Last week, while the eyes of the world were busy ogling Metal Gear Solid 5: The Phantom Pain, NIS America quietly released the latest installment of the Danganronpa series, Danganronpa Another Episode: Ultra Despair Girls. Now, many might not be familiar with just exactly what this curiously titled series of games actually are; but if you don’t, you’re seriously missing out. There are three games in the series, and they are known in the west as follows: Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc, Danganronpa 2: Goodbye Despair, and the aforementioned Another Episode.
The box art for Danganronpa Another Episode: Ultra Despair Girls.
The first two games follow a peculiar formula: A group of high-school students are trapped in a particular place (a school in the first game, an island in the second.), and they are forced to kill each other until the last person stands, much like in Battle Royale the cult classic book by Koushun Takami. However, a set of rules are in place to prevent wanton carnage. Every time that someone in the school or island is murdered a trial is held, if the culprit is caught, he or she is summarily executed. But should the culprit get away with it, and someone innocent is found guilty, everyone else dies and the culprit gets to go free. Another Episode is a spinoff that has very different gameplay, but today, we will be focusing on the first two games for the most part.
There’s a few different facets of gameplay to the main two Danganronpa entries. For the most part, the games “play” much like a hybrid of a visual novel and a point-and-click adventure game, you look around the game world and meet the characters, “socialize” with them, and gather useful items. Then the inevitable happens, a murder happens and sends shockwaves through our colorful cast of characters, and as the protagonist, it’s up to you to solve the mystery and find the culprit. After gathering evidence, the game turns into a set of mini-games set in the mock-courtroom of either the school or the island. The minigames range from finding contradictions in statements made by witnesses by shooting said statements with a “truth bullet”, to hilarious and literal “leaps” of logic in a snowboard-like game, all of which are set to an astounding soundtrack.
The cast of Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc.
Masafumi Takada is the genius behind the OST for every Danganronpa game. Although you might not know him by name, Takada was the composer for classics such as Killer 7, God Hand and No More Heroes. In the Danganronpa series, Takada really shows his wide array of talents as a composer. Considering the gameplay itself is sparse, there was a need to create a powerful soundtrack that kept the players suckered in the whirlwind of despair that Danganronpa creates, and it was accomplished beautifully. The tunes in the soundtrack consist of a chilling fusion of sounds: suspenseful electronic melodies that set the murder-mystery atmosphere, techno-like beats of immense energy and power to accompany the mock trial frenzy, jazzy rock themes that are meant to relax before a big moment takes you unawares, and sorrowful piano melodies that embody the feelings of loss and despair that are so prevalent throughout the game as the characters learn to deal and cope with their situation.
The cast of the games is always unique and interesting, with perhaps the exception of the (mostly) plain-joe protagonists. There’s the gung-ho macho motorcycle gangster, along with the freakishly buff ogre-like strongwoman in the first game, just to name some. Because of their eccentricities, the characters in the Danganronpa games are very unique and a fair bit of them will resonate with the player one way or the other. This gives the games a very strong emotional impact, as a great deal of the characters in the game end up murdered, or dead one way or the other. Which brings me to probably the most recognizable face of the franchise, Monokuma the bear. This strange looking, monochrome mascot is the main antagonist of the series, one of the major plot points is to try and find out just who controls it, and what exactly this person is planning to do with the students trapped in the school or island.
Anyone could be a murderer. The cast of Danganronpa 2 looks suspiciously at each other.
Monokuma is a brilliant antagonist, a toyish figurehead of despair that talks and act in such a chipper and almost child-like way. The contrast of his “puhuhuhu” laughter with the evil, sadistic way in which he treats the students is about as jarring a juxtaposition as the black and white tones of his skin. Monokuma steals the show pretty much every time he’s on the screen, and the punishments that he doles out to the murderers when they are caught by their fellow students are nothing short of tremendous masterpieces of creative cruelty.
Danganronpa, much like Monokuma himself, is not shy about what it sets out to do. The theme and atmosphere in the games are brutal, almost unforgivingly so. At times, the series is torturous to play; despair, being the central adversary of the franchise, coats pretty much every single game. Every murder, every trial, every stage of the game makes the characters and the players feel a certain amount of despair that’s just about enough to bring them to the brink of oblivion. Even so, Danganronpa makes something abundantly clear, Hope is stronger than Despair. What makes the game feel so satisfying in the end is that glimmer of hope at the end of the tunnel. This is good for a couple reasons: not only does this give our beloved characters something to believe in, but is an ideology that perhaps the world at large could really get behind. Even in a world as black and cold as Danganronpa’s, hope survives, and that is enough to shine a light on the darkness of the human condition.
The evil sadistic mastermind himself, Monokuma.
In a set of games as story heavy as Danganronpa, it really is difficult to make an assessment of the story without revealing details that may potentially ruin the experience for a potential player. But overall, they are excellent games that immerse you in a way few games can. The visual novel-esque gameplay of the first two games may be a turn-off for some, but if you can get past the austereness of it all, you will be rewarded by one of the best and most creative stories in modern gaming. It’s definitively recommended, although it would be best to start from the beginning with Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc, as both Danganronpa 2: Goodbye Despair and Danganronpa Another Episode: Ultra Despair Girls will not make a lick of sense.
Playing video games since he has a conscious memory, Bernard has fond memories of the Super Nintendo and the 16 bit MIDI symphonies emanating from it. Since then, he has acquired fairly atypical tastes in games and game music. Nowadays, you can find him dodging bullets and bobbing his head to the music in the Touhou Project, or fighting against gigantic monsters in Monster Hunter, God Eater, or Toukiden. Deep down, he believes portable consoles are king, long live the PS Vita and 3DS!