When I post a link to this on Twitter, I’ll probably use the tagline ‘Danganronpa; possibly the greatest game I’ve ever not enjoyed’ and that about sums it up really. And this will be the text that gets previewed in that very same post on Twitter, and the few people interested enough in the Danganronpa series to check this out will immediately get the gist of my opinion, realising ‘Ah, the fact that he addresses Danganronpa as a great game in some way indicates that objectively he finds the game to be very well made, but that he goes on to add to he didn’t enjoy it strongly suggests that he found the game unrewarding on a personal level’ and conclude that they don’t need to read the rest of this article. Which is more-or-less correct, that really does sum up my feelings on Danganronpa. But I’m writing this anyway, because oh my God I’m so happy I get to write about Danganronpa!
I maybe have the wrong approach to playing video games. I play video games for fun, but now that they’ve been my main hobby for quite some time, I also play them for education. If a game had a huge cultural impact on the industry, or even the world, then I would like to play it for myself, even if I don’t think I would enjoy it. Basically, I’m trying to prepare myself for a day in which I, as an old man, am able to answer almost any question about any important video game on any system in any genre. “What’s the best strategy game on the PS2?” “Which Nintendo franchise had the best pinball-based spin-off?” “How does the trajectory of the quality of Final Fantasy games compare to Dragon Quest between 1995 and 2005?”
I don’t really have a set method of working through all of these games I’d like to play, but I’m always aware of the series I need to do more to get into. I’m pretty behind on Sonic the Hedgehog, and I still haven’t played a single Final Fantasy game for more than five minutes, but if there’s ever a time when I feel like a completely uneducated swine in a world of beautiful art, it’s when the topic of Japanese games comes up. I have an Ys compilation on Steam that I haven’t played, but that’s about it – I haven’t played any major JRPGs and whenever the topic changes to Persona or Shin Megami Tensei then my eyes glaze over and I struggle to make a joke where I pretend that they share the same universe as Death Note.
So when a bundle containing Danganronpa 1 and 2 went on sale around Christmas for less than £20, I thought it would be a great opportunity for me to knock one of the titans off of my list. I knew just enough about Danganronpa to know that it was extremely well-respected, well-liked, and a very big deal, in spite of also knowing almost nothing about its set-up or (uncomfortable word usage) execution. I was vaguely aware that it was a game with murders and investigations, but that was about it, and hey, Phoenix Wright is one of my favourite video game series, so I started up Danganronpa one day with hopes and expectations brimming in my eyes, and… I was kind of disappointed. It didn’t grip me. I played for an hour or so, enough to get the gist of how the story was going to go, but not long enough for anything to really happen, so to speak.
Then, one Friday night, I opened the game up and played until something happened. I kept playing until about 3am and then fell asleep. Then I woke up at 8am and played Danganronpa some more. I think I paused to eat at one point, and – genuinely true – forced myself to get changed and walk for two minutes up and down my street because staring at the computer was hurting my eyes, but otherwise, all my time went on Danganronpa. I fell asleep at 4am on Sunday morning, being most of the way through the trial of Chapter 4. I can barely remember anything about Sunday except I finished the game completely at around 9pm in the evening. I checked my Steam time and I’d played Danganronpa for about 28 hours. With the exception of the hour I started mid-week, I had pretty much marathoned the game from start to finish, with minimal breaks. I’m not just saying this for effect, but outside of games that you can beat in one sitting because they only last a maximum of three hours, I cannot remember the last time I was so hooked that I played a game like this from start to finish. One thing is for certain; I was incredibly engaged with the story of Danganronpa.
It’s just… I didn’t really enjoy it very much.
So if you have Danganronpa lying around in your Steam library then pick it up and play it now, because I’m about to spoil the… actually, no, it’s not important to spoil the story of this game. But I will be spoiling the premise of the story, and since I went into the game completely blind, it’s definitely something that might take away from the experience of playing it yourself.
So, like a music critic who constantly mishears things being asked to review a No Doubt song released in 1996, it’s time to talk about Hope’s Peak.
