Whoa, whoa, whoa, that’s a lot of obscure Japanese game names in the headline. Let me get you up to speed.
Dangaronpa is a series of games made by Spike Chunsoft that locked a bunch of overachieving high-school students together and told them to kill each other. It was, in essence a mystery game in which you unravel the truth behind each successive murder, and eventually the very situation you are in. It was dark, violent, and made you feel like no one can be trusted.
Zanki Zero is the latest game by Spike Chunsoft, and it shares a lot in common with Danganronpa. There’s a mystery that has to be solved orchestrated by someone far more powerful than you. There’s a general air of death and murder all around you. There’s a ton of anime bull filling in the corners.
However, that’s where the similarities stop. You see, though Zanki Zero was developed by a good portion of the original Danganronpa team, it feels something like the opposite of Danganronpa. In fact, I think the team set out to essentially make the game that was the antithesis of their last cult-classic IP. So how do you make the opposite of Danganronpa’s death game?
Well you have to get a little wonky with genres, which is a great way to hook the “games as art” crowd on a new release.
Get ready for another mouthful here. Zanki Zero is a first person, dungeon crawling, real-time, survival, base building, mystery RPG, with social elements… yep. What does that all mean, though? Well it means that Spike Chunsoft kind of took a bunch of other games and threw them in a blender.
The movement and dungeon exploration might be the weakest part of Zanki Zero, but that’s kind of a matter of opinion. It essentially uses the same controls as Etrian Odyssey, which is to say first person tank controls on a grid based dungeon system. It feels stiff and slow, but this too is in service of distinguishing itself from Danganronpa.
In Dangaonronpa, movement didn’t actually mean much. If anything it was just a road block between parts of the story, or a convenient way to section off some parts of content between chapters. In Zanki Zero however, the player is forced to stop and really think about every tile they move through. Whether it’s because you are being wary of traps, exploiting enemy A.I., or simply trying to comb every possible square for materials in order to help increase your chances of survival, you have to be very aware of where and how you travel.
At their core, both Danganronpa and Zanki Zero are about survival. However, the way you go about surviving is very different. In Danganronpa, everything is provided for you. You can exist forever, but to escape you have to successfully kill someone, or eventually discover the truth behind the death game itself.
Zanki Zero’s protagonists joke about their situation being comparable to a death game, but it couldn’t be further from the truth. They aren’t given anything. Food, shelter, all of this has to be put together by you, the player. All of the characters have secrets, but instead of these secrets driving the protagonists apart, they serve to bring everyone closer together. In fact, that seems to be a central theme in Zanki Zero, how uncovering our pasts and facing our sins builds trust and allows us to function as a collective.
Which leads us to how the game handles death. When someone dies in Danganronpa it’s an earth shattering event. The game stops until the murderer is found out. Everything you do is tied into either investigating the murder or unraveling the lies of the guilty party.
Death in Zanki Zero? Well it basically doesn’t matter at all. In fact, it’s beneficial. Every time you die, your party members can collect a microchip and put you in a new clone body, and you remember how you die! Die to poison and you’ll become poison resistant. Die to a certain type of enemy and that enemy’s attacks won’t hurt you as much. Die, die, and die again. As long as one person survives you can always come back.
I don’t mean to just point out the differences between Zanki Zero and Danganronpa. I’m bringing up these differences because I think it explains the strange mashup of genres that Zanki Zero is. It certainly wouldn’t have occurred to me to mash-up a first person dungeon crawler, social sim, base building sim, and survival game, but when you look at it through the lens of trying to be Danganronpa’s antithesis, it starts to make sense.
In my Danganronpa V3 review and a few articles afterward I talked about how it used ludonarrative to make a point. It was, essentially, chastising the player for being a sick watcher of this death game. It broke the fourth wall to show the perverse nature of watching high-schoolers kill each other, and it brought about questions about what is and is not ethical in the way we consume content.
This is a point that flew over a lot of fans heads. Even though V3 was very clearly marked as the “last Dangronpa” fans only clamored for more. They didn’t stop to think about the way they consumed media. They just asked for more and more of the media they wanted to consume, much like the villainous stereotypes shown in the game.
Zanki Zero feels almost like its own title, a return to “zero” to the beginning. Instead of making a game about distrusting everyone around you, Zanki Zero feels like a game that teaches you to trust those around you. Instead of “blackening” a character as unredeemable and asking you to expose them so they can be punished accordingly, the punishment in Zanki Zero is, essentially, an eternal life to atone for your sins, an eternal life to prove that no one is irredeemable.
Maybe, in a way, this is a sort of redemption for the Danganronpa series, a series that borderline fetishized the murder of high-school students. I mean, don’t get me wrong I loved rolling around in that sweet pink blood as much as the next guy, but if the eventual narrative of Danganronpa was that everyone who enjoyed Danganronpa was trash, maybe Zanki Zero is a way to show us how to not be trash?
Just a thought, anyway I need to go clean the bathroom or my seven clone friends will die from stress. Actually maybe that’s the lesson to be had here: clean the bathroom or humanity will die. Remember that the next time you skimp on bathroom cleaning duties… you know who you are.