Thoughts on Danganronpa pt. 5: Reviving Harmony

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Pt. 1: Trigger Happy Havoc

Pt. 2: Goodbye Despair

Pt. 3: Ultra Despair Girls

Pt. 4: The End of Hope’s Peak High School

 

Danganronpa is a franchise in an awkward position right now. Despite the criticism I’ve given it as its grown or even the negative sentiments longtime fans have expressed on social media and message boards, the series is still arguably in its strongest position ever. It cannot be understated how important it is that as of next year, the entire series will be available on PlayStation 4.

The video game industry is all about sales and popularity. Danganronpa transitioning from just being on Vita outside of Japan to being on PC and now the best selling console in the world is a major development. It opens up the series to a much larger audience. The series being viable in other media – such as anime- has also undoubtedly added to its popularity.

In other words, the assertion that Danganronpa is currently in a negative state is only referring to how myself and others subjectively feel about the content itself. The critical reception of the series has never been lower than it is right now, but the series’ viability – its ability to make money for Spike Chunsoft – has never been higher.

With all that said, despite the struggles of the last couple of entries, I will likely be a day-one adopter of the Vita version of Danganronpa V3: Killing Harmony when it comes to the west. Truth be told, a soft reset of the series is the best thing that could happen to Danganronpa.

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Danganronpa‘s weakness since the first game has been trying to expound upon the strange world and backstory that the series is based around. However, the core mechanics of the two full-length games were solid. Kazutaka Kodaka and his Spike Chunsoft team have demonstrated that under the format that Trigger Happy Havoc and Goodbye Despair were made in, they can make engaging games with fun characters, intriguing mysteries, and… passable… mini games.

So, as bad as DR3 was to some, I don’t understand abandoning V3 over it. Danganronpa has yet to fail in delivering a good full-length game and V3 seems to be completely disconnected from the mess the previous story had become. If anything, I find the decision to go in a completely new direction to be reassuring.

There’s also the matter of production value that can be expected in V3 versus the first two games. I touched on this in the Ultra Despair Girls post. The production value in that game versus the originals was night and day. The user-interface and inclusion of fully animated scenes really brought UDG to life in ways the first two games hadn’t been, despite its obvious shortcomings.

V3 coming out two years after UDG, on the heels of DR3 which had excellent production itself, and also being co-developed for PS4 leads me to expect the best production value the series has had thus far. Granted, in what limited gameplay I’ve seen in trailers, I still think the game is designed for the Vita first with the PS4 version existing because it makes the game available to a much larger audience. In other words, expect the PS4 version to just look like a highly polished handheld game, similar to Digimon Story: Cyber Sleuth after it was ported.

Still, that doesn’t change the fact that it should be the most well put together game the series has had so far. Hopefully it will also follow UDG‘s lead of having some fully animated scenes as well. If Kodaka can recapture the creativity of the first two games for this new installment, then V3 should fair just fine and be a refreshing return to form for the series after UDG and DR3 had muddied its perception among many.

In conclusion, my experiment with Danganronpa this fall was a success. I hit all the high notes and despite the shakiness of the recent adaptations, I’m still committed to playing the third full installment. Hopefully the release of Danganronpa 1-2 Reload and then Danganronpa V3: Killing Harmony in 2017 will revitalize the series’ perception among the masses. By the end of next year, I think the video game world will be just a little bit better if the narrative around Danganronpa is that it’s still in its prime, rather than looking back at its golden days.

Thoughts on Danganronpa pt. 2: Goodbye Despair

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The following is the second part of a blog series going over the entirety of Danganronpa and how I came to experience it this fall. You can read my thoughts on Trigger Happy Havoc right over here.

Just as with the first part, this post is really meant to be a reaction for those who’ve already played Danganronpa 2. There will be a fair amount of spoilers.

Danganronpa 2: Goodbye Despair

The differences between DR1 and DR2 are minimal when you consider how much things can and often do change when a new IP gets a sequel in the gaming world. Just like its predecessor, DR2 has sixteen students whose memories have been wiped, a mixture of free time and investigative time, and five regular trials leading up to the sixth and ultimate trial where everything is revealed.

What sets DR2 apart first and foremost is the setting. The original game had a claustrophobic atmosphere with it all being confined to the locked down Hope’s Peak High School. DR2 has the wide open, tropical setting of Jabberwock Island.

DR2 also has some improved functions, such as the MonoMono machine being less tedious and it being easier to track your progress in completing the other students’ report cards in your free time. There’s also the added little time killers such as the digital pet and Monomi versus Monobeasts game if that interests you.

I also rather like the side scrolling feature of getting from one place to another. It doesn’t make a huge difference, as both games have fast travel through the menu systems when it comes to returning to places you’ve already been, but for exploring a new area, I really prefer the 2D style versus walking down Hope’s Peak’s 3D corridors.

