Danganronpa: You’ll Only Despair That It’s Over

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: a decidedly average young man is able to get into a prestigious high school. Once there, he meets up with a cast of colorful characters, struggles with fitting in and nasty teachers, and learns valuable lessons about friendship and not giving up.

Danganronpa is basically that story, with a few slightly more novel things; the prestigious high school is a massive deathtrap from which there is no escape, the cast of colorful characters can’t be trusted, and that nasty teacher is a psychopath who gets his kicks trying to force fifteen strangers to kill each other.

So it’s just like regular high school, except the social scene is easier to navigate.

Danganronpa, subtitled Trigger-Happy Havoc, is a murder mystery Visual Novel game for the Playstation Vita. The player is thrust into the shoes of Makoto Naegi, a young man who describes himself as aggressively average in every way. Through sheer dumb luck, Makoto has won an annual lottery granting him admission to Hope’s Peak Academy, an extremely prestigious high school that only opens its doors to the best of the best. Each and every student is colloquially known as the “Ultimate” in their field, meaning Makoto’s classmates will include such paragons as the “Ultimate Programmer,” “Ultimate Writer,” and “Ultimate Pop Star,” while Makoto’s random selection earns him a place as the “Ultimate Lucky Student.” Unfortunately, immediately after Makoto arrives at Hope’s Peak, he blacks out and wakes up in a strange, deserted classroom with metal plates welded over all of the windows. Investigating soon brings a few things to light; Makoto, along with the fourteen other new students starting at Hope’s Peak this year, have found themselves trapped inside the abandoned school with absolutely no way to get outside or contact anyone. Their captor soon appears before them in the form of Monokuma, a cheerful but creepy and sadistic robotic teddy bear being controlled remotely by an unknown mastermind. Monokuma explains that he has set up a “communal life” for the fifteen students, providing for their every need but forbidding them from ever leaving the school. The only way anyone is allowed to escape is if they can “graduate” by successfully murdering another student and then getting away with it at the following trial.

What follows is a twisted mystery story told in two-part “episodes.” The first part is Daily Life, in which Makoto tries to find out more about his fellow students and the situation they’re in. No one wants to stay trapped inside Hope’s Peak forever, and Daily Life follows the dynamics that form between the group as time goes on and their unsuccessful attempts to find ways out of the school. All the while, Monokuma constantly goads his captive students to turn against each other, seeming nearly omnipotent in his capacity to dig up secrets and get to people the characters care about to bully, bribe, and blackmail them towards murder. The second segment of each episode is Deadly Life, when a student finally turns up dead. Makoto and the others must investigate the murder and try to discover the guilty one among them at the incoming class trial; if the murderer is exposed, Monokuma will execute them for disrupting the order of the school, but if the class declares the wrong student guilty, the murderer will go free and all the others will die in their place.

The majority of the game is, as the genre indicates, a visual novel, with the player filling Makoto’s shoes and reacting to the story and characters around him. During Daily Life, the primary gameplay element of the game is trying to find out more about the other characters, but the gameplay shifts into high gear when Deadly Life begins, and this is where the game shines. Each murder mystery is a “fair play” whodunit in which the player takes the role of the detective. You need to search the crime scene for clues, speak to other characters for their accounts of events and alibis, and gather up all the clues and testimony to serve as “truth bullets” in the trial segments. Once the trial begins, Makoto uses the  proof he’s gathered during his investigation to “shoot down” faulty statements, break through characters trying to drown out his points with empty noise, and present answers to questions that have stumped the others, eventually leading up to a sequence in which the player puts together a comic book-style reconstruction of the entire crime from start to finish. Danganronpa is not the first murder-mystery visual novel I’ve played, but it is one of the most even-handed I’ve encountered. The game will almost never hinge a trial on information you don’t have before it begins, so the trial is primarily an exercise in critical thinking and memory to locate the weak logic, contradictions of the facts, or suspicious behavior of the other students. The game provides the player with everything they need to solve the mystery, although it will attempt to mislead you at times in how it presents it. Successfully clearing each trial requires the player to be able to think on their feet and react quickly to information under a time limit, usually generous enough that you have time to analyze your next move but fast and tight enough that picking out the right target for your truth bullets can be very exciting despite it simply being a matter of clicking on the right suspicious statement at the right time. Each Trial is an extremely fun battle of wits between the player and one of the characters you’ve gotten to know over the last few hours, with Monokuma laughing at you both behind the scenes.

Danganronpa’s writing and atmosphere are excellent, and it does a good job of balancing humor, pathos, and terror. Many of the characters you find yourself trapped with are extremely likable, although this has no bearing on their life expectancy, while others are abrasive and untrustworthy but still well-written. The game does a good job of making you feel bad for the murder victims, although many of them have dark secrets of their own, but at the same time leaves you unable to take much joy in bringing their killer to justice. Each successful class trial is capped off with a brutal execution in a unique death trap designed by Monokuma’s master, mixing sympathy for the murderer being sent to a horrible death with a  massive dollop of black comedy from Monokuma’s sick sense of humor being demonstrated in each punishment. The mystery of how the students have been trapped inside the school with no hope of rescue despite Hope’s Peak’s high profile and why the mastermind controlling Monokuma is even doing all this is very compelling, and in many ways as fairly presented as the murder mysteries around it; evidence is slow in coming, but as it begins to accumulate, a canny player can begin to guess at some of the mysteries the game revolves around, although certainly not all of them. Despite having some horror elements, Danganronpa doesn’t tend to go for cheap scares with lots of excess gore and jump-scares. Rather, the fear comes from creating an atmosphere of hopeless distrust between the students, especially each time another body is found, and the repeated evidence of just how sadistic and insane the mastermind watching your every move really is.

I rate Danganronpa 9/10. My sole complaint once I was finished with the game was that it is quite short compared to the other Visual Novels I’ve played, and while it does everything it needs to do and doesn’t dilly-dally, it does mean that you don’t feel like you’ve been playing very long as you reach the halfway point of the game, and you’re left wanting more at the end. Like most mystery Visual Novels, replay value is also lower than genres like RPGs, as the mysteries and logic puzzles aren’t different on subsequent playthroughs. Still, if you like a good whodunit with a solid cast, great atmosphere, and some very dark humor, I heartily recommend Danganronpa.

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