History: This murder mystery visual novel was initially released exclusively in Japan on PSP in late 2010. It, understandably, wasn't brought over to other countries because at that time the genre of visual novels were almost exclusively popular in Japan. The game was very successful, receiving a 36/40 from Famitsu.
This kick started a big franchise that resulted in a sequel two years later, also for PSP only in Japan, as well as an anime, manga, a spin-off novel, and most recently a live stage adaptation that ran from October to November 2014 in Japan, of course.
Danganronpa was eventually re-released on Playstation Vita where it got it's first worldwide release in early 2014. Much like the PSP original, the Vita version got very high praise, now from a different audience in English speaking countries.
The sequel was re-released worldwide on Vita as well less than a year later. A spin-off Vita exclusive game is set to be released worldwide in September along with a Japan exclusive original iOS game, AND a third proper game has been rumored to be in the works.
Personal History: First playthrough. Barely knew about this game prior to gaming but it had a good reputation.
Availability: As stated in the History section this was first only released in Japan on PSP. The first port was also only in Japan on iOS and Android phones. It would be released again, this time worldwide, on Playstation Vita in late 2013 in Japan and early 2014 everywhere else. The only changes were in the tech, now supporting touch screen controls, as well as upgraded visuals and new extras.
Version I Played: American release of the Playstation Vita version.
Review: This is really the first time I've spent any sort of time with a visual novel. It's a genre that's puzzled me mostly because of ignorance. I always wondered how games that are essentially books, providing little to no gameplay as far as I could tell, could be such a HUGE genre overseas. Well now that I spent over thirty hours diving into Danganronpa I can honestly understand why... or at least why everyone like this one specifically.
Danganronpa is such a unique and exciting experience in ways I never imagined. Since this is a visual novel it has to rely heavily, if not entirely on story as opposed to gameplay. And I've got to say that the story here is absolutely kick ass and right up my alley.
You play a high school student who makes it into an elite school known as Hope's Peak Academy. However, when you arrive at the school you black out and wake up in a classroom where the windows are sealed and the doors to the outside are locked. You and fourteen other students quickly find out you're trapped in this school with no way of escape outside of the rules laid out by a bizarre and eccentric teddy bear antagonist, Monokuma, who serves as the game's mascot.
And may officially be my favorite mascot of all time
These fifteen students are told they are part of a killing game wherein they are trapped in the school and the only way to escape is to kill one of their fellow classmates. But it's not that simple. If someone is murdered the culprit must get away with it. And when there's a murder an investigation and trial follow.
Then... and this is my favorite part... if the trial finds the right student guilty then that student is executed. If not, everyone else but the murderer is executed and the murderer goes free, leaving the school.
I had no idea this is what the game would be about going into it and I was pleasantly surprised. It's a great mix of a lot of different ideas that mold into something very unique. The first thing I thought of was Saw. Like a less gory (but still violent) version of that with the more investigation focus of something like Law & Order slipped into the mix. Not to mention the game has great style and attitude.
In case you couldn't tell by the box art, Danganronpa has an anime style aesthetic. Hell, the whole thing felt like I was experiencing a living, breathing manga more than anything. Strangely this did not bother me. I am not a fan of anime generally speaking but I was immersed despite the style.
It's really a testament to how strong the story is and how the game goes about telling it. It's not unfair for me to be hesitant when a game appears to be mega anime from the outside based on previous experiences. It's sometimes easy to predict and at times can be unbearable because of the cliches that come with it. Like how I haven't played any Disgaea 3 on my Vita recently because while I like the combat system I find the story and characters unbearably anime.
Instead we're treated to a diverse group of strong, well thought out characters with a surprising amount of depth, for the most part. Yes there definitely are some anime cliches (i.e. some pervy stuff and melodramatic performances from time to time) but overall the characters were very likable. All assisted by two major elements. The story, like I've been saying, and the voice acting.
About half, maybe less, of the lines are actually spoken with recorded voices with the rest in typical RPG style text boxes. But in key scenes actual dialogue is used and it is done well. It really brought me in and taught me a lot about the characters. On top of this it is used in a game that is almost entirely still imagery. Rarely is there animation of any kind used here. So for a game that is so static, as you might say, it had a lot of life like any novel or comic book would when it is well written.
To expand on the visuals, it used a graphic style that definitely got some getting used to.
The graphics are apparently called 2.5D Motion Graphics. This blends 2D character and item art into a 3D environment. What took getting used to was how the 2D characters looked like cardboard cutouts in the 3D environment until you actively speak to them. Which means it goes from this...
Most of the game is in this perspective. Keeping the immersion alive.
Lastly there's the occasional video or static image that lives in and of itself. So instead of seeing the same cycle of character models over and over again we'll get something unique like this...
Eventually you stop noticing that very simplistic approach to the visuals because, again, the story is so damn good.
Since this is a mystery visual novel it's hard to talk about the story without going into spoiler territory. I will be avoiding that with the exception of a few minor spoilers from the first couple chapters as a means of using examples of why I like it so much.
Overall there's a prologue, six chapters, and an epilogue. All in all it took me around thirty hours to complete because it is packed with that much content. Within that there are six trials to go through, all of which I loved with their complexity and logical conclusions.