Characters

Whereas I thought characters were DR1‘s greatest strength, I find them to be DR2‘s one true weakness. This is because, unlike the original game, I found myself actively disliking multiple cast members in Goodbye Despair and hoping for their deaths so that I wouldn’t have to listen to them anymore.

Sadly, many of those characters were girls. I could not stand Hiyoko Saionji, Mikan Tsumiki, or Mahiru Koizumi. I also was not a fan of Akane Owari, Teruteru Hanamura, or Kazuichi Soda. All of these characters lacked the charm that could have reeled in their negative aspects, unlike the characters from the original game. If the characters did have such redeeming qualities, then they were buried in their optional events which in itself would be a problem. I never had to spend free time with characters in the original game to find something I liked about all of them.

This isn’t to say there aren’t characters I did like. Despite how much he turned me off when I first met him, Gundham Tanaka grew to be my favorite character in the game.

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I also quite enjoyed Sonia Nevermind (and the growing dynamic between her and Gundham), Ibuki Mioda, Fuyuhiko Kuzuryu, and yes, even Nagito Komaeda.

Chiaki Nanami on the other hand was my most difficult character to parse. I liked Chiaki, but was well aware of the fact that I was supposed to due to how heavy-handed her character design is. Just like DR1‘s Kyoko Kirigiri, she’s a female character that the hero confides in, becomes very influential during the Class Trial, and is critical to the story.

But unlike Kyoko, Chiaki never wavers between friendly and distant – between cold and comforting. The player’s faith in her is never tested, as there is no reason to ever doubt her, even after the point where her true nature is revealed.

More over, Chiaki is designed to be cute, meek, well endowed, and given the talent of Ultimate Gamer. Every little thing about her begs the average Danganronpa player to like her and it’s no surprise that the PlayStation Trophy for completing her report card is the highest earned among all the report card trophies.

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It’s all a bit too overt for my tastes. What interaction I’ve had with Danganronpa fans where I suggest even a little that Chiaki is overrated has been met with harsh resistance. Kazutaka Kodaka desperately wanted you to like this character and people unwilling to listen to any criticism about her design bought into that hard sell exactly as intended.

Mysteries

DR2‘s mysteries blow the original game’s out of the water and it isn’t even close. In the first game, I was able to piece together nearly every case before heading into trial but it was the exact opposite with the sequel. After the first case, I had no idea who the blackened was each time the trials were beginning.

This is no small part due to DR2‘s setting. Because the environments were so much more imaginative, it allowed for cases with more variables. The fourth case in particular – at Grape House and Strawberry House – had so many moving parts (literally) that even when it came time to select the blackened, I still couldn’t piece it all together.

Then there was the fifth case involving Nagito’s dastardly plot to flush out the Future Foundation mole. Of all ten primary cases between the two games, this one is by far my favorite. It’s like an onion with layer after layer of thought and reasoning put into it. Even when it’s over and done with, there’s still the final revelation that Nagito failed and wanted the mole to survive the trial.

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Gameplay

Like I wrote in my thoughts about DR1, I found the changes made to the trial mini games of DR2 to overall be a step backwards. The high points of Nonstop Debate and the Closing Argument are still there, but everything in between was made more arduous. Particularly, the change to Hangman’s Gambit is terrible and made even worse by the fact that the game has the gall to call it “improved” when introducing it in the tutorial.

I’m also one of the players that fell on the negative side of the fence when it came to the addition of Rebuttal Showdown. It was an excellent idea in theory but it fell flat in practice. Every time it happened I found myself just mashing through the other person’s dialogue (which obviously causes audio to be skipped) and then easily cutting through the right statement.

The idea that other characters can step in and challenge you, similar to how you call out their statements in Nonstop Debate, is an excellent idea. When Nagito stepped in and said “No, that’s wrong!” in the first trial, I have to admit I got pretty hyped. But the execution of the mini game itself is sorely lacking. Hopefully DRV3 comes up with something better.

Story

Goodbye Despair ends up repeating a lot of the ideas and themes of the first game, and even admits as much by spelling out the parallels between the “Killing School Life” and “Killing School Trip” in chapter 4. Unfortunately, this does mean that it lacks some of the charm the original game had.

I also think it’s important to note that unlike the first game, the player is more in-tune with what’s happening outside of the killing game itself than the characters are. As the player, you should be well aware that there is no refuge beyond the shores of Jabberwock Island, virtual or not. That knowledge takes away some of the mystique of the story because it should be obvious that characters are not going to find a happy ending.

DR2 instead relies more on enticing the player with the mystery of the island’s nature and what Future Foundation is. It really feels like you’re supposed to go through the game continuously wondering how everything will tie in to the original game and just how much time has passed. This direction, as well as the key players from the first game all returning in the sixth and final trial stunts DR2‘s story, in my opinion.

