The Danganronpa series always felt like a series that flirted with my heart. An appeal to my gorehound interests? Check. A murder mystery set up with neat mini-games? Check. An aesthetic style that provides a colorful stylistic presentation that avoids being tone-death? Triple check, because every murder scene could be a poster. Then I get to the writing and then I’m wounded. Despite a murder mystery set-up, it either feels impossible or too easy to solve each mystery, and the writing often feels geared towards having a good time than raising the stakes or reaping sympathy.
Then there was the problem that even by the anime Danganronpa 3 (not Danganronpa V3, that’s the game), I thought the series had run its course. Even the writers seemed to acknowledge this, styling the anime as the conclusion to the “Hope’s Peak Academy” saga. I’d love to keep experiencing a similar setup, but how can you keep doing it without seeming contrived and forced? While Danganronpa V3 (not Danganronpa 3, that’s the anime, promise last time I’ll warn) preserves the dumb fun gameplay, good-time narrative and unsatisfying murder mysteries of predecessors, it ends on an awe-inspiring gutsy swing that shows what Spike Chunsoft is truly capable of.
Danganronpa V3 is the third main series title, fourth game (including Another Episode: Ultra Despair Girls) and fifth Danganronpa tale to be released in the west (including Danganronpa 3: The End of Hope’s Peak High School). You star as the Ultimate Pianist Kaede Akamatsu as you stumble out of a locker to find yourself trapped in a school of Ultimates, students who are either top of their respective fields or have potential to be the top. You are then told you will stay in the school forever with only one way out: Kill someone and do not get found out in a class trial.
Half the game features you stumbling about talking to people. It tends to boil down to poking things to nudge the narrative along, so unless you like writing-heavy games then Danganronpa V3 will drive you up the wall. Especially as occasionally you’ll be asked to spend time with your classmates to chat about their personal life, but only if you can get their favorite knick-knack from a vending machine with coins you can get from kicking furniture or winning trials.
While this gameplay isn’t a bad thing necessarily as it’d depend on writing quality, you will likely need a guide to guess what each character’s favorite gift is. Skipping this also is ill-advised as triggering six scenes will net you an extra unlockable ability in the trials. You can also suddenly be locked out as midway through netting a character’s backstory they may cease to be around as…
…The Killing Game begins and the second half of the gameplay unfolds.
However, your role in this Killing Game is not of the knife in the dark. You are the truth-seeker. You must pour over the body, picking evidence up and following up leads. A procedure that doesn’t differ gameplay wise from the first half. Where gameplay is violently shaken up is the trials. Veterans will be familiar with this tango: You must discover who killed the victim. If you do discover who put their classmate into the ground then only the murderer dies, otherwise, the murderer leaves and everyone else dies.
To investigate this you must refute statements in Non-Stop Debate, by flinging evidence (as a bullet) that contradicts a statement (which glows in gold) and go through mind-map questions via mini-games. For returning veterans of the series, a variety of new mini-games exist (e.g. Psyche Taxi, Hangman’s Gambit Ver. 3.0 and Mind Mine) which are neither better or worse than the mini-games they replace. Perhaps the only interesting additional minigame is Mass Panic Debate, a Non-Stop Debate with a twist: You must deal with three statements being thrown at you the same time, with one statement occasionally dominating the other two unless you silence it.
However, where the radical shift comes from is the ability to lie through your teeth in any non-stop debate by converting a Truth Bullet into its opposite Lie Bullet. Similar to Truth Flashbacks, usually you’ll have to work out which situation can only be pushed through by lying. Where this mechanic becomes interesting is the ability to explore new dialogue options by lying when you could have told the truth when Discussion – PERJURY music plays. While the discussion will eventually return to the normal path, it’s enjoyable to root through alternative options.
Overall the class trials feel like a fun way to mix up just slamming on X through a visual novel. Instead, it tests your understanding of a case on a moment-to-moment basis. Danganronpa V3‘s trials also feel fresh to the old guard due to the new mini-games added. It does present a problem to the more intensive player that, well, it is more like a string of mini-games than a game itself or a gameplay mode.
That said, I think the low-intensive gameplay is fine for a game series so focused on narrative. So let’s tuck into that.
As the Killing Game progresses, characters being picked off by each other in cruel and unusual ways, you slowly unveil who everyone is, what is going on outside and the reality of Danganronpa V3. For the majority of the game, it is serviceable. It is the type of plot that works on a technicality and off the back of the cast rather than interestingly recontextualizing revelations of themselves. You just ride it along, as even to old guard Danganronpa fans nothing new really arrives.