The story of Danganronpa begins with Hope’s Peak Academy, an incredibly exclusive school that doesn’t accept applications; rather the staff seek out the most talented individuals in their respective trades from the world over, and invite them to attend. And who in their right mind would say no? Graduating from Hope’s Peak basically means you’re set for life, because no interviewer would pass over the opportunity to employ someone from Hope’s Peak, and several alumni have gone on to major roles in corporations or even government. Which is kind of surprising when you remember that the most talented individuals that they seek out include skill sets like ‘Ultimate Break-Dancer’ or ‘Ultimate Zookeeper’ or ‘Ultimate Weatherman’.
The player character in this game is Makoto Naegi, who is the Ultimate Lucky Student. How did they measure his luck, I hear you ask, even though if you’re reading this, you presumably have a prior interest in Danganronpa and would therefore be aware of one of the backstory of the main character? Well, Hope’s Peak simply sent a letter out to a completely random student, working on the logic that whoever received the letter must naturally be incredibly lucky to get to attend such a prestigious school!
This is honestly a pretty good way to set up a cast of diverse and interesting characters with unique, often larger-than-life personalities, while keeping the protagonist a heroic underdog/everyman whose shoes you can easily step into. Makoto is just an average high school student, chosen at random to take part in this game, with no off-putting or pre-existing traits of his own except for being a pretty friendly guy. It’s not often that it’s good to put a blank slate in a video game, but in a visual novel where the player and Makoto are both interacting to the cast and reacting to the story at the same time, it’s done pretty well.
The rest of the cast are very well-written – they’re all pretty stereotypical at first, but it becomes apparent as the game progresses that there’s a certain depth to them beyond the first impressions they make – but their talents are a little odd. There are some traditional choices, like Ultimate Pop Star, Ultimate Martial Artist, Ultimate Swimmer, Ultimate Baseball Star and Ultimate Novelist. Then you have slightly stranger picks, like Ultimate Biker Gang Leader and Ultimate Fanfic Creator. And then you straight-up have the Ultimate Affluent Prodigy – a snobby rich kid – and the Ultimate Moral Compass, a real stickler for the rules. What? How would Hope’s Peak even measure… uh… never mind.
You’re introduced to this colourful cast when you enter Hope’s Peak Academy for the very first time, or rather, when you enter, start to feel funny, fall unconscious, wake up in an empty classroom and then wander into another room. You’re joined by 14 other new students, all Ultimate in their own way, but the doors and windows have been very emphatically sealed up and there’s now no way to leave the school. You’ve just finished introducing yourself to everyone when an announcement is made over the tannoy system. Everyone needs to make their way to the gym as soon as possible.
And when everyone goes to the gym, this is who they meet.
And here, my troubles began.
This is Monokuma, a psychotic robot toy bear who declares himself headmaster and announces the start of the Killing Games. Everyone has been locked into the school for good, and the only way for anyone to leave is to kill one of their classmates. Once a classmate has been killed, there will be a brief period of time for everyone to investigate, and then a trial will be held. If the class are able to uncover who the murderer is, only the murderer will be killed. If they fail, the murderer is allowed to leave the school, and everyone else is killed. Monokuma intermittently provides very strong incentives to make the students want to leave, from showing them footage of the outside world, with their loved ones in uncertain peril, to threatening to reveal their darkest secrets, and eventually just offering them millions of dollars.
This is a pretty interesting concept, although I was unable to properly state this at the time I was playing. If you wanted to know my opinion of the concept at that time, here’s a rough idea.
WHAT THE FUCK?!?!???
You introduced me to a cast of interesting and likeable characters, and now a psychotic robot toy bear is forcing them to fucking Hunger Games each other? Jesus Christ, they’re the age of high school students! I know that this game series is widely revered, and rightly so, but if this was more well-known, I wouldn’t be surprised if it garnered an amount of Fox News-esque ‘Ban this sick filth!’ backlash similar to those non-existent sex scenes in Mass Effect. And apologies to all nerds who are upset that I said ‘Hunger Games’ instead of ‘Battle Royale’. Could’ve been worse. I could’ve said ‘Avengers Arena’.
