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:
- These games were originally designed for the PlayStation Portable
- 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.’