Since I stumbled into Zero Escape: 9 Hours, 9 Persons, 9 Doors a couple of years ago, I’ve been a huge proponent of visual novels. They’re a place where I can seek out the kinds of stories that aren’t typically told anywhere else, in a way that suits a narrative better than say, incidental dialogue being shouted over gunfire. The Phoenix Wright series follows a similar formula to the Zero Escape games, but tells broader stories and bases their mechanics around fighting liars in court battles, rather than the focused narratives centered around locked room puzzles. Danganronpa somehow manages to find a happy medium between these two, and has earned itself an easy recommendation to anyone even slightly interested in dipping into the genre, especially if you’ve never tried one before.
The setting of Danganronpa will probably feel familiar if you’re a fan of mystery fiction. A group of over a dozen high school students find themselves trapped in a strange school, with no idea why they’ve been imprisoned there. A sinister teddy bear greets them and tells them they’re trapped, and the only way they can leave is to kill another classmate and get away with the murder without anyone knowing they did it. If someone is able to commit the crime without being caught, they get to leave, and everyone else will be killed in their place.
People die. Bodies start dropping, and it’s up to everyone to figure out who did it, how, and why. It’s a great ensemble cast, filled with characters who may seem one-note at first, but you’ll grow to love more and more as the story drives on. I found it hard to put the game down once I was deep into discovering the next killer, and when I wasn’t playing I was thinking about who I really hoped wasn’t murdered next. The game plays with tropes as much as it plays with the fourth wall, and it doesn’t mind throwing you completely off track just to surprise you with another reveal five minutes later. That character who you think would never do anything wrong? They’re probably going to make the first move, long before you see it coming. After spending over 20 hours to make it to the final chapter, the game continued its surprises, and kept me engaged until (and after!) the credits rolled.
The game has several different modes you engage in over the course of the story. The “free time” sections allow you to choose students to engage with, and you can learn about their stories and motivations. This builds characters even more as you spend more and more time with them, and hurts even more once their inevitably ripped away in a murder. This system goes even deeper once you discover the capsule machine which dispenses a random assortment of items. Spend coins there and you might find a meal, a toy, a shirt, or any number of other oddities. These can then be given to any character you spend time with, and will provide more opportunities for conversations if you choose an item they would like. Give the professional swimmer a new swimsuit, for instance, and you’re standings with her will improve and you’ll access new dialogue options. I really enjoyed these interactions, as the game rewards you for paying attention to and learning about each person in the group.
Then comes the investigation. Sooner or later, someone’s going to find a body. Then it’s up to you to gather as much evidence as you can to use during the class trial, in which someone will be accused of murder. These segments are thankfully made better than Phoenix Wright’s pixel hunts, as each item you can interact with will be highlighted when you press triangle. On top of that, most rooms won’t allow you to leave until you’ve found the clue you’re supposed to be there for. Even more, the game will often move you instantly to your next destination when important story beats are happening. Each of these hugely remedies the worst parts of other visual novels. When you’re desperate to see the next part in the story, the last thing you want is to be stuck for two hours with no direction where to go.
After you’ve gathered your clues, the most unique facet of Danganronpa kicks in. You and the other survivors gather in the basement where a trial is held, and you all talk through and decide who you believe is guilty of murder. Arguments are made, and you have to refute lies as they are spoken. You select from your evidence and break apart false statements by literally shooting your accusations at the words onscreen. There are several gimmicky pieces to these trials, from a rhythm game that I actually really began to enjoy after I’d done it a few times, to a game of hangman, to piecing a comic book back together. Not everything serves to make a better experience, but it’s all so odd and experimental it’s hard to fault much of what’s done here. Tearing apart a classmate’s lies and contradictions is as satisfying as ever, and watching them finally crack under the pressure is always worth the effort.
There are, however, several instances when there just isn’t enough of a hint to know what evidence to submit, or what line of logic the game is expecting you to follow. This lead to multiple instances of me clicking wildly on every piece of evidence, desperate to figure out what I was supposed to be doing next. It never broke the game for me, but these instances were common and frustrating enough to remind me that the game didn’t hit every note it was aiming for.