Monokuma represents a very large part of why I don’t like the game, and it’s mainly because his characterisation is pretty much the reverse of all of the main cast, who, as mentioned before, can sometimes come across as a little stereotypical, but gain depth over the course of the game, or the optional conversations you can strike up with them between murders. Monokuma, on the other hand, is, as mentioned before, a psychotic robot toy bear. That strikes me as pretty original, and he’s very clearly completely fucking evil but he also has a wacky sense of humour that has apparently made him a hit with much of the fanbase. But Monokuma comes across as a crazy pint-sized villainous piece of shit, and… that’s it. Out of context, it feels kind of stupid that I’m criticizing – sorry for repeatedly referring to Monokuma as this but it’s the shortest adequate description I could think of – the psychotic robot toy bear for not having sufficient characterisation, but it’s boring. Monokuma is wacky and crazy and completely two-dimensional. He becomes uninteresting very, very quickly, which is especially bad considering that he’s the primary antagonist.
But let’s go into more detail about the gameplay and the set-up of the murders, investigations and trials, just so that I don’t go and blow all of my story material at once. So, one of your classmates has killed another one of your classmates and it’s your job to find out whodunit.
Just for the record, this is an image they used in the demo of the game so that players still had a chance to solve a murder, but they changed which character was the victim. So if you’ve seen this picture and think ‘Ah! Spoilers! You said there would be no spoilers, and I foolishly believed you! I was about to donate to your Patreon at www.patreon.com/TheDopefish but now I am retracting the offer!’ then relax, go to my Patreon, and donate all of your money, because the character you can see is not the one who ends up in this situation.
Anyway, when a character is murdered, it’s time to investigate. Danganronpa is mainly split into big, featureless hallways that connect all of the individual rooms, and said rooms, where you don’t walk around but can select things on the screen to examine. There’s even a button you can press that highlights everything you can interact with, including characters you can talk to and entrances/exits to other locations. I’m not sure how you could miss those things, but it’s genuinely a very nice touch to make sure you don’t miss anything.
Anything you find that could be relevant to the murder, or any memorable testimony from someone who may have accidentally stumbled upon the truth, is recorded as a ‘Truth Bullet’. And once you’ve examined everything, it’s time to move on to the trial. And this where the game gets, if you’ll excuse my overly-professional language, stylish as absolute fuck.
In games like Phoenix Wright, or… actually Phoenix Wright is the only non-point’n’click game I’ve played where the goal is to investigate crime scenes and solves murders, so my approach here is rather limited, but in games like Phoenix Wright, when it’s time to lawyer up and present your evidence, you do this quite slowly and professionally, examining parts of testimony, pressing the witness, and deciding when to present evidence. In DanganRonpa, when people talk – and all of the trials and completely 100% voice-acted, by the way – then their words literally fly across the screen, waiting for you to select your Truth Bullet and literally shoot down their argument. It’s incredibly stylish and in spite of the subject matter being a non-stop trip through depression-ville then it’s genuinely quite fun to play. There are still more straightforward bits where you just answer multiple-choice questions, or are asked directly ‘Hey, do you have any evidence that the knife was the murder weapon?’ and then you select the Truth Bullet ‘Knife’ which has the description ‘Literally found in the literal body, you idiot’, but it’s very novel to be arguing against so many people at once.
Or maybe it’s fun because it’s not arguing, it’s a group effort to find out who killed someone. You definitely make the most valid points in the group and without you, everyone else would fall for the first trap and immediately be murdered, but it’s nice that it’s not just a defence lawyer, a prosecutor and the witness here, but an admittedly dwindling party of 15 unique people working together to solve something.
There are a few mini-games too. One of them is the Hangman’s Gambit, which is just… hangman. I don’t know how else to describe it. It’s hangman except instead of picking whichever letter you want, you have to wait for the letter to float into view and then shoot at it until it falls into place. Speaking of which, during the trials, when other characters are speaking, sometimes the thoughts of other members of the group will appear on the screen as white noise AKA lines of internal monologue, but in purple, and when these get in the way of a point you have to shoot down, you need to take them out before firing your Truth Bullet. It’s a lot more straightforward than it sounds, and again, it’s actually kind of cool, especially because their thoughts are often amusing.