Now THAT'S what I loved so much about this story. While some of the characters can be lackluster and some of the story isn't as well thought out as it could be, the murders, how they happened, why they happened, and how these murders work into the story overall are spectacular.
The game is constantly giving you clues without you realizing it. Every now and then something comes up you didn't see coming and explains it away in a logical sense both within the game's universe and the real world universe.
One example of this working well within the game's world is (VAGUE SPOILER AHEAD) during chapter two when a classmate is murdered and left behind in a similar fashion to a famous serial killer. Immediately the class thinks the killer is in there with them, which seems impossible. Then a classmate accidentally reveals their alternate identity which IS said killer, and the killer themselves say "nope, wasn't me and here's why" which matched up with a police report found on this said killer in the library's archive (SPOILER END)
Then a real world example happens in the first chapter when the first victim is killed in your dorm while you're asleep. Not much of a spoiler seeing as it's one of the first things to happen in the game. Everything points at you until all the clues are examined. They all make sense in a real world, logical manner that could be seen on an episode of [insert crime show here] with the exception of one or two clues that could easily be replaced with more realistic clues and logic.
Lastly, I mentioned the game is constantly giving you clues without realizing it. Many times in the game you'll find out new things that were technically hinted at in prior chapters. Sometime in the last and others with clues that reveal secrets about the end of the game that were initially brought up in the beginning of the game. It shows how well thought out the story was and how they weren't making it up as they went along.
Once the clues and all info possible is gathered you head to the class trial. Here is, again, mostly dialogue but with a few mini-games in-between. You have to point out inconsistencies using clues found during the investigation. Sometimes you have to figure out what's missing by playing what is essentially hangman. And there's even a music-rhythm mini-game to battle and angry classmate. All of this with a kick ass, high energy soundtrack blasting in the background.
For a game that is mostly dialogue it is incredible how exciting it gets. You won't even notice that the average trial takes over an hour to complete, depending how well you do on the mini-games and if you have to retry.
Despite the intensity of the story where you wonder who will be killed next (or if it'll be you!) there's actually a pretty lighthearted tone to some sections of the game. When there isn't an active investigation you have a lot of free time to explore the school and chat it up with fellow classmates. This provides some of that added depth because you get to know them all better, hopefully before they're killed off.
If this doesn't interest you and you want to just play the main story (which is way more interesting) I would still urge you to do this because when you interact with them you get special abilities that will come in handy during class trials. Things like 'stronger focus' and other things that would only make sense if you saw a video of or played the class trial.
This exploration time isn't without it's problems. Outside of getting those special abilities there isn't much of anything else that helps you or is of interest in the 'free time' sections. Whether or not the character's stories are interesting is a crap shoot, as are the special abilities you earn. That and there's just not much else to do, period. You can go to the school gift shop and play the prize machine for collectibles that serve no other purpose besides giving to classmates to build better friendships, but really that's it.
Seeing as the game is mostly dialogue it can be tough for the game to make this section more impactful. It's not like in Persona 4 where interacting with your friends can enhance the abilities you have in combat, a completely different world of stats and strategy. But maybe if these interactions could provide better insight that wouldn't come along as easily in the trials. Not saying they would have clues to cases that never happened, but maybe certain traits could help in the investigation. That would make it more interesting and even give it more of a branching story.
And maybe I'm a little too used to modern games having branching storylines but a part of me hoped there would be multiple endings based on choices. I can understand why there isn't outside of one alternate ending that happens in your character's head but jolts you back to the game after it happens. Since it's such a tight story with reason for everything that happens it would be challenging and potentially destructive to the story for the writers to attempt branching story.
Because of these negatives it's hard to justify a second playthrough unless you want to experience the story again or want to learn more about the arbitrary details of other characters.
Before writing this review I knew I would have to look at it in a different light than most games. I feel a bit odd saying it's hard to justify a second playthrough only cause this game easily could have multiple playthroughs because of the nature of the game. This is a visual novel after all. Have you ever read a book more than once? It would be similar to that only slightly different. Playing Danganronpa multiple times would be like reading a book, a comic, or even watch a long movie multiple times only each time you have a hand in potentially learning more about some characters.
And while I complained about the art style and the way some things played out, a part of me wouldn't want it any other way. The characters are wacky and fun. They all stand out from one another a great deal that a live action interpretation wouldn't achieve unless they made it as whimsical and colorful as the game was. One thing I didn't mention earlier is the developers were not only inspired by Saw but also a certain Dreamcast game known as Illbleed, aka, a fucked up horror game unlike anything else, AND is one of my favorite games of all time.
The developer commented they loved how crazy Illbleed was and wanted to make something similar in insanity. They definitely achieved that but in a slightly different way. Illbleed was akin to a B-movie satire with lots of blood and gore. Danganronpa has plenty of crazy elements like Illbleed only more in the intention of turning the mystery genre on it's head.
Danganronpa is easily one of the most unique games for the Vita. It's a genre rarely seen on this side of the world and I'm happy we got one of the exceptional examples. If you let yourself get immersed I can guarantee you'll have an excellent experience that can be compared to a great mystery novel, only with a lot more busty girls and pervy upskirt shots.
*sigh* Seriously? Could have been worse I guess.