zero for the first time would be excused if they thought it was in fact a Danganronpa title. After all, not only do the two series share the same leads, but the genre and art style are quite similar. It’s something that Terasawa-san is aware of and doesn’t shy away from; after all, it’s a formula that has proven itself time and time again. The key here is to present an entirely different story and gameplay elements that could never exist in the Danganronpa universe. In a similar vein to the television show Lost, Zanki Zero’s plot begins when the main character wakes up on an island with no memory of what has happened. While that might sound like paradise for most, unfortunately this is no Sandals Jamaica, but instead a post-apocalyptic world where everything is in ruins.

Thankfully he’s not alone and soon meets seven other amnesia-stricken islanders, all discovering they’re clones (surprisingly not a spoiler). Each survivor (four males and four females) represents one of the 7 Deadly Sins — pride, greed lust, envy, gluttony, wrath and sloth — with the eighth representing the original sin. The design and personality of each reflects the deadly sin they represent. If it weren’t bad enough waking up as a clone without any memory, everybody soon finds out (besides the original sin clone) that they all age rapidly and only live for thirteen days. Thankfully that’s not the end of the road for our sinful characters, as they are reincarnated, but the caveat is that they start off again as a child, albeit one with memories of their previous incarnations and acquired skills.

All eight characters become a protagonist at one point, each with a different chapter and dungeon centered around them. Death plays a large role in the game as certain skills are unlocked depending on when you die. Much like in real life, there’s advantages and disadvantages for every stage of life. Depending on the cause of death, certain skills are unlocked as well. Getting beaten to death (always fun) for instance will result in receiving a blunt resistance on the next playthrough, ensuring characters always learn from mistakes from previous lives. It’s like you’re living on the edge of tomorrow ready to live, die, repeat like that one Tom Cruise film of which the name escapes me.

Considering how much dying there is, it should come as no surprise that the game has a heavy survival element to it. Materials are acquired as you play which are used to build a base. The base has basic necessities like a bathroom, a workshop and a bed, all of which can be upgraded. These also influence things like bathroom level, tiredness, stamina and hunger levels, which factor into the whole game. Eating raw meat will make you sick, for instance, so it’s important to be careful. While much of the game plays out in the traditional visual novel style, there is a larger focus on first-person free roaming here than in Danganronpa. While the visuals of these parts may look similar, here you’ll not only have larger areas to roam around, but you’ll have to fight through dungeons full of horrific monsters like goats (see The Witch) on a grid-based system and it won’t be easy. Taking influence from roguelikes (items that are dropped when killed can be picked up in the same spot later), gameplay can prove quite difficult and it’s important to be careful to avoid death the deeper the party goes into a dungeon while still having to manage sleeping, eating and going to the bathroom. Thankfully for those who are more in it for the stories, there are five difficultly levels available so the challenge (which can be devilishly intense at the top setting) can be customized.

Much like the Danganronpa series, the game has a prevalent level of humor throughout the proceedings all the way from the visuals to the characters to the dialogue itself. One character, for instance, does bondage as a professional and the other one is a suspiciously jacked doctor. The characters all joke about each other’s foibles and it’s played to great effect. Two of the standouts aren’t in the main cast at all. Sho Terashima and Mirai are 1950s Osamu Tezuka style hosts of an anime television show called “Extend TV” that is seen throughout the game as the player progresses, providing commentary and backstory to the events going on in the main narrative. The developers nailed this aspect of the game as not only does it perfectly capture that vintage cartoon style, but it lends brevity to the game similar to how characters like Monomi did with their updates in Danganronpa.

While we’d never complain about an unlimited amount of Danganronpa titles, it’s as impressive as it is refreshing to see the creators take a left turn during what is arguably the series’ prime to try something new. Zanki Zero: Last Beginning’s central lifecycle conceit looks to have as much room for humor as it does to be a parable on what it means to be alive and seems certain to invoke as many belly laughs as it does moments of self-reflection during play. Fans of Danganronpa and rich stories alike should keep their eyes glued on Zanki Zero leading up to release. The game is almost finished in Japan in anticipation of its summer release and will likely come stateside early next year for PlayStation 4 and PC via Steam.