There’s also an entire mini-game based around rhythm called the Panic Talk Action, in which characters – often the murderer, but sometimes just a confused bystander – angrily shouts statements at you that you have to shoot down by locking onto them by tapping A – at least if you’re playing with a controller – in time with the background music, and then releasing it again in order to shoot them down. This mini-game gets a little bit more advanced as you go on because after the first few trials, you have to deal with pressing another button to reload the bullets (still metaphorical but non-Truth Bullets) you use to shoot down these statements, and right at the end, you have to present the correct piece of evidence to completely eviscerate their claims. And that’s how you win a trial in Danganronpa! Now it’s just time to lie back, relax, and enjoy the short animation of Monokuma brutally murdering whichever one of your classmates was forced into committing murder this time. How, uh… rewarding.
This is probably a good point to explain exactly why I found the game so engaging, but such an addictively horrible chore to play. In case you couldn’t tell from that last paragraph, your ‘reward’ in each case is getting to watch a student be killed in what I can only describe as ironic anime Final Destination traps. If the killer was the Ultimate Architect, they would be tied to a chair at the top of a skyscraper and the building would be demolished beneath them, and they would somehow survive the collapse, only to be crushed under the remaining rubble. The Ultimate Hairdresser would have their hair fashioned into a long thin spike with plenty of wax, and then the roof would open up and a bolt of lightning would hit them. But it wouldn’t kill them outright, and at their feet would be wires connected to a giant magnet behind them, and suddenly dozens of pairs of scissors and clippers and tweezers would shudder for a second and then fly into their body, killing them with hundreds of small wounds. If anyone from Spike Chunsoft is reading this, hire me.
But they probably don’t need to hire me; I mentioned on IndieCent (podcast plug, Episode 18, I believe the game was ‘This Is The Police’) that I think there’s just one guy in the Spike Chunsoft offices who handles all of the executions. And he has a real psycho name, like ‘Derek’ or ‘Malcolm’ and everyone else is kind of freaked out by him, but when they’re approaching the end of a case, the slowly approach his desk and ask if he’s had any ideas lately, and he regales them with a Kafkaesque, nightmare-ish vision of pain and suffering that he’s ready to inflict on a fictional high school student, and everyone goes silent. And then one brave soul says, “I’ve been meaning to ask, Derek. How’s marriage counselling going?”
Perhaps the best way to explain exactly why this is a really bad part of the game for me, I need to go back to the one game I can actually make comparisons to; Phoenix Wright. I’ve played seven Phoenix Wright games – technically eight if you count the five minutes I’ve played of Ultimate Marvel VS Capcom 3 – and while there are often exceptions to the formula, more often than not you are investigating the murder of a kind, gently innocent person who was murdered by a piece of remorseless garbage. Again, plenty of exceptions – there are sympathetic murderers and asshole victims aplenty – but I recently finished Dual Destinies and this is the case in literally every episode. Find your client innocent, and take down the psychopath responsible for their murder.
Needless to say, that’s not what happens in Danganronpa.
The overarching storyline in Danganronpa is its greatest appeal and its greatest downfall, at least for me. Not an objective downfall at all, I can definitely understand how keeping the same story going for multiple chapters is obviously going to drag people into the story much more efficiently than tearing everything down and starting again at the end of each chapter, but this is what makes the game so brutally unpleasant to play.
In Phoenix Wright games, often the penultimate case will have a link to the final case, so as to build up a little tension, but otherwise, the cases are pretty disconnected. They may share some recurring characters or witnesses, but overall they have very little to do with each other. This is actually kind of beneficial, because whenever I finish a case, I don’t feel like I made progress in the game, but I feel like I actually finished a small game that was part of something a little bit larger. Most trials have a conclusively happy ending and everyone smiles and says nice things to each other and Phoenix/Apollo/Athena deliver an important message about believing in your friends and never giving up.
In Danganronpa, as the story is overarching, it’s the same cast of characters the whole way through. So the person who gets murdered in Chapter 4 is the very same person you were getting to know through Chapters 1, 2 and 3. This is… gripping, story-wise, because you have way more involvement with the story, getting to know all of the key players from the very start, rather than being only being introduced to them as a corpse, or sometimes barely before their death. This makes the story much, much more interesting, because it’s more like one big story than five small ones, and every tiny bit of progress you make takes you closer and closer to the next death of a character. There’s a reason I had to marathon it; at the end of a Phoenix Wright trial, everything is conclusively wrapped up, lessons have been learned, and the good guys have won. At the end of a Danganronpa trial, a minimum of two more of your friends have been killed, you’re no closer to understanding why any of this is happening, and the boring invincible villain laughs in your face as you feel like crying.