After a trial reaches its conclusion, the guilty party is put through whatever devious execution the mastermind has dreamed up, and they’re all pretty glorious to witness. The first trial has the best one, and it’s a bit disappointing they never reach that kind of surprise again. They’re all still worth seeing through though, even if it means watching the brutal demise of someone who was probably your friend ten minutes ago.
There are a few times when I felt the game was either poorly translated or just lacked certain amount of respect. At one point, the hangman game asks you to spell a word relating to a person who might have multiple personalities. The word ends up being a fairly derogatory word that really had no place there in the first place, and made light of a real mental illness that many already have misconceptions about. Another instance made light of a character’s gender identity, with characters swapping out pronouns when referring to them, interchanging “he” and “she” after the plot twist that a character did not have the genitalia of the gender the character claimed to be. As self-aware as Danganronpa feels in almost every other part of the game, these couple of instances stuck out, and left a bad taste. I honestly don’t think the writers were being intentionally insensitive or disrespectful here, I just felt that they seemed a bit out of touch.
Another oddity: The art style. Every character is represented in the environment by a cardboard cutout. They bounce into the air and flop back down when you click on them to talk, and for the beginning of the game, it was slightly distracting. All of the blood in the game is also bright pink, which forced the deaths to lose some of their shock value. Over time, you’ll mostly forget about how strange everything looks, and come to terms with Danganronpa’s very unique style, but I’m not sure if it serves to benefit the game more than it detracts. Despite those style choices, everything really does look beautiful. Colors pop, and the character art really stands out, almost looking 3D at times. The best part of the art is that loading times are obfuscated by rooms building themselves as you walk in. Every piece of the environment (tables, chairs, etc) fly in from the sky and build themselves into the world each time you enter a room. If this is the alternative to starting at a black loading screen, I’d take this, even after I’ve seen the dining room put itself together five dozen times.
Danganronpa may originally be a 2010 PSP game from Japan, but this redone version feels like more than a lazy port. The translation is excellent, as are the majority of the English voice cast. There are a few weak links, but even those seem to find their place in their roles as the game progresses. Luckily, most of the dark comedy translated effortlessly. For as unpleasant as the subject matter is, Danganropa never goes too long without cracking a genuinely funny joke. It’s one of the funniest games I’ve played, and even in the midst of a bloodbath, it never failed to miss a perfectly timed, actual laugh-out-loud line of dialogue. The majority of the jokes and hilariously specific references carry into English perfectly, with only a few slip-ups to be found. One character in particular feels like his translation was made at the last minute, and falls almost entirely flat. Thankfully, the game moves past this character relatively quickly, and, really, one bad apple out of over a dozen isn’t too bad. The deliciously evil teddy bear, Monokuma, plays his role beyond excellently, and other than maybe a few too many odd sexual remarks, is one of the most perfectly executed villains I’ve seen in a game of this kind. I was excited to see him whenever he decided to interrupt the investigations, and his accompanying theme song is a highlight of an already astounding soundtrack. I mean, just listen to this.
The end of the game definitely leaves room for a sequel to swoop in and explain away the unsolved mysteries, but I came away slightly disappointed. After being spoiled with the incredible wrap-up sequence of 999, I was expecting a similarly bewildering sweep through of all the game’s unexplained plot points. There are definitely more than a few questions left unanswered, and the ending isn’t as impactful as I wanted it to be, but the journey up to that point is so great, I still have to hand it to the game for making it such a fun ride. The novel Danganronpa Zero is currently available, and is designed to be read AFTER completion of the game, and a localized sequel is on its way later this year. These may end up alleviating some of my qualms, but my biggest complaint with the game is that it feels more like a first season of a TV show than a completed epic. If the worst thing I have to say about the game is that I just wanted a lot more after 25+ hours, I guess that’s not too bad of a grievance.
When I was playing Danganronpa, I couldn’t read through the text fast enough to see what insanity would happen next, and when I wasn’t, I was ready to get back. It’s a wonderfully exciting thriller, and one that I could recommend to anyone looking to be told a good story. Even though I don’t care for these final revelations as much as I adored those in 999, it’s without a doubt a far better playing game than the 999 or Phoenix Wright. Since the much better playing Virtue’s Last Reward all but requires the frustrating initiation of 999, Danganronpa is probably the better starting point. If you’re looking for a place to begin with visual novels, I can’t think of a better one to jump into than this.