The team behind apocalyptic mystery thriller Danganronpa deliver a new title in the same vein but with dungeon-crawling gameplay.
If you've ever played a Danganronpa game then you'll be very familiar with the opening scenes of Zanki Zero. A young adult wakes up in a strange place surrounded by an eclectic group of misfits. Just when you learn all of their names and get your bearings, you're faced with the punch line: the world as you know it has been destroyed and you're one of the very few survivors.
Zanki Zero's story takes place over 8 chapters with your perspective being through the eyes of a different protagonist in each. Chapters begin with a short clip on an old TV in the garage that you call home. The 2 characters that introduce you to the next chapter are a boy and a talking sheep that throw around crass comments that are often nonsensical but funny. At the end of the clip, you make your way to a new adrift dungeon within throwing distance of the small island that you're floating on. As you make your way through the large dungeons, you watch clips on the TVs that are introduced by the same hosts and feature video from each character's past. These scenes are meant to help you build empathy for the characters and slowly gain an understanding of what influences their demeanour.
Unfortunately, the histories of these characters are far from normal. The clips show events that would traumatize the average person for life with some of them making you wonder how the heck the writers even thought of such monstrosities. In my opinion, it goes a little too far and I've played all of the Danganronpa games which are known for their disconcerting subject matter.
If you can look past these clips, you'll have fun exploring the sprawling first-person grid-based dungeons. They start out quite simple although each one is still large and requires hours to unlock every room and find every item. Later on, they require some problem-solving skills as you think about what route to take in order to get on the other side of a door. This could include tasks such as activating a switch on one level then purposely falling through a hole then climbing the stairs all the way back up to the floor that you were on in order to get to the door that's now open. You might also have to activate a trap in order to open a door while taking damage at every step you take on your way to it. As you can tell, the solutions aren't always obvious and it's usually a nice challenge to figure out.
That being said, there was one level where the clues provided to figure out which of 8 switches to turn were completely useless to me. I don't know if it's something lost in translation in the English version or I'm just not getting it but I had to watch a video in order to figure out how to continue. There were other moments that required a lot of trial and error and it really started to test my patience.
Every now and then, you'll come across an enemy in the field. You attack them with a hit from each of the four equipped characters in your party or you can use a charged hit that does extra damage fast. Later, you unlock the ability to use a clone which is a mutated arm that's added to a character's body and grants extra skills as well as does a lot of damage when used. Sadly, there isn't a ton of enemy variety with similar monsters appearing in different dungeons. They do a great job at jumping out at you and some of them do so much damage with one hit that they can take out party members easily. It's up to you to navigate the grid and avoid their attacks while trying to hit them from the back for extra damage. The bosses are similar as you have to rely on defensive maneuvers if you don't want to perish. The variety in the boss battles is appreciated with some of them going down easily and others requiring strategy.
Each of the dungeons takes place on a different island that represents a building or area relevant to the main character of the chapter. For example, you'll explore a jungle filled with monkeys and a giant tree house, a creepy dark hospital, and a collapsing cruise ship. The dungeon layouts are varied and thankfully, there's a map that fills out with every new step that you take. It also allows you to place markers to remember certain spots. The scenery itself has a good level of detail but there are a lot of assets that are duplicated very often so the visual variety is minimal. There are also a lot of dark areas that obfuscate some of the detail in the scenery. Meanwhile, the soundscape complements the current mood by offering a creepy atmosphere for the darker sections and lighthearted tunes for when the gang is just hanging out. The voice acting is great, too, and it's in English for this North American version.
One aspect that I haven't touched on yet is how characters age. Each character has a lifespan of around 13 days and you see them age from a little kid all the way to an old person. They eventually die of old age but you can bring characters back to life if you can make it back to your base with another character that's still alive so they can use the Extend Machine to revive them. It's a strange premise and I enjoyed seeing the personalities of the characters portrayed at different ages, especially when they're cute little kids with chubby cheeks. The story of why this aging process exists is unfolded gradually with many twists and turns that keep the story interesting.
Characters die often in Zanki Zero and you're actually rewarded in a way when they do. Each time a character dies, you gain an enhancement called a Shigabane. Specific conditions that are met when dying grant you different enhancements that carry on to your next rejuvenation. Collecting all of the Shigabane would be quite a substantial feat with dozens of them to unlock.
When you're not in a dungeon, you spend time building your base. You can expand your warehouse to store more items, improve your toilet, or add extra food and crafting items to your list. You must find the necessary items and have enough characters at the required skill level in order to do so. Skill points are gained the more you fight monsters and I never found myself short of them. However, finding the right items is tougher. With no in-game list of items and where to find them and no easy way to jump to a certain dungeon floor, it can be quite a chore. Occasionally, you'll need to find an item for story progression and it can be just as annoying.
Lastly, I'd like to discuss the fact that Zanki Zero is marketed as a survival game but it really isn't. The fact that you can revive characters takes away the need for survival as long as you make a pattern of returning to your base when you have a couple dead characters. Reviving them brings them back as kids and you don't want too many people in one life stage because each stage has advantages and disadvantages. Other than the monsters, you also fight off hunger and the need for each character to go to the bathroom. Feeding your characters is easy as you'll always have enough food items to make something filling and their bladders last quite long.
The challenge isn't in the survival but more in figuring out the dungeon layouts and how to take down bosses. There's an easy difficulty setting included in the North American release that turns off regular battles thus forcing you to only fight bosses then when you fight them, they go down with a couple of charged hits. If you're playing Zanki Zero for the story then you might appreciate this and the fact that you can change difficulty at any point allows you to get past particularly hard parts with little to no effort.
Zanki Zero is a fun dungeon crawler set in the remains of Earth after a catastrophic event took place with a plot that feels like it belongs in the Danganronpa series. The story and gameplay will keep you curious for most of the campaign, especially if you're comfortable with the inherently disturbing subject matter and occasionally frustrating dungeon traversal.
- + Fun cast of characters with great English voice acting to match
- + Sprawling and interesting dungeons
- + Story will keep you guessing
- - Occasional frustrating moments happen when you're trying to progress
- - Some subject matter goes too far
- - Lack of enemy and environmental variety