I’ve played a lot of strange and borderline inappropriate Japanese video games in my day, titles that gleefully straddle the fine line between oddly humorous and head-scratchingly uncomfortable. Zanki Zero: Last Beginning, a hybrid RPG/visual novel/survival adventure, will make you question whether you should play this game in front of friends and family. While it looks colorful, cheerful, and downright happy on the surface, the story quickly takes some very dark and uncomfortable turns, including a moment when adults make fun of a small boy’s penis. Yes, you read that last line correctly. The moment caught me so completely off guard that I took a screenshot of the exchange so I could share it with my significant other. Of course, your own reaction will definitely vary, I’m sure.
And unless you spend a lot of time playing video games featuring situations that are far worse than those contained in Zanki Zero, then you will feel uncomfortable at some point during this experience. Whether you find yourself blushing during the moments of weird fanservice or questioning your life when you encounter moments of sexualization involving minors, you simply cannot escape the discomfort. And you’ll likely feel this way before one of your characters wets himself or herself during your adventure because you didn’t make it to the bathroom in time. Chances are, that self-soiling incident will result in his or her untimely death due to the ensuing humiliation, forcing you to spend points to bring them back to life. Did I mention that Zanki Zero also deals with human cloning? Oops.
Last Beginning opens with yet another controversial subject: suicide. A jaded office worker decides he’s officially had enough with the rat race and jumps off the top of his office building and onto a car below. However, instead of heading off into the afterlife as he intended, our hero wakes up on an island surrounded by what appears to be a ruined city. After a bit of wandering, he stumbles across a handle of like-minded individuals (typical anime types) who have waited patiently for his arrival. According to them, a strange television program hosted by a lamb and its lackey foretold of our hero’s arrival, and now that he’s officially on the team, the story can properly unfold. Long story short: Humanity suffers, and the only thing that remains is a handful of islands containing the remnants of buildings, garbage, and random creatures. Our rag-tag team of stereotypical anime characters has one mission: ensure that mankind can once again thrive on the planet.
But first, of course, they will require a functional toilet. No joke — you need to build a toilet almost as soon as you arrive. And if you want to survive this adventure with your characters’ sanity intact, you’ll need to ensure these facilities stay in good working order. That means you’ll need to not only build a place for them to relieve themselves after drinking water and eating meals, but you’ll also need to improve it so they don’t experience an overwhelming amount of stress, which can also have a negative effect on how well they perform during combat. After all, no one likes to use a dirty bathroom, including human clones who go from birth to death in the span of 13 days. And in case you’re wondering, no, they can’t “make love,” as one curious character asks aloud at one point. If you’re not flabbergasted or picking your jaw off the floor during one sequence or another, just wait a few minutes: Zanki Zero has plenty of WTF moments packed into this odd little adventure.
Despite my amusement at the game’s no-holds-barred approach to storytelling, the gameplay leaves much to be desired. I’m one of those very strange individuals who doesn’t mind those old-school grid-based dungeon crawlers, as I’ve spent countless hours on various first-person JRPGs on my beloved little Vita. And while I certainly adore the overall aesthetic and art design here, Zanki Zero fumbles the ball in terms of execution. Instead of going for traditional turn-based combat, Zanki opts for some kind of weird real-time combat system, one that feels oddly foreign despite its somewhat vague familiarity. And to be perfectly honest, it’s just not that much fun to play and offers little in the way of strategy. Want to know a secret for success? Sneak up on your foes and start attacking. That way, you’ll catch them by surprise and pretty much have the upper hand in most battles. I’m more than likely oversimplifying the mechanics behind the system, mind you, but it never really clicked with me, and I really, really wanted to square off against the game’s well-designed creatures.
To complicate matters further, the so-called “survival” aspects of Zanki Zero: Last Beginning often feel like the handiwork of a dedicated Sims fan. And while I understand what the developers attempted to achieve by incorporating these elements into the gameplay, they never instill a sense of fun. And that’s pretty much this game’s problem in the long run: While it succeeds (depending on your taste level) as a visual novel that skids into some uncomfortable waters, it’s actually not a joy to play whatsoever. I found myself rushing through the exploration, survival, and combat portions of the game so I could push the game forward and see what bizarro situations lay ahead for our heroes. Event TV, the television program that conveniently tells the characters (and players) everything they need to know, also provides a wealth of humor, so why bog it all down with half-baked RPG and survival elements when the visual novel aspects are so much fun?
Want my advice for those of you who currently straddle the fence between dismissing Zanki Zero: Last Beginning and welcoming the title into their endless backlogs? Start the game, try things out, and if it doesn’t strike your fancy, switch over to easy mode, which all but eliminates the survival/sim management mechanics. That way, you can focus on exploration, enjoy some very basic crafting, and experience the story in all its screwy splendor. Otherwise, prepare yourself for a deeply flawed experience that tries way too hard to do too many things. Zanki Zero would have received a much higher score from me had it skipped the clunkiness in favor of a straightforward visual novel presentation. And considering the stuff I encountered during my playthrough, I guess that makes me a very sick puppy.
This review is based on the PlayStation 4 version of the game. A code was supplied to use by Spike Chunsoft.
Although it attempts to combine a number of different gameplay mechanics, Zanki Zero: Last Beginning ultimately fails to bring these together in a compelling fashion. That said, it's a great visual novel, assuming you can handle the discomfort.