“Just sit right back and you’ll hear a tale, a tale of a fateful trip…
“Gleefully Apocalyptic” or “Cheerfully Downbeat” may seem like damnable praise for a game, but Spike Chunsoft has made that a winning strategy in a number of its more popular titles such as the “Deathly Amusing” Danganronpa series or those “Wonderfully Grim” Zero Escape games. Veteran developer Lancarse’s Zanki Zero: Last Beginning ($59.99) is in some ways similar, but not 100% quite like those other games, though. It’s a “Non-stop Survival RPG” with a demanding set of gameplay requirements some new to this sort of thing may find a bit tricky to grasp, but it ends up pretty satisfying once you settle in and grow accustomed to what it requires from you. In English, you’ll dig this for what works well more than those who might not “get” it at all. Go try that lengthy PS4 demo out and make your move, I say.
You play as a team of eight survivors of a world-ending event who initially seem to think they’re in a bizarre reality show, but soon find out they’re clones with a 13-day lifespan forced to repeat the cycle of birth to death as they puzzle out the hows and whys of their existence. Their guides? A pair of cartoon show hosts living in a separate reality who pop up on an unplugged vintage televisions to give them missions that will expand or end their lives (or both) as they’re completed. Yes, you get 10XP if you realize there’s some nefariousness going on behind the scenes (or, under the skin, if you prefer). And yes, I thought David Lynch would make a fine directorial choice if there’s ever a live-action version of this one, but as usual… I digress.
As you can see from that trailer above, you can expect death to come calling frequently (a lot less so if you play on the new to the English version Easy mode). That said, dying here isn’t all bad, as what can kill you will in most cases will make your party members stronger as new resistances and even a bit of lifespan extending can be acquired based on how and when you buy the farm. Buy early, buy often, but try not to buy it too much as your lives are limited. There’s also that parasitic Clione the clones have to deal with – use their powers wisely, or pay the price with a somewhat spectacular death.
Right from the outset you know you’re in for the unexpected as the game just begins as soon as you hit that Start button for he first time. That opening sequence ends up being a lengthy introduction to the basic scenario and soon enough, the first actual battle in the game followed by the first proper dungeon. As things progress, you’ll get assigned tasks that will allow you to upgrade your living conditions, add storage space, and a few other important things. A number of Skills can be learned and upgraded as you go, and these are important as you age, die from any number of means and are reborn (provided someone recovers your X Mark). Even the visual style of the game is intentionally all over the map, mixing 3D characters and environments with 8-bit inspired pixel art and those totally kooky sepia-toned EXTEND TV segments.
Did you get all that? Nope? Well, that’s all part of the pull here for me. That the game drops you into its upside-down world and has you a bit confounded at times actually works well because you can’t just overlook the basics of survival and level up to your heart’s content. Sure, maps will guide you to certain story points and the manner in which each character’s story is told adds some fine shocks and surprises to an already Mature-rated game experience. Add in a movement and combat system reminiscent of the classic Dungeon Master and you get something somewhat crazy yet consistently compelling if it works its charms on you. Yes. you can reduce combat is some areas to “hit and away” tactics as you strafe around some foes as your party’s hit meters charge up. But expect to get pummeled by some faster moving, harder hitting creatures if that’s the sole trick up your sleeves.
Granted, not every idea gels 100% here, but as someone who’s been playing video games since 1972, I can *very* safely say that I’ve pretty much seen it all and then some on too many systems to count. So stuff like this makes me grin as I fully get what’s going on as I enjoy the ride, warts and all. I’m not going to comment on the changes made for the US version other than to say it’s a complex issue some just fail to grasp when they complain about “censorship!” and/or “slippery slopes!” every single time without understanding how the ESRB (the game ratings board here) works. Personally, I see a product that, while likely seen as a compromise to certain western tastes and yep, “morality” (well, thanks in part to the ratings board) it’s still more than 90% whatever vision the developer intended. Those who really desire that unedited version can maybe go learn Japanese (or any other language a game they want to play is in) and show their support by buying and enjoying them in their original languages. Hey, it’s not at all impossible if you put your actual time and money where your internet mouth is, right?
Anyway, that blending of seemingly disparate elements worked well enough for me to sink a good 62 hours into this game and I came away quite impressed by what I played. Granted, this is a niche game when all is said and done and it’s not going to be for every taste. But if you’re willing to do that suspension of disbelief thing and roll with the quirks, there’s a “Bizarrely Nifty” game here waiting for you to pick it up. Is it “perfect?” Nope. But for this old coot, it hits those spots it needs to hit and makes for a unique enough hybrid game to recommend to those who want something a totally weird yet somehow familiar on a few fronts.
Score: A- (90%)
Review code provided by the publisher.
Between you and the Criterion Channel, I’m NEVER going to get anything done around here.
Now, if I could only get Criterion Channel to pay me for keeping you distracted, that would be niiiice. 😀