If you were to take the TV show Lost and turn it into a video game (and conveniently forget Lost: Via Domus), you’d get Zanki Zero: Last Beginning, and that’s either a wholehearted compliment or horrible insult depending on who you ask.
Zanki Zero is a dungeon-crawling JRPG with a special emphasis on story, and a noticeable lack of emphasis on anything else, as JRPGs seem wont to do. Don’t let the name fool you; it’s the first game in its series, as there’s no Zanki Zero: First Beginning, and it seems like its own standalone story.
Let’s stick with that first word for now: story. Zanki Zero follows a group of survivors who wake up far in the future on a ruined island, and they have to figure out what’s going on and how they got there. It’s a compelling story, with well-crafted twists and turns thrown in rapidfire, and the world and backstory in particular manages to grip you in with its own secrets and lies.
If the worldbuilding is fantastic, the characterisation of the heroes is just ‘good’ – each of the survivors is distinct and personable, you can really get a sense that many are hiding something big or small, and there’s a lot to unpack with them. However their interactions often fail to bring these conflicts to a head, so it’s left to the inner monologue to point out ‘that character lied!’ or ‘we shouldn’t trust this person’.
The story of the game is slow, though – the prologue itself takes over an hour to complete, and in total the game presents many, many hours of story alone. Lots of this time is spent with the characters interacting, in particular questioning the world and their situation, and it feels like lots of the dialogue is repeated frequently. As such it takes a lot of time for the story to go anywhere, and it feels like some condensation would have made the game a lot more snappy.
This is likely a problem as the story sections, endless dialogue, is not playable – you just press a button to progress to the next line of dialogue. Since it feels like 60% of the game is just dialogue, this means you’re spending most of your time reading the text lines of speech and pressing ‘skip’ on repeat. In short, it can quickly get bit boring.
That’s not to say the plot is ‘boring’ per se but when most of your time with the game is spent cycling through dialogue, it’s easy to feel exhasperated.
That’s not helped by the gameplay, which feels like a way to tie story cutscenes together more than anything, as it’s a wild mix of different genres that don’t seem to sit together well.
On the face of it, Zanki Zero: Last Beginning is a dungeon-crawler game, as lots of your time is spent working your way through 2.5D dungeons fighting animals, picking up hidden items, and working out puzzles to get through. It’s not particularly riveting in this regard, as combat consists of just mashing a button then moving out of range while you wait to be able to attack again, and the puzzles just require you to press buttons on the wall until you find the right one.
So could the crux of the game be in the party management? Of the eight main characters, you can always have four in your party, which you equip with gear, level up with perks and monitor their physical and mental state, Darkest Dungeon style. However there’s such a scarcity of gear that this system gets quickly forgotten.
Speaking of forgotten systems: there’s a base building mode through which you can improve the starting island with materials you find in the field. As far as this reviewer could find, this was almost completely unnecessary, as there wasn’t much the base could do that areas in the dungeons couldn’t do anyway, and so again this feels like an system that was tacked on to Zanki Zero to try and address the lack of interesting gameplay.
That’s the good (story) and bad (gameplay) covered – now for the ugly, in the art style. No, the art style isn’t ugly, but then again it would be hard to call it an art style. Different aspects of the game go for different aesthetics – dialogue uses manga-style freeze frames for characters, cutscenes give them smiling 3D avatars, gameplay has a ‘retro’ looking pixel aesthetic for pickups yet slightly more high-res designs for the arenas and enemies.
On top of that there are many more mini-styles used for short excerpts, and the music changes just as often as the art style. In short, it’s a bit too eclectic to ever settle on a distinct ‘identity’, which makes it feel a little tiring to play.
Aesthetics are rarely the most important part of a game though, and it doesn’t necessarily detract from Zanki Zero’s plot, especially when the look of the world is so distinct. It’s also appropriate for the story, too – the buildings jutting out of the ocean in the distance seem to embody the distant answers the heroes are trying to get, the ruined appearance of these skyscrapers is beautiful foreshadowing.
Zanki Zero: Last Beginning is a mixed bag, but when it’s good, it’s fantastic, and when it’s bad, it’s merely ‘fine’ – it’s a great story hiding in the shell of a mediocre game, and if the siren song of a twisting and turning narrative is enough to pull you in to Garage Island, you likely won’t be disappointed.
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