Played on Windows.
Also Available on Linux, macOS, PlayStation 4, PlayStation Vita (JP only: Android, iOS, and PSP(?) )
It’s time to discuss one of the hardest games to talk about. Danganronpa. No, it’s not a bad game, nor is it really hard to describe. It’s just near unpronounceable for me. I finally found a good pronunciation guide (“Dang it Ron Paul”) and that’s what I’m going with. Well, it’s time for me to face the pain and try to discuss it. I had very little exposure to this game before playing and that’s a good thing for it, though I know it’s rather popular. Does it live up to the hype?
I’m going to do something very different in this review, I’ve actually written this review in two parts. You have before you a spoiler-free discussion of the game. I don’t want to go into the story here, nor discuss major plot points. However those points do influence my review, and as such, I wanted a way to discuss it. My solution is simple. This review will be spoiler free. I will also have a spoiler-filled discussion, mostly discussing what I thought of major points in the game. You can find that link here, but I will warn people, who intend to play the game, to play it first. You really should avoid all spoilers you can and enjoy the story.
You see, this is a game that’s story driven, heavily so. The experience outside of the story is lacking, as it’s mostly story-related puzzles with an interesting twist we’ll get to. The fact is, though, going into this game as fresh as possible is the only way to properly play it. In fact, I’d also warn people NOT to google anything about the game as there are massive spoilers. In addition, there’s stuff that isn’t discussed in this game, that will be explained online, but you’re not supposed to have that information until you play a sequel.
With that said, I’m going to discuss the very concept of the game without going into any of the major story points here. It’s the only right way to cover this game, in my opinion, as I don’t wish to spoil your experience.
The game starts with our main character, Makoto Naegi, yes this is a Japanese game so everyone will have a Japanese name, goes to a prestigious private school where everyone is the best at something. The name of the school is Hope’s Peak and it’s set up to only have the best students, each having an Ultimate ability. Makoto Naegi, however, is not special or impressive. He won by a lottery and is named “the Ultimate Lucky Student” where others are the Ultimate Baseball Star or Ultimate Pop Idol.
He’s a bit bland but I think that’s intentional. He’s the only thing bland in this game.
However Makoto gets there early and everything changes, he loses consciousness and wakes up in a classroom. He then rejoins his new classmates of which there are 15. This seems pretty small for an entire school year especially when you consider the different interests of all the characters.
The game starts and quickly introduces Makoto to all 14 other characters, and I will say that the game is impressive in how recognizable, unique and interesting each character is. I can name most of them, and each has a uniquely defined character. Each character definition also grows as the game goes on. Even when the game uses nicknames it’s done well enough that you know the characters by those names.
During the introductions, we find out that the characters are trapped in the school and the game properly starts. A villain, a robot bear called Monokuma, introduces himself and sets up the rules of the story. You are trapped in the school and the only way out of the school is to kill someone and be undetected in doing it. Now that sounds like an interesting game. However this a visual novel, so it’s not the actual gameplay.
15 (14 without Makoto) really unique characters are in this game, each one looks great.
Instead, eventually someone dies, and you are introduced to the real “game”. It turns out the entire game is a visual novel with a really compelling trial system set up. As for more specifics… I won’t give those away here. Honestly, the game is amazing at how it develops the story, and it’s worth letting the game deliver it as intended. Or you can look at the spoilers, but again, I recommend doing that after playing through the whole game.
As for the game itself with the visual novel style, the game does stick with an anime style for its characters, and it works. However, there is a little oddness in the characters. At first, you notice that Monokuma is a 2D billboard, and it makes sense as he’s supposed to be a robot of some sort, however, that 2D billboard is used for each character. They are all flat stand-ups and while it works and it’s simplistic, I wouldn’t have minded seeing full fleshed out 3D models.
You end up walking around a world that’s a really interesting 3D environment and exploring everything in that world, but the 2D characters take me a bit out of the experience. At the same time, the school is so well designed and the art of the game is so gorgeous that I really enjoyed exploring it. Each time you go into a new room, it’s fun and exciting to see what you’ll find.
Though when you do go into rooms, you are given a fixed position where you can move the camera by rotating to the left and right around a central point of the room, but still aren’t given that much motion. It’s an odd exploration system but it does limit the scope of the room so you’re able to focus more on what’s directly in front of you rather than feeling you have to fully explore a 4 sided room.
There are a lot of locations to explore in this game though, and again, I’m impressed by the details included in the game. The good news is that all interactable points are able to be displayed by pressing a button so while the graphics can look great, the game will show you what actually is important in the room, just in case you miss something.
Now I do have to talk about the audio a bit, usually I leave the audio and soundtrack for others to discuss as I’m not a big audiophile, however, there are a lot of weird pieces to this game. The majority of this game is not voiced. So when you’re walking around and talking to people there are only a few emotional lines thrown out. Maybe they’ll react surprised, or deny something but the text and audio don’t match, and you’ll hear most of those lines more than once.
