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. 3: Ultra Despair Girls

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The following is the third part of a blog series going over the entirety of Danganronpa and how I came to experience it this fall.

Pt. 1: Trigger Happy Havoc

Pt. 2: Goodbye Despair

Just as with the first two parts, this post is really meant to be a reaction for those who’ve already played Ultra Despair Girls. There will be a fair amount of spoilers.

Note: I only played through the base game and didn’t have the patience to explore anything unlocked after finishing the main story.

Danganronpa Another Episode: Ultra Despair Girls

Unlike its predecessors, UDG is not a visual novel. It’s a combination third-person shooter and character action game starring Komaru Naegi – Makoto Naegi’s younger sister – and Toko Fukawa of Trigger Happy Havoc.

Set between the first two games, UDG takes place in Towa City, one of few places in the world that was unaffected by The Tragedy. The player follows the story of Komaru, who shortly after The Tragedy occurred was kidnapped and imprisoned in an apartment in Towa as leverage in DR1‘s ‘Killing School Life’ game.

In UDG, Towa City falls to an army of Monokumas as a group of children dubbed the Warriors of Hope takes over and kills off every adult in the city. Armed with Future Foundation tech, Komaru teams with Toko in the goals of stopping the children, saving the captured Byakuya Togami, and escaping the city.

Characters

If UDG has a great strength, it’s the character development and relationship between Komaru and Toko. I found the perfectly average Komaru extremely likable and easy to root for and Toko transitioned from being an entertaining character in DR1 to an endearing one in UDG.

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Sadly, other characters were sorely lacking. The children characters were a mixed bag of intriguing and grating. Jataro Kemuri in particular was insufferably boring without any redeeming qualities to his chapter. His bio says he likes being hated so I suppose he got what he wanted.

Other characters weren’t given enough screen time to truly make an impact, including a couple who were killed off almost instantly. The only exception being Haiji Towa whose air of arrogance and stubbornness made him off-putting long before he went off the deep end.

Themes

Rather than offer up a new mystery or case to solve with each chapter, UDG gives a specific theme to each Warrior of Hope. Each theme is derived from the abuse they suffered in the past which spurned them towards despair and killing the adults.

Jataro and Masaru Daimon’s chapters were underwhelming, but the game’s writing begins to open up at chapter 3. For better or worse, this begins with focusing on the themes of Kotoko Utsugi’s past.

It takes a lot to make me uncomfortable with what I’m playing. UDG achieves that by highlighting the sexual abuse Kotoko went through and how it’s projected on Komaru when Kotoko captures her.

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It’s difficult to gauge whether or not UDG‘s themes are tactless or daring. On one hand, I think not shying away from the fact that sexual abuse is one of many ways children can be mistreated by adults was a wise decision. But using that theme as an opportunity to pack more tasteless fan service into the game was not welcome.

In many ways, I think Ultra Despair Girls can be argued as both the darkest and most ridiculous title in the series. Underneath its many layers of crude humor and fan service is also the most graphic violence the series has had as well as dark tones such as child abuse. To a certain extent, the game perfectly lives up to the series’ reputation of being horrifically absurd.

Gameplay

Gameplay is UDG‘s Achilles’ heel. The fact that Spike Chunsoft is not known for these types of games and that Danganropa is truly a visual novel series is made evident.

As far as third-person shooters go, UDG is bad and the character action portion experienced by playing as Toko’s alter ego, Genocide Jack (Syo in Japan), are average at best. If there’s a silver lining here, it’s that the game is built for the Vita and I wasn’t expecting stellar action gameplay out of a handheld game anyway. However, with the recent news that the game is being ported to PS4 and PC next year, I fear the new version will be hammered by negative user reviews because the gameplay simply doesn’t live up to the standards of what people expect on proper home consoles.

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There are also small puzzle sections that really don’t do much to challenge anyone with the slightest experience with games. There are even arrows in the levels that point the player where to go despite the levels themselves being fairly linear. Much of UDG‘s design seems to be compromised on the premise that there may be Danganronpa fans playing it without much experience in games outside of visual novels.

Nowhere is this truer than the design of the boss fights. To be frank, they are laughably easy at times and only the final boss presented any semblance of a challenge. Again, I understand the game is designed with a visual novel audience in mind, but I was hoping the boss fights to more of a fight.

Story

UDG‘s story is not great, to say the least. From beginning to end, things feel just as linear just as the levels themselves. The events and outcome are extremely predictable, thanks in large part due to the game being set before the events of Danganronpa 2.

Again, the one thing the story events excel at are progressing the character arcs of Komaru and Toko. Beyond that, the core game’s story lacks a lot of imagination. A threat arises, enemies are defeated, and ultimately, the heroines win. In every respect, someone could go through the series without paying Ultra Despair Girls any mind – or at least that was the case until the small tie-in with the Danganronpa 3 anime.

For fans of the series, the ending does provide a small nod to what leads into DR2‘s backstory, but honestly, I didn’t find it to be enough. All along I’ve had questions of just how the Remnants of Despair are captured and put into the Neo World Program and that’s never really been addressed in the games themselves. UDG could have touched on that with a couple of characters, but chose not to.

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Conclusion

Danganronpa Another Episode: Ultra Despair Girls is what it is: a spin-off game. Its story is non-essential to the Danganronpa universe. To sell the game and its potentially unfamiliar play style to fans, UDG resorts to some cheap humor, fan service, and simplified game design.

If there are positives here, they are the character development of the heroines as well as the game’s overall production level. Moving up from the original two games, which were designed for PSP, to UDG for the Vita was a noticeable jump. The amount of animated scenes and overall design of the user-interface made me excited to see what Spike Chunsoft has in store for Danganronpa V3: Killing Harmony.

Still, UDG added to the stress fractures in Danganronpa‘s foundation that I wrote about in the last piece. By the time this game was released, there should have been unquestionable signs of weakness to the series. Signs that would hopefully be addressed and fixed with the next major project: Danganronpa 3: The End of Hope’s Peak High School.

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.’