Basically, this is how a trial ends in Phoenix Wright.
That’s literally confetti!
And this is how a trial ends in Danganronpa.
That’s literally the corpse of one of your classmates!
There isn’t even a sliver of joy to be taken in the murderer getting their comeuppance because it isn’t a fair comeuppance. In Phoenix Wright, while there are sympathetic murderers, most often they commit crimes because they want to steal a priceless jewel, or hide their involvement in a criminal activity, or demolish an orphanage to make way for a multi-storey car park for only their own cars. In Danganronpa… it’s hard to go into detail without spoilers, but only one of the cases in which a student murders another student is pre-meditated and planned in advance. Everything else is just a tragic spur-of-the-moment happening, which is more understandable when the students are under duress, and it’s understandable that they’re under duress given that they’re trapped forever away from their friends, families and loved ones unless they’re willing to kill to escape, or in turn be killed by someone they thought of as an ally.
Even the one student who plans out their murder doesn’t receive anything but sympathy from me, because when Makoto and co ask them “Why did you do it? Why did you commit murder?” their answer isn’t vague or villainous or mysterious; they just straightforwardly answer “Because I absolutely fucking hate it here and I just want to get out and go home!” And you know, given the circumstances, how is that anything but a completely reasonable explanation? It doesn’t help that sometimes the murderers are even people who were helpful or vital in solving the case in previous chapters, really highlighting how they are legitimately good people who have been forced into this.
And once again, a huge problem here is Monokuma. Monokuma is perfectly happy to force children to kill each other, and to kill them directly in disgusting over-the-top ways, so there is absolutely no joy to be found by progressing the game. None whatsoever. It’s like a game where the main cast are comprised of shoplifters, jaywalkers, and litterbugs, and when you uncover which of them is guilty of one of these heinous crimes, they’re promptly murdered on screen by a racist Nazi paedophile. There’s so much about this game that’s objectively great, but also so much that drives me to say “You know what, Spike Chunsoft? Fuck everything about this entire experience.”
And I hate to be overly negative but I might as well get these things out of the way too; while there are plenty of things about Danganronpa that I can chalk up to ‘This really just isn’t for me’ then there are some objective flaws I can find too. Such as the terrible pacing, for example. There are six trials in the game, and a cast of fifteen students. In the first three trials, eight students die. Not saying who, obviously, but that’s more than half of the main cast, dead by the halfway point in the game. And not only does this expressway to ‘Feeling Like Shit Town’ hamper your investment in the story because everything’s so bleak and miserable, but it also means that the story in the latter half of the game has to slow right the hell up, because there literally aren’t as many characters they can kill any more.
Another flaw about the characters who do and don’t get killed off is that characterisation in Danganronpa games tends to only happen when a character is killed, or when they kill. You especially learn more about the murderers, almost all of whom have tragic circumstances that led them to kill, but often the victims also get a bit of the spotlight too, because it’s kind of hard to avoid the spotlight when there’s an investigation going on into your death. But as a result of all of the characterisation going to the deceased and the soon-to-be deceased, there isn’t a great deal left for everyone else. This isn’t true for many of the survivors, but there are some – definitely one in particular, who shall remain unnamed – who inspire the reaction “Why the fuck are you even here?” from me. Especially when you consider all of the interesting characters who could still be alive.
I don’t want it to sound like I solely dislike the game because it made me feel sad; I’m writing this on the same day that I finished Doki Doki Literature Club, which I loved, just like I love Actual Sunlight and Papo & Yo and the LISA trilogy, so I don’t have anything against games that make me cry like a Danganronpa 3 fan on prom night. The difference between this game and those games is that Danganronpa was 28 hours long. I couldn’t recommend Actual Sunlight enough because it’s a tearfully realistic depiction of someone’s life spiralling downwards until they commit suicide. I couldn’t recommend Danganronpa full stop because it has all of the depression, but it’s stretched out over the course of 28 hours. It’s miserable and drawn out to the point where I wonder if my marathon of the game was really just me ripping off a band-aid that took 28 hours to properly come off. Playing Danganronpa is akin to watching Schindler’s List eight and a half times, and it might be an excellent film and all, but can you really recommend it that much?