I do have to mention one character here. Mondo, who is the Ultimate Biker (and also the Ultimate Badass). His emotion lines have a lot of obscenities, and that’s understandable, but I want to mention because if you are playing it around other people, you might not want his swearing all over the place.
Now the trials in the game are fully voiced, and that’s actually quite enjoyable as the game is brilliant in the trials and the voiced trials mean you don’t get taken out of the experience by being forced to read exposition. In fact, I like the English voice acting here, and there was not much of a reason to use the Japanese unless you understand it better than English.
There is some inconsistency with the voice lines at different parts, though. Once in a while, a single voice line or a section will have a voice in the main game. The worst part though is there’s a letter in the game and every other line of the letter is voiced. I’m not sure if that’s a limitation due to how the Japanese was written, but it’s really poorly done in the English version and there should have been a full voice acted in that part of the game or none. The game instead only reads half the letter, and it turned an important emotional scene into a really awkward moment.
While the game does look great here, it’s a rare cutscene, most of the time the characters are 2d cut outs like the image above.
So with all that said, let’s talk about the part of the gameplay.
So as mentioned you enter the school and can explore it. There are a number of events that happen and when one does occur, you’re required to go to a specific location and see the current situation. You can sometimes explore around that, but there’s not much reason to explore when you’re not in a free time slot. You might as well go see whatever you have to see so you can progress the story and it’s usually really clear what is necessary.
You can walk through the school using the normal WASD keys or the gamepad’s joystick, and it works well enough.
The free periods in the game actually allow you to talk to your fellow classmates and get to know them. This is an interesting mechanic the game promises will matter and your friendship is important. Sadly that’s not true, the friendship mechanic doesn’t seem used in the game at all.
I question if this is a lie by the game on purpose, or if they are alluding to skills and skill points that you can earn by talking to people. The skills are useful, but the friendship feature, of talking to people more than once, alludes to different outcomes. As a visual novel, that’s not going to work as well and it’s not included here.
The skills though are useful in the trials, which again, we’re getting to.
Eventually, time passes while you’re getting to know characters, and moving through the story and a major event happens. I won’t go into what, but it drives the game into an investigation system. If you’ve ever played Ace Attorney, it’s the same. You investigate everything, talk to everyone you can, and you’ll get all the clues and evidence you’ll eventually need. You can’t progress until you have 100 percent of the evidence.
Simple rules that drives the entire story.
That’s good because after an investigation you’ll move to the Trial portion of the game. The Trial is the meat of the gameplay. It’s actually also set up like Ace Attorney at first. You’re presented with what the developers call a Nonstop Debate, these are the portions of the game where all the characters will discuss pieces of the case and talk about what happened while switching between characters rapidly. The player has to find the contradiction and shoot it with the right evidence. Yes, shoot, thus the subtitle, Trigger Happy Havoc. I don’t know exactly what that means, but it’s a fun mechanic that’s actually really interesting. The fact that the conversation moves on unless you use your focus ability is challenging and you have to hit specific words. There are time limits to the debates, but they’re lenient in the game and even if you fail, you are allowed to restart the current debate as many times as you need.
It’s a really interesting and unique system that really serves the game well. If it was the only one I actually might have rated this game better. But …. well you see where I’m going.
There are three other major systems here. There’s sometimes a choice of three different options, and it can be three people or three potential evidence pieces, and you just have to choose the right one for the moment. This is relatively simplistic and works well, though it’s not as exciting as the nonstop debates.
Then there’s the Hangman Gambit. An interesting feature made annoying. When the game uses Hangman Gambit, it tends to walk down a specific path and require a certain word. If you can guess the word there’s no challenge to these and you just shoot the letters in order of that word.
The problem comes in that if you don’t know the word, there is no way to look at evidence or even see the question again in the Gambit, so you have to blindly puzzle out the word. There are only a few of these in the game, but at least twice I had no clue about the word until I was half done.
The real problem of the Hangman Gambit is the letters have to be shot in order, if the word was AXE (it’s never AXE) and you shoot X or E first, you get a strike. Instead, you have to shoot A, then X, then E. If you don’t know it’s AXE, you’re out of luck and you’ll have to fumble, as many letters fly at the screen and you just have to hope you hit A at some point. It is an interesting mechanic becomes really frustrating. I had to look up the answer for one of these, and another one I had to guess and got lucky. It’s definitely not the best part of the game, and probably is my least favorite part of the entire game… if you don’t have the right answer.