I also felt that the game taking place inside of a virtual reality is even more of a cliché than the trope of the characters suffering from amnesia. The possibility of the killing all being simulated was something that had crossed my mind in the very first game when the photos of dead characters living happily had appeared.

Perhaps Kodaka knew that had been a suspicion among players and intentionally decided to act on it DR2. Even if that’s the case, it doesn’t change how empty I felt to see it confirmed. When it became abundantly clear that the game was a virtual reality, all I could think was, “Of course it is.”

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The lone shining spot in all this is the reveal of the characters being the Remnants of Despair and Hajime Hinata as Izuru Kamukura. These revelations only continued to fuel the intrigue I had over the events that had happened in the story world prior to ‘The Tragedy’ occurring and the cast of DR1 locking themselves inside of Hope’s Peak.

But I also think that’s part of what makes DR2‘s overall story design a bit frustrating for me. The core game, from chapters 1 through 5, felt like a repeat of the first game but with characters that were more hit and miss. Then after chapter 6 dumps all the crazy plot and world building on you, you end up with even more questions.

How did Junko turn the DR2 cast towards despair? What were they like afterwards? How did Makoto end up capturing them and getting them into the Neo World Program? Just who is Future Foundation beyond Makoto, Kyoko, and Byakuya?

What started as a simple concept of imprisonment and forced killing had grown into an absurdly complex world by the end of just two games. The who’s, what’s, why’s and how’s of the Danganronpa universe are utterly ridiculous and it really feels like a house of cards that Kodaka just kept building and building upon. Unfortunately, all house of cards fall over eventually.

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Conclusion

Like its predecessor, Danganronpa 2: Goodbye Despair is a good game and very good visual novel. Its strengths are its mysteries and overall functional improvements to how the player moves around and interacts with things in the game world.

However, successes are offset by failure and missed opportunity in other areas. Trigger Happy Havoc‘s biggest weakness was the gameplay of the Class Trial mini games. There was so much room for improvement and yet somehow DR2 managed to make things worse by adding half-baked ideas and actively making Hangman’s Gambit worse than it already was.

On top of this, the cast of characters was very hit and miss. Some were fantastic to get to know and interact with; even more than the average character from the first game. However, the characters that weren’t enjoyable were far more grating than anyone from the first game ever was.

The inconsistency in character development is compounded by the continued absurdity that Kodaka added to the story world in the final chapter. After about 40 hours of gameplay between the two games, the final hour of DR2 begins to show the signs of stress to the story world’s creaking, crumbling foundation. In Danganronpa‘s next two major entries, those cracks would only get wider until the house finally collapsed in.

Thoughts on Danganronpa pt. 1: Trigger Happy Havoc

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If you follow me on Twitter you may know that in early October I took up the challenge to play through Spike Chunsoft’s popular visual novel series, Danganronpa.

What started as an agreement to play through just the Vita versions of Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc and Danganronpa 2: Goodbye Despair grew into watching the Danganronpa 3: The End of Hope’s Peak High School anime and playing through the spin-off title Danganronpa Another Episode: Ultra Despair Girls as well. For posterity I also watched the original animated series adapted from the first game titled Danganronpa: The Animation. I did not however read any of the manga adaptations or novel stories, so please excuse my ignorance on those.

For longtime fans of the series that are curious to my thoughts now that I’ve seen all the high points that it has to offer through 2016, I’ve decided to compile everything into a series of blog posts starting with the first game. This really is a reaction for those already familiar with Danganronpa which means there will be spoilers.

If you’re like I was a few months ago and still deciding whether or not to give the series a try, I suggest you look for more professional reviews of the very first game at least. The series has its strengths and weaknesses and I would not say that it’s for everyone. By all means, do your due diligence and make an educated decision on whether to try it.

Also remember that for those with curiosity in the titles and no Vita or dedicated PC to play them on, the first two games will be coming to PlayStation 4 in early 2017 as Danganronpa 1-2 Reload.

Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc

I should start off by saying that of all things in the series, the very first game is my favorite. The sense I’ve gotten from fans is that the second title is actually the more popular of the two, but after careful consideration, I must say that I prefer DR1.

Going into the very first game, I was sure to remind myself of two important things:

  1. These games were originally designed for the PlayStation Portable
  2. They’re just visual novels

Once you understand these, it’s easy to get past the very basic, 2D art style that the game has. In some ways, Danganronpa‘s basic visual presentation is both its greatest weakness and most charming detail. Undoubtedly, there will be players that can’t get past the design and choose to play other games from other genres. In my opinion, this is why you see DR1 score lower user reviews than DR2 on sites such as Amazon. DR1 gets negative response from people that couldn’t get into it whereas DR2 is primarily played and reviewed by people that already enjoyed DR1.

