Have you ever heard someone talking adoringly about a game you’ve never played and thought, “yeah, I want to know what this is all about”, but found that it’s pretty impenetrable? This is a surprisingly common occurrence with Persona, and I bet it also happens with Danganronpa, which shares some similarities with Atlus’ JRPGs, but has its own unique hooks. It’s also easier to get into, due to how it actually plays.
With a new title coming to PS4 (and Vita, as the series has its roots in portable consoles) and the other games also hitting Steam, plus an anime, now is a good time to get up to speed. These games are lengthy, and not exactly the easiest to understand, so let’s start at the very beginning.
What Does Danganronpa Even Mean?
Sort of, yes. It’s an amalgamation of the Japanese words for bullet (dangan) and, well, technically the translation of “ronpa” is “to confute”, which is to prove someone wrong, or confound… so it kind of means bullet-detective. At least, that’s the easiest way to understand it, and we’ll come to what relevance that has in a minute. Cool?
How Many Games Are There?
So it’s a bit complicated, but the simplest answer is to say that there are two main games: Trigger Happy Havoc, and Goodbye Despair. Those are the two that really show what the series is about, and are the “main” games. On top of that, a Vita-only game (Danganronpa Another Episode: Ultra Despair Girls) was released in 2014, which is an entirely different game, and there are also Japan-only iOS games. That’s before we even mention the anime and manga!
What Kind Of Games Are They?
The first two (which both started life as PSP games, before gaining Western popularity with the Vita ports that NIS America brought to European shores) are part visual novel, and part Phoenix Wright. Large parts of the first game are spent in first-person, walking around the corridors of a school, chatting to your schoolmates and learning about their personal lives. You will be pressing cross a lot on your controller, because there are reams of dialogue to get through, and not all of it is voiced.
This is all done during “free time”, before Deadly Life Mode triggers and someone dies. Yes, people die in this school. It’s not highly rated by OFSTED.
The idea is that nobody can leave this school unless they graduate, except graduation is only achievable by murdering someone and getting away with it. The rest of the students have to solve the murder in a courtroom drama, after which the killer is, themselves, offed. School days, eh? Best days of your life.
These courtroom scenes are similar to Ace Attorney games, where you have spot lies and inconsistencies and shoot at them with your “truth bullets” (the ronpa – see, it all makes sense) to prove them wrong. There are mini-games that veer all over the place, from slot machines to rhythm-matching. (Danganronpa Another Episode: Ultra Despair Girls is actually a third-person shooter of sorts, and not really up to the quality of the main games, so hit that one up last.)
What’s The Story?
The hook behind these games is that all the high-school students have been hand-picked because they are the very best in their field: the best singer; the sportsman who excels over all the rest; a successful novelist; a fortune teller – you get the picture. You, though, as Makoto (in the first game, anyway) are an ordinary kid who gained entry to the school by winning a raffle. Where all the others are the “ultimate whatever weird role defines them”, you’re considered the “ultimate lucky student”, so some will look down on you, and wonder why you’re there.
While some characters may appear at first to be stereotypes, there’s some genuinely deep, moving undertones to the whole thing. In a game that on the surface appears to be about a sadistic teddy bear punishing under-age high schoolers, don’t be surprised to find some extremely adult subject matter being discussed. It never goes all the way to addressing them fully, but without spoiling some of the biggest shocks, there are elements here that aren’t even approached in other games, such as split personalities, child abuse, and more.
What Are The Characters Like?
This is a trickier question to answer, because at times they do veer towards stereotypes too heavily. But in fairness, part of the idea is to uncover the deeper personality behind a person’s appearance. I don’t really want to go into detail on what makes each character so different, but you will have favourites: there will be characters you will bond with and spend more time talking to that others.
And then there’s Monokuma, upupupu. (That’s his catchphrase, by the way, I’ve not just had a stroke). He’s the bad guy, and boy is he a bad guy. Here’s a video of Monokuma laughing as teenagers cry their eyes out.
Monokuma has lots of clones of himself and will joyfully, without mercy, kill anyone who breaks the rules he has set upon his students. The black and white design of the character is both cute and fearsome, and there’s a good reason that plushies of Monokuma are on the wish-list of fans of the series everywhere. I can’t stress enough how evil this little fucker is.
Monokuma doesn’t just kill these students, he executes them. An early example is where one guilty student is put in a cage and spun around so fast that his body turns into butter. It’s grim. But then, the murders that lead to the eventual courtroom drama are pretty brutal too: think “smashing someone’s face in with a dumbbell”, and you’re on the right track.
There are plenty of other memorable characters, from the first game alone. Toko Fukawa lends a hint of the unhinged to proceedings due to her… shall we say, psychological makeup. Sakura is another interesting character: as the “ultimate fighter”, her appearance means that she is occasionally mistaken for a man, but her arc proves again that we are more than just what we seem. In Ultra Despair Girls you’ve got Shirokuma and Kurokuma, who are white and black versions of Monokuma, and have pacifist and criminal qualities respectively. On top of that, you’ve got Usami, a female magic rabbit that looks like a pink and white version of Monokuma. Did I mention that Danganronpa is bonkers?
Why Should I Play It?
Firstly, it tackles subjects that a lot of games really don’t go anywhere near. While it’d be safe to say that it doesn’t always handle them well (Ultra Despair Girls, I’m looking at you), it’s not sordid or titillating. I’m not going to pretend there’s no fan-service going on here, and it does make heavy use of stereotypes, but Danganronpa is about delving deep and building relationships with the kind of weird-ass characters that, to be honest, you can only really find in a video game.
Ultimately, though, it’s something different to everything else out there. Visual novels aren’t new, but Danganronpa’s main series is interesting, involved, and has enough “gameplay” to mix it up. You’re not just sifting through pages and pages of text (though, look, there’s a lot of that here, so be warned); it amalgamates the novel genre into a mix of Phoenix Wright, Professor Layton, and Virtue’s Last Reward (also by Spike Chunsoft), and throws in a bit of Persona 4’s character development for good measure.
And you know what else? It’s funny. Actually funny, too, not video game funny. Monokuma is a constant source of nonsense and will make you crack a smile. He’s absolutely abhorrent, of course, but he’s unhinged and nutty with it. He thinks it’s all a joke, and sometimes it all feels like one. There are also plenty of story beats throughout the series that surprise and challenge you. Even when you think you’ve seen it all, it will get darker and more interesting.
You Basically Love It Because Of The Bear, Right?
You’re right, so I asked some friends why they love the series, too. First up, Greg Hill, who told me: “Essentially, Danganronpa is one of the smartest games I’ve ever played. The methods of murder are some of the most inventive and twisted I’ve ever seen, which push you to wonder how the hell they came up with it. Moreover, it breaks free of traditional storyline clichés and offers an unpredictable and addictive experience. The dark humour makes even Monokuma compelling and the characters, although stereotypical on the exterior, offer a fascinating look into the motives behind human behaviour. Danganronpa should really be at the top of everyone’s to-play list”.
Over to my buddy, Mikhail, now: “Danganronpa has stayed with me and become one of my favourite franchises of all time because of how outlandish the characters are, coupled with a fantastic story and memorable soundtrack. I wish I could go back in time or erase my memory of it and replay all three Danganronpa games again.”
Nick Gillham, who says: “They’re fascinatingly morbid and beautifully designed… Most of all though, they stay with you long after they are finished.”
He’s nailed it, there. Danganronpa lodges in your brain, even after you put the controller (or handheld) down. We’ve all got scores of fairly similar games clogging up our backlogs. It’s got to be worth giving something different a go, right?