Finally, there are the Bullet Time Battles. None of the Bullet Time Battles challenged me, but that could be because I had the action difficulty on Normal. They’re just odd DDR style gameplay where you have to shoot statements to hurt people, reload the gun and shoot more in time with a beat. It’s odd, but it works, however, honestly, it doesn’t really fit with the game as much as it should, and oftentimes they feel like they’re unneeded diversions or just placed in a case because they had to have one per case.
Speaking of the difficulties, when you start the game you’ll actually be given two options, “Logic difficulty” and “Action difficulty” these sound odd but they’re actually settings for the trial. I would recommend setting it to the max for both as it increases the challenge of the game and overall the game isn’t that hard. Though, make the right choices for you. You can change it through the chapter select but it would require restarting the current trial or chapter.
That being said, the difficulty only will add a little challenge. There might be multiple wrong answers given that you need to avoid, or the action might require a little more precision but there’s not a lot of difficulty with the game as it is.
There are other complexities to the trial as well. The big one is the Danganronpa eventually develop an interesting mechanic called the flashback bullet, so if you can’t disprove someone with the evidence (on purpose) you can take a statement and use it to break another statement. This is an interesting concept, but in practice, I found it very frustrating. You see, using A to shoot B, is not the same as using B to shoot A. One will hurt the player, and have him take damage, and the other is correct at times. The good news is that the flashback mechanic isn’t used often but I found it more frustrating than it should have been.
The life system in the game gives 5 hearts, and any error takes a heart away, but any correct answer restores some part of a heart. The good news is that if you run out of hearts, you can continue from where you were, rather than having to restart an entire trial which is a pretty lengthy affair.
The game starts here with the prologue that sets up the entire story.
At the same time, I don’t understand why you need a continue at all. There are no choices here, you always get the same ending. The heart system just gives a failure condition, but instant continue makes the game over seem unnecessary.
Another thing I have to bring up is that while the game is similar to Ace Attorney, I have to be honest, the main character saying “No, that’s wrong” almost passively is no “OBJECTION” with Phoenix Wright pointing at the defendant accusingly. Every time he said “That’s wrong” I shook my head because it almost sounds like a tantrum.
The story in the trials is as good as the main game, and in fact, I have to be honest, I didn’t know the full story of almost any trial until after the end. I could piece out a big 80 to 90 percent of the trial from the clues but there are always going to be big bombshells in these trials and I love the experience of playing them because they were very engaging.
At the end of the trial to “prove” you got it all right, you have to give a closing argument. Here you have to fill out a manga comic (right to left) and add in scenes to show what actually happened. These can be challenging but for the most part, as long as you look at the questions asked by each panel, it’s not too bad.
I do have to say that there’s an issue I had with the end of the game and I’ll leave it there. In fact, there are a few issues I have with the game itself and like I said I’ll talk about that in the spoiler feature.
However, everything up to that point in the game was relatively good. The story in Danganronpa is very solid, and that’s a good thing because you’re coming to Danganronpa for the story. The trials are good, but like Ace Attorney, they’re not much of the game, and the majority of it is the story that makes those trials interesting. Finding the evidence and proving a case is only as interesting as the case in Ace Attorney, the same is true for Danganronpa. The backdrop of being locked away in a school though, is also worth exploring and the game heavily does that.
At the same time, there are some plot holes left open and it’s clearly done on purpose. The good news is the developer has made sequels that do fill in these major pieces, but part of me feels that it’s wrong to leave such major points open. Again, spoiler section for more information but I would again advise against searching google or elsewhere for these terms as they will spoil other games.
In addition, there’s an alternate mode at the end of the game, it’s really interesting and unique, but I’m going to put that too in the spoiler section for completion’s sake.
At the end of Danganronpa, I was kind of frustrated, I had issues with the game. I hated Hangman’s Gambit, I thought there was an annoying issue at the end of the game, but I played somewhere around 30-40 hours (getting sidetracked by things outside of the game) and the fact is, it’s a rather good game for that time frame. I had fun reading it. However there’s not a lot of interaction in the game, and it’s a storybook, a very long and extended storybook, but well designed and told.
At the same time, at the end of the game, I knew what my score was. There’s really only one score that was in my head from about the halfway point. This game clearly earns it and I think it properly sums up the game.
Danganronpa gets a
You know Danganronpa has a lot of issues in my opinion, but it’s also a great visual novel. It will likely pull in people who never have played a visual novel before, but it’s also so flawed, I find the experience rather annoying, and I have a problem calling it great or above. Still, I want to play Danganronpa 2: Goodbye Despair, and I’ll be honest I already have it on my wishlist. I’m sure that will be coming along eventually.
Final Thoughts: A rather excellent story contained in a visual novel with a little trial/court system added on creates a really interesting experience. However, there are some flaws, though the experience is worth it.
Stats: 32+ hours played 32/38 achievements earned.
If you want the spoiler addendum you can find it here.