That is, well, until we hit the ending. Phew boy, what an ending. For the first half, I began to hate it. It was the type of ending that rendered prior events and even prior games/anime pointless, as well as picked up and dropped loose ends aimlessly (e.g. there was a twin thing that went absolutely nowhere?). Then, without spoiling it, I began to see a duality of meaning. While a little heavy handed to the point of being unmissable, and while the face-value still flops onto its face, its second meaning feels like it hits true. It’s the type of commentary you find rare in a game, and without spoiling it I think it feels like a rather bold thing to say and hard to continue a series from. Yet, I can’t help but applaud its boldness and how honest it feels.
We also have to talk about the cases. I stand by the idea that Danganronpa series was always one that lent itself easily to a detective scenario. After all, it is a series about a series of murders where you must root out the culprit. However, in every case, it is unsolvable with regards to Knox’s Ten Commandments of detective fiction, each crime committing a sin that prevents the case from being solvable from the audience’s perspective until when the game decides you must know (i.e. usually within the trials). Even putting the list aside, I still believe the murder scenarios more require player passivity than people to theorize who did a murder. They only really require audience participation within the trial on a moment-to-moment basis rather than theorizing overall what happened.
Although, within a game narrative as character heavy as Danganronpa V3 is, a good character line-up can save the day. On the bright side, I found a good time with two of the cast, even if one kicks the mortal bucket by the first case, although the second one provides probably the most memorable comedy moment of the series for me. On the downside, well, you have one character whose defining trait is her hatred of men and another character’s is being sexually obsessed. There is also the sense of reaching for Ultimate abilities, like Ultimate Entomologist, Ultimate Akido Master (wasn’t there an Ultimate Martial Artist once?) and Ultimate Detective (for the second time this series). It just feels like it levels out to something merely okay.
Overall, the main problem with Danganronpa V3‘s writing is outside of small slices of either hilarious or hard-hitting narrative, it’s simply inoffensively okay. I don’t even find myself looking forward to unwrapping who killed who and how just progressing through. Besides the ending, the writing feels tired, worn down and unenthusiastic. It’s still good, but there’s a definite sense of an unhappy author doing a series because they have to (out of personal or corporate motivation) rather than them wanting to. Then again, it might be the ending that has me feeling that vibe.
That said, others on the team seem to be having a good time, as the art style still exists as a memorable gory-style of pop-art. This includes having pink blood, which rather than distract does add to the scene with every murder. If I had to grumble, and it is a small one, I found whenever the camera was not dead-on with a character, thus showing the 2d tilted perspective, it looked odd, out of place and bizarrely low-quality compared to the rest of the set. Besides that, I would still be tempted to print off and hang-up the murder scenes since they look so good.
We arrive at the end of the game with a solid “now what? Play again on a harder difficulty?”. You actually unlock a board-game, roguelike dungeon-crawler, and a coin-operated vending machine. First, you upgrade stats and unlock abilities of characters in the board-game, then you make money in the dungeon-crawler (using the upgraded cast from the board-game) by clonking skellymans on the head, and then spend the money on the vending machine getting new characters for the board game. It loops constantly.
While not a bad thing, in theory, I’m let down you can’t ceaselessly level up characters in the board game mode, which is the only way to unlock extra skills or to do more damage. After all, well, I struggle to level up enough in the board game to get through the dungeons as badly-playing me. I’m not sure if any atmosphere or narrative would be lost to me if they let me over-level as desired. Besides that blip, they’re inoffensive titles that serve to distract before you shuffle on to play Angry Birds on your phone.
The final score is a 7.5/10. Danganronpa V3 feels like a send-off (if not the story arc, then the entire series) in a similar style to a relationship that has broken down over time. It tries to woo you with new things which are good, letting the occasional slip in its tales that it is not exactly having a great time. Finally, you hit the end as at first you’re baffled as Danganronpa V3 seems in a bad mood, throwing out topics you can’t help but have a bad time with at a first glance. Then you mull over their words, like an enjoyable whiskey, and not only you realize the truth behind the words but you also can’t help but respect them. They’re bold, and perhaps a little insulting if you read too deep into it, but they’re true if nothing else.
Danganronpa V3 is a goodbye that I think will polarise people. Some will be annoyed by the ending at face value after an inoffensive enjoyable time, perhaps also annoyed by the under-layer of the story. Others, like me, can’t help but respect what is being said, even if heavy handed. Every other part is inoffensively likable enough for Danganronpa fans, although those fresh-faced to the series might want to experience the entire series (Danganronpa 1, Danganronpa 2: Goodbye Despair, Danganronpa 3: The End of Hope’s Peak High School) prior to this. Otherwise, without the context of the other games, you risk losing out on the weariness the ending taps into as it brings to a close this Killing Harmony.
A PS Vita Review Copy of Danganronpa V3 was provided by Spike Chunsoft for the purpose of this review.