Zanki Zero is a dungeon-crawler with survival elements developed by the people behind Danganronpa. In a mysterious post-apocalyptic world, 8 strangers wake up on an island without memory. This is the beginning of a journey made of monsters, surreal events, and tough surviving. Because being alone on an island will not be easy, and crafting, building, and foraging food will be vital.
But there is another more innovative mechanic hidden in Zanki Zero. The survivors will soon discover, in the most gruesome way, to be mere clones, with the old memories transplanted into new bodies thanks to an “X” button on their bellies, which can be retrieved upon their deaths and used inside a cloning machine resembling a retro arcade cabinet. If this is already a tragic discovery for the entire party, there is something even worst. The lifespan of a clone is only 13 days, not even one day more. Story-wise, in less than 2 weeks each character will die of old age, without a way to escape this terrible fate. Luckily, after every death, the characters can reborn as school kids, starting again the 13 days clock. The imperfect clones will experience this terrible and bizarre fate several times during the game, an entire life in less than 2 weeks, from childhood through adulthood till becoming elders.
Days in Zanki Zero pass quite easily, each rest or change of floor in a dungeon will move the clock forward of one day, and every few days the characters will enter in a different stage of life. The cycle is quite simple: starting as children around 7 years old, the characters will then become adults in their 20s, then middle-aged, and in the end seniors. The changes are of course aesthetic, with the characters visually ageing at each new phase. This is a really unique feature for a JRPG, not only watching your favorite character ageing in front of your eyes, but also a way to somehow punish fan-service. Because the sexy anime girl that you dressed in a bikini will grow old with the same clothes: reality hits hard.
Of course, the different steps come with huge changes in terms of gameplay. Kids and seniors will have less attack strength, and especially kids can bring less weight than adults. So of course fighting with a group of adults is recommended but it is also interesting how several skills and abilities are related only to a specific age-group. For example, kids can heal over time, while adults can increase attack and defence. Seniors instead can reduce stress over time, probably due to the old age wisdom. This is also reflected in the exploration, for example with small holes and openings that can be explored only by having a kid in the party.
Ageing is not the only way of dying in a cruel and dangerous post-apocalyptic world. Death is always behind the corner, it could be an illness, starvation, or of course a deadly monster. However, the clones can reborn after every possible kind of death. If we could debate quite a lot about how “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” especially under a clinical point of view, in the case of Zanki Zero there is no doubt that instead “what DOES kill you makes you stronger.” Depending on the way that characters died, after reviving as kids, they will permanently inherit a perk that will make them stronger. Killed by an angry mutant? Next cycle that character will be stronger against that enemy. Dead for starvation? Next time the stamina will reduce slower. A deadly poison killed one of the characters? The next clone will have increased resistance against poison. There are 150 perks associated with each character, for a crazy amount of ways to die, including dying for shame or food allergy. The perks are also associated with cards, portraying comic and macabre images, a mix between retro Japanese games and Fallout’s Vault Boy propaganda.
Zanki Zero is a constant betting and planning with death. The player should estimate the time to reach the end of a dungeon, or old characters could die along the way, losing all their items and the possibility to open specific doors that need all the characters alive. Often it is better to intentionally kill your characters to make them young again, but this will start the problem of weakening the party with more kids. Also, sometimes it is worthy to sacrifice a character in another horrible way, especially if he or she already collected the perk of dying for old age. There will be disturbing moments when the player will think “should I make starve this character to death or better to sacrifice him to a mutant?” But of course, reviving the characters is not free and the machine will use specific points, and the more the perks a character gained, the more expensive will be to revive him. Moral dilemmas and strategy are constant weights in Zanki Zero, where the player should learn how to comfortably play with death.
The cloning machine has a lot of other functions, including the transplant of mutant organs to gain powers. The survival elements of Zanki Zero are also not secondary to any pure survival game, building an incredibly complex game. But for sure the cloning mechanic, including ageing and the perks associated with death, is a unique gameplay element well integrated into a complex and satisfying dungeon-crawler.