The short answer, given that I’m still willing to call Danganronpa ‘the greatest game I’ve ever not enjoyed’, is yes, as the story is so engaging and unpredictable – other than maybe one obvious clue in the first investigation, you will walk into every trial with no idea who did it – the gameplay is so refined and polished, and the characters are so interesting that I can still wholeheartedly recommend trying the game out for yourself. Even if you don’t like it, you’ve only wasted, at most, a few days of your life. Just make sure that the next 14 films you see are incredibly and you’ve made that time up already.
Plus, there are several positives that I’ve barely mentioned, like the soundtrack, which contains a decent mix of sphincter-tightening tunes for the tensest body discoveries and class trial revelations, as well as some great combinations of piano and synthesizer for the slower-paced mysteries, and even some relaxing tunes for the free time you can spend with the other students. My favourite tune is the latter ‘Beautiful Dead’ which, in keeping with the spirit of Danganronpa, I both love and hate, because it’s one of those tunes that manages to be cautiously optimistic while unsettling in a way that you can’t really explain, maybe simply due to the temporary nature of any reprieve from the killing in this game, like hearing an upbeat J-Pop song in between pulling the trigger in a round of Russian Roulette.
Speaking of the free time you can spend with other students, in between all of the horrific murder, you can chat to your classmates, give them gifts, and get to know them a little bit better. Every one of them is interesting and it’s fun to learn more about them. There are also Monocoins to find hidden around the school which you can pick up by examining random objects, and these can be spent in a machine that grants you random gifts that you can give to your classmates. You can also unlock gallery items, the soundtrack, and cutscenes, once they’ve been seen in the game, of course. Valve may have removed that school-shooting simulator from Steam, but there’s still one game where you can watch your classmates gorily die over and over.
When the game is finished completely, you unlock School Mode, a silly little game where all of the characters have to work together to search the school for parts that you need to craft whatever bizarre item Monokuma is demanding from you this week, and every day in School Mode gives you another chance to get to know your classmates and fill in their report cards, even those that are long dead in the main game. It’s nothing award-winning, but to have a cute little side-game in Danganronpa where everyone is alive and you’re free to chat to everyone on your own time is extremely relaxing after the horrors of the main story.
But even the story, miserable though it, manages to tell an interesting tale of Hope and Despair, even if the game does suffer – as all Danganronpa games suffer – from late game revelations that spark your interest, but also make you realise how completely unimportant to the storyline the vast majority of the game is. There were plenty of moments near the end when I was remembering the first few trials and trying to think of anything they did to advance the actual overarching story other than ‘More of my friends died, and I was sad’ and I couldn’t come up with much. But it’s good enough for a lot of people, and given that I still played and finished the game, it was probably good enough for me too.
It seems kind of weird to be saying this after writing 5,000 words about Danganronpa, but I honestly don’t know what to tell you about Danganronpa. It might be one of my favourite games this year, but it’s also probably one of my least-favourite too. It must have been intentional that you would feel like absolute garbage whenever another one of your classmates was killed, but maybe it worked a little bit too well and takes something away from the experience. Then again, the major theme of the game is never giving up on hope in the face of overwhelming, seemingly endless despair, so it’s nice that they even managed to reflect that in the emotions that they invoked within players. I just wonder if it wasn’t all a bit too much.
I liked this game, but after finishing it, I had absolutely no intention of ever playing a single Danganronpa game ever again. Which is a shame, because the second one is right there in my library. Will I play it at some point? I don’t know, maybe. In fact, yes, I will. If something ever happens to make me so suicidally depressed that I’m looking for something to push me over the edge, then I will positively skip back to my computer and play Danganronpa 2 immediately. Not that there’s much chance of that happening, ha ha ha. Anyway, I’m off to watch Avengers: Infinity War.
Thanks very much for reading my extremely conflicted thoughts on this game!