Characters

Of everything in the series, DR1 definitely has my favorite cast of characters. When you’re first introduced to the other fourteen students at the beginning of the game, it can be overwhelming. I remember thinking “How am I going to remember all of these people’s names and what their talents are?” Yet the story and script is written in such a way that remembering everyone’s names isn’t even a challenge and you find yourself liking each and every single one of them despite their personal flaws.

I can safely say that I did not dislike a single character in the first game. Not even one despite the despicable things that they can be driven to do. Even the characters that are intentionally rough around the edges and unwelcoming (such as Byakuya Togami and Toko Fukawa) all have their redeeming qualities and entertainment values.

Particularly, I found myself drawn to Kyoko Kirigiri (which some people may be painfully aware of). Without a doubt she is my favorite character in the entire series. The fact that the game’s most crucial moment tests your faith in her made me feel like I was firmly in writer Kazutaka Kodaka’s target demographic and was getting the exact experience he had intended for the player.

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What’s so brilliant about that moment is the fact that through much of the game, Kyoko walks a fine line between being too distant and yet the most trustworthy character towards the protagonist Makoto Naegi. Her hyperactivity during the first several Class Trials make it clear that she’s integral to the plot of the game. When it comes time for Makoto to make a tough choice, the game is really testing the player’s ability to judge characters by asking them to go against what they’ve been taught to do all game: call out lies and contradictions during the trial.

Overall, the cast is fantastic. The characters give the player the perfect combination of friendship, animosity, humor, and charm. No character crosses the line into being completely bothersome and yet, until the final chapter, no character is unassailable.

Mysteries

If DR1 has a weakness, it’s how predictable the cases are. With the exception of the second case involving Chihiro Fujisaki, I was able to more or less piece together every case before entering the Class Trials. And really, that exception was only born out of Byakuya’s interfering causing a major misdirection.

There’s also the tough reality that the Danganronpa fan base is very bad at not spoiling these stories. Chihiro being biologically male is given away every single day by the fans whose erm… tastes… swing in that direction.

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Junko Enoshima’s sheer popularity makes her the most iconic character in the franchise outside of Monokuma, which is really also her anyway. When Junko – or rather, Mukuro Ikusaba – died in the first chapter of the game, it immediately raised red flags.

Granted, I was still unsure whether everything in the game was real; whether the deaths were truly final. Still, that suspicion made piecing together the game’s final two chapter much easier and I imagine any other players new to the series (which there will be many once they come to PS4) will have similar experiences.

Gameplay

I think DR1 has the best overall gameplay in the series. Because these are primarily visual novels with anime, manga, and novel adaptations, the gameplay is limited to just minigames that occur during the Class Trial. Until Danganronpa V3: Killing Harmony launches in 2017, the only direct comparison that can be made is between DR1 and DR2, since Ultra Despair Girls is combination third-person shooter action game.

That means I find the minigames in the original game preferable to the ones in the sequel, though that has more to do with my displeasure with the additions in DR2 – an analysis for a later time. Rest assured, neither is anything to write home about. Danganronpa isn’t making fans because people really love something like Hangman’s Gambit. Outside of the series’ signature minigame, Nonstop Debate, they’re all pretty arduous and a means to an end. I also wouldn’t include the Closing Argument in this group, as its highly stylized manga format in combination with “Climax Return” make it the best presentation in the game.

Story

Despite the popularity of the series, the comprehensive story of the franchise was something unclear to me going in. When it was revealed that the students had lost two years of their lives to amnesia and the outside world they’re yearning for had been ravaged, it all came off as a combination of cliché yet absurd. DR2 acknowledges as much.

Still, the premise is nothing to scoff at. Once the player is able to suspend their disbelief and accept the premise of hope versus despair, the highly fanatical story world begins to satisfyingly flesh out beyond the first game.

The first game in particular has the advantage of being the most original with its concepts. DR2 revisits some of those concepts and does handle some of them better, but they’re revisits nonetheless. The originality of the first game and its uniqueness are undeniable.

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Conclusion

I find the original game to be the purest experience in the series. While not perfect, it lacks some of the flaws I find with the sequels and features the most likable cast in my eyes. The cases aren’t very hard to solve, but unlike its successor, DR1 has the advantage of the player still not knowing the truth about the world beyond Hope’s Peak’s walls which means they’re just as much in the dark as the characters are. The same isn’t true of the sequel.

Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc succeeds in what many visual novel games fail to do: Actually feel like a game. The world is full of Japanese or Japanese-inspired visual novels that are nothing but straight forward narratives with nothing but exposition and little to no character development. To be quite honest, I resent the genre for its lack of creativity. DR1 is a happy exception.

The game does an excellent job of actually demanding the player to use their logic and reasoning in trials while continuing to keep them guessing towards the end game and ultimate reveal all the way through. Combine this with likable characters, good art, good music, and tons of personality and what you have is a visual novel that is truly a great ‘game.’