The Kids Aren’t Alright
Being a fan of both the PlayStation Portable and Japanese gaming has never been easy. While Monster Hunter gave Sony’s first serious attempt at handheld gaming a new lease on life in their home country, things didn’t go so well here in the West.
On the plus side, the system turned into a treasure trove of niche Japanese titles that felt like a continuation of the PS2 era sandwiched between the bigger-budget fare of the HD consoles and the quaint simplicity of the DS. The downside? The crazier, more obscure, or more Japanese text–heavy those games became, the harder it was to justify the costs of bringing them to us Westerners.
Danganronpa had been on my radar for some time. Unfortunately, two problems stood in the way: its large amount of text that would need translation, and its theme of students being locked inside a high school, forced to kill one another for freedom. The exploration of teenagers fighting to the death has been a common Japanese theme for years, and the fear that media companies outside of Japan have held over touching these products has existed for just as long. (One of the most famous examples of this idea—the cult classic Japanese film Battle Royale—wasn’t released on home video in the United States until 12 years after its Japanese theatrical launch.)
So, while I received North American editions of other Japanese PSP games such as Persona 2: Innocent Sin, Hakuoki, Sweet Fuse, and Corpse Party, I had come to accept the fact that Danganronpa would always stay just out of reach.
When I had the chance to sit down with Danganronpa producer Yoshinori Terasawa at last year’s Tokyo Game Show and talk about the game’s upcoming English-language release through NIS America, to say I was excited would be putting it mildly.
(If you’d like to read that interview, by the way, you can do so right here. Just, you know, do it after you read this review, if you would.)
My excitement wasn’t necessarily for the game itself. I was eager to play it—don’t get me wrong—but it was more the thrill of seeing another game that I’d been certain would never make it out of Japan and given a chance to reach a broader audience. When our gaming choices are more diverse, we all win—even if we’re not the target market. To be fair, though, I also had a tinge of disappointment. We’d be getting Danganronpa via its Vita re-release, instead of the original PSP version. It made perfect sense as a business and economic decision, but I can’t deny the desire to have another crazy-obscure PSP game to place upon my shelf.
There does, of course, come a potential problem whenever you’ve spent any amount of time hopeful of its release: the chance that you’ll end up hating it and feeling silly for having investing any emotional or mental effort to its benefit.
Being honest, I had some concern going into Danganronpa. I knew I was a fan of its gameplay style—that Japanese staple of text-heavy visual-novel segments mixed with character-relationship building and puzzle-solving in 3D-rendered environments. It wasn’t so long ago that I played through the very-similar-in-concept Zero Escape: Virtue’s Last Reward, and its execution of that mixture of elements and strength of its characters solidified my enjoyment of the genre.
It was that last part that caused me concern with Danganronpa: characters. I’