The Danganronpa series started out as a cult hit, its first release a PS Vita exclusive. Since then, it's rapidly grown in popularity. At present there are three core games, two anime adaptations, and a spin-off title. I’ve been a fan of the series since the first release and have played all core releases, including the latest, Danganronpa V3: Killing Harmony, and loved every minute of it.
Danganronpa V3, as a narrative-based game, was very difficult to review. Normally with such a title I would discuss the characters and the plot in-depth. Unfortunately, I’m rather limited here due to Danganronpa’s premise, which guarantees that characters die frequently, and I'd rather avoid spoilers.
Each of the game’s sixteen student characters are “Ultimates,” which essentially means they’re a prodigy in some particular regard. These talents include Ultimate Detective, Ultimate Inventor, and Ultimate Cosplayer. All are forced to participate in a “high school killing game” by the series’ antagonist and mascot Monokuma, a robotic bear.
The aforementioned Ultimates wake up in a sealed building modeled after a high school and are informed by Monokuma that the only way to escape is by getting away with murder. Essentially, to win this game, players have to kill another player. After a killing takes place, all the participants investigate, searching for clues as to who committed the murder, and then the group goes to trial. If the killer, known as the blackened, is convicted, they are executed. These executions are displayed via animated cutscenes, and appear abstract, grotesque, and graphic. If, on the other hand, you convict the wrong person, the blackened goes free, and all other participants are executed. According to Danganronpa’s premise, the game goes on like this until only two participants remain.
Each of Danganronpa’s six chapters can roughly be broken down into a three-phase cycle.
The first phase is “school life,” essentially visual novel meets social sim. You explore the school, which has new areas open as the game progresses, interact with other characters individually and in groups, and view events that occur to advance the plot. This is the longest phase and, in my experience, takes around five hours.
The next phase, investigation, is point-and-click, where you and the other characters investigate a murder and gather clues. This is the shortest phase, typically being one or two hours.
Lastly is the Class Trial phase, which weaves visual novel narrative with arcade-style gameplay. Basically, players have to solve a number of puzzles, perform complex reasoning, and pull off gameplay feats all at the same time. This phase took approximately three hours in my experience. In all, Danganronpa V3 took me about fifty hours to complete.
Danganronpa does a beautiful job of fusing disparate elements and feels like nothing you’ve ever played before. The closest comparison is the Ace Attorney series, but the adult subject matter and tone, larger cast, additional gameplay elements, and superior production values present in Danganronpa make it a unique experience. If, on the other hand, you’ve played a previous Danganronpa game, then you know roughly what you’re getting; the game’s formula is more or less the same. I find it easy to overlook this given how strong the title’s plot is.
Danganronpa’s characters are a quirky lot. The game casts you as Kaede Akamatsu, the Ultimate Pianist, or, as she calls herself, “the piano freak.” One character, Angie Yonaga, is considered the Ultimate Artist, but perhaps would be better as the Ultimate Cult-Leader. Angie believes in a god called Atua to a fanatical degree, and she advocates this faith among the other students. The Ultimate Inventor, Miu Iruma, is obsessed with profanity and the obscene, and most of her inventions have something to do with this.
Then there’s Kokichi Oma, the Ultimate Supreme Leader, a textbook case of antisocial personality disorder (psychopathy) and pathological liar. Kokichi is child-like in behavior and appearance, and is an enthusiastic participant in Monokuma’s killing game.
Speaking as a psychology student, whoever wrote Kokichi’s character must have had a copy of the DSM-5 open in their lap because the psychology underpinning this character and others is excellent. It's characters like these and the interactions between them that make Danganronpa so enjoyable.
There’s also amusing pop-culture references spread throughout the game. At one point a character stated, “This is the year of the Jets! F--- the Patriots!” (As a resident of New Jersey, this is a sentiment I support whole-heartedly. F--- the Patriots indeed.)
Danganronpa is clearly an anime video game. Some will find this a draw, others less so. The game incorporates anime tropes, and there’s definitely a slice-of-life feel to some character interactions and themes of trust and friendship. That said, the game is as much a parody of anime as an anime video game itself. Consider K1-B0, the Ultimate Robot with average intellect and subpar athleticism. Let’s just say he won’t be giving One-Punch Man’s Genos any competition.
Danganronpa also has a strong, cynical side to it, as it points out regularly that people would have to be pretty messed up to voluntarily spectate or participate in the killing game (or, perhaps, play it).
I have only one negative criticism of Danganronpa V3: the voice acting, specifically the amount of it. Danganronpa is not fully voiced, and some of its lines, including core narrative content, are unread. Obviously, many other games do this, but I’m opposed to it when a game can afford to do otherwise. Danganronpa’s voice actors were quite good, and with how much money the series has made, the developers, Spike Chunsoft, could have afforded to make the game fully voiced, especially considering that voice acting is typically not expensive.
Some readers may be familiar with the phrase “hard PG-13” that refers to movies that are a hair shy of an R rating. Danganronpa V3 is, to my eyes, a hard M because it uses explicit words and phrases I’ve never seen in video games before, and I’ve seen more than my fair share. I’m not criticizing the game for its use of profanity; I think it was implemented in a clever way. Certain characters spew profanities, others are quite mild mannered by comparison. I felt that the use of profanity made Danganronpa’s characters more believable, but in case anyone is averse to this sort of content, buyer beware.
Having finished Danganronpa V3: Killing Harmony, I am immensely satisfied by the experience. Its easily one of my favorite games of the year, and with Nier: Automata and Persona 5 as competition that’s saying a lot.
Danganronpa V3: Killing Harmony comfortably earns a 9.5 out of 10. It’s my second-favorite Danganronpa title after the first entry and further justifies my interest in the series. I’ll be awaiting the next one enthusiastically and, in the meantime, recommend this entry highly.