Thank you to NIS America for providing Dashing Nerds with the review copy of this game!
Dungeon Rompers. Dang-Ass Ron Paul.
You have likely seen the title Danganronpa (a Japanese portmanteau of “bullet” and “refute”) more frequently in the gaming world over the last couple of years, as it has established itself in the United States as one of the premiere Japanese murder mystery visual novel franchises. What began as a series on PlayStation Portable in Japan in 2010 eventually made its way to Vita, then had back-to-back Western Vita localizations in 2014 with Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc and Danganronpa 2: Goodbye Despair. In Japan, these first two series installments were released on Vita in 2013 as one game, titled Danganronpa 1•2 Reload. Now, that same bullet-infused title carries over to Danganronpa’s Western debut on PlayStation 4, as Trigger Happy Havoc and Goodbye Despair have been given a visual facelift in Danganronpa 1•2 Reload.
Pink Blood and a Murderous Bear
A simple question then follows – so what is Danganronpa? What initially sold me on trying Trigger Happy Havoc back in 2014 was that it was essentially an amalgamation of some of my favorite gaming franchises. At its core, Danganronpa is the visual novel and crime-solving trial gameplay of Ace Attorney, infused with the dark, human-experience drama of Zero Escape, with a splash of Persona’s social link interaction. The narrative premise of each game involves a group of high school students who are forced to play a diabolical killing game, in which the only way to escape is to murder another classmate and get away with it.
While many compare this setup to The Hunger Games/Battle Royale, two stark differences stand out in Danganronpa’s favor. First, each student that takes place in the killing game is an “Ultimate” – specifically selected to participate because they are the best at a particular skill set or profession, be it a swimmer, pop idol, or programmer. New players may find it challenging to be introduced to so many characters so quickly. However, the reliance on these Ultimate skills, combined with exaggerated and memorable personalities, allows the player to quickly become familiar with these new classmates. Second, when a murder disrupts the daily, trapped life, the students must convene for a Class Trial. After presenting evidence and arguments, the classmates reach a consensus vote on who the killer is. If the true murderer is discovered, they are brutally executed. If the vote is incorrect, the killer goes free, while everyone else meets their death. This twist not only adds extra stakes to the proceedings, but the peer justice sets up the gameplay hook, as well as extra tension between characters.
Over its installments, Danganronpa has come to be visually defined by two specific elements. The first of these is actually a character – the half-white, half-black bear known as Monokuma. Arguably the best villain that the video game medium has to offer in recent memory, Monokuma is the enigmatic force that runs the killing game. In keeping with the school theme, he is the principal – setting the rules as an ever-looming presence, but also doling out the vicious punishments. As Danganronpa goes through many different student characters, Monokuma is the one constant, which makes him the iconic figure for the franchise. Since murder is a big part of the series, though, mature themes are not held back throughout the narrative. Despite this, the decision to have blood be colored as hot pink, not red, is another way that Danganronpa visually defines itself. Not only does the color add to the grotesque nature of the deaths, but it fits eerily well with the pop-art, anime style of the characters and the environment. From its premise to its themes, its villain, and visual style – Danganronpa’s special blend makes it a standout title in the gaming landscape.
Daily Life, Deadly Life
It is ideal to include the series’ first two games in this package, as both games begin their stories very similarly. Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc places fifteen high-school students inside Hope’s Peak Academy, where you play as Makoto Naegi, an average boy with no discernible skills who was selected to attend through lottery as the Ultimate Lucky Student. From here, everyone realizes that they are trapped when Monokuma explains the killing game. Danganronpa 2: Goodbye Despair takes place after Trigger Happy Havoc and debuts sixteen more Hope’s Peak Academy students. This time, the playable protagonist is Hajime Hinata – another average student, but one who has no memory of his Ultimate talent. In this sequel, the students take a class trip to the tropical Jabberwock Island, only to discover that it’s a trap by Monokuma, so another killing game takes place.
Danganronpa finds itself in a unique position when it comes to gameplay, because while it excels at one mechanic, it mixes up what the player does in enough ways to keep the pacing fresh and engaging. First and foremost, it must be said that because this is a visual novel, text blocks dominate the game’s storytelling, so reading will be critical for making progress and appreciating the game. Each of both game’s six chapters progresses in a typically predictive pattern. In the Daily Life, the students are still trapped in the killing game, yet they explore a new area that has been made available to them in the school or on the island. A first-person viewpoint is used in rooms to interact with other characters or objects, while exploration of larger spaces varies between games. Trigger Happy Havoc uses a first-person dungeon crawling mechanic, whereas Goodbye Despair has a third-person cylindrical side-scrolling means of finding new locations.
While new events and character interactions take place in the Daily Life, the protagonist will also have Free Time to get to know another character better. This helps deepen the player’s understanding of another student’s motivations and personality, but there also exists the uncertainty of whether or not that character will be the next student to meet his or her untimely end. There are advantages to making the most of this free time, however, as the player can unlock special abilities that can be used during the Class Trial. Full character arcs can be explored without deathly punishment in extra, alternate-universe School/Island modes in each game that ponder “what if there was no killing game?” Unfortunately, these are weighed down by other mechanics such as gathering materials and cleaning the environment, which distract and detract from the purpose of exploring these modes.
As the pressure mounts from Monokuma’s sadistic nature, motives are called into question. Thus, the unthinkable happens and a gruesome murder takes place, beginning the Deadly Life. In this narrative state, similar exploration mechanics are used to discover clues that will help during the Class Trial, in the form of Truth Bullets. Even as all of the clues are gathered, all is often still not clear as the player enters the trial. Ultimately, the dichotomy between the Daily Life and Deadly Life – before and after the murder – is portrayed by the differences in objectives, music, and character suspicions.
Let’s Give It Everything We’ve Got
If the events of the Daily and Deadly Life are the setup, then the Class Trial is the payoff. These segments are the highlights of the Danganronpa games, where arguments are represented by phrases that fly across the screen. Like in an Ace Attorney game, any contradiction must be shot down. In this franchise, however, the player has access to the many Truth Bullets that have been collected from the investigation. Thus, the “bullet refute” translation of Danganronpa makes sense. It’s a tense, frenetic experience to blow this type of disagreement wide open and to cause a breakthrough towards truth. Yet, while this core mechanic is nearly flawless, other trial minigames which break up the pacing can be hit or miss. Reconstructing events through manga panels is brilliant, but skateboarding through logic paths seems like an odd visual representation, cutting words with sword blades can be frustrating, and spelling out an answer in a hangman style feels impossible to do without taking any damage. Regardless, the mixing of gameplay styles keeps the player engaged through it all, especially as the students uncover the truth of the murder, bit by bit. The narrative’s wicked turns and twists are what keep Danganronpa’s players coming back for more, even if it’s simply for what happens at the end of the trial.
Through it all, the presentation is top-notch, as it emphasizes the power of juxtaposition. The two-dimensional, anime-styled portraits of the characters clashes with the explorable, three-dimensional rooms. The garishness of the pink blood stands out against brutal crime scenes. Aurally, the excellent soundtracks from both games uses its synth melody and heavy strikes that I absolutely adore to play off of the story’s events. Even the high-quality voice acting can be at odds with a character’s visual appearance. From the menu accents, to the intensity that is visually portrayed in the Class Trial, there is no other game that has a presentation style quite like Danganronpa. Even as the first game’s school environment is substituted for the second game’s tropical island, the series maintains an essence that is all its own.
It’s Punishment Time
Danganronpa is one of my favorite new game franchises from the last several years. Each game takes about 25 hours to complete on a first playthrough, so the dual-game package of Danganronpa 1•2 Reload makes for an excellent value proposition at about 50 hours for $39.99 MSRP. As it is the case with most visual novels, get ready for a whole lot of reading, so it’s up to you to determine if that’s your kind of experience. Fortunately, for Danganronpa series veterans who are looking to replay the games, text can be rapidly skipped by holding the Circle button right from the beginning.
If you are reading this and wondering about the differences between the English PlayStation 4 and Vita releases of the first two Danganronpa games, there is only a graphical fidelity improvement and the ability to play it natively on PS4. Everything else has been faithfully recreated from the Vita version, so there is not much else that is new here for returning franchise players. That being said, this is the perfect starting point for those who never owned a PlayStation Vita and are looking to experience one of its must-play franchises.
If you are looking for even more Danganronpa, Trigger Happy Havoc and Goodbye Despair are also available now on Steam. A spin-off game – Danganronpa Another Episode: Ultra Despair Girls – was released on PlayStation Vita in North America in 2015, but will have a PS4 and Steam release on June 27, 2017. Anime adaptations recap and continue the series’ story through Funimation. A virtual reality experience – Cyber Danganronpa VR: The Class Trial – is available now for free on PlayStation VR. Finally, Danganronpa V3: Killing Harmony continues the franchise with the third main series title later this year – available for PS4, Steam, and Vita in North America on September 26, 2017.
It’s time for another class trial.
- Engaging takes on the murder mystery genre with powerful twists
- Memorable characters with well-defined personalities
- A presentation that’s all its own with an earworm of a soundtrack
- Exciting new approach to court-like trial gameplay
- A terrific value as the perfect way to enter a new game series
- Extra modes without murders add extra clutter
- Some trial minigames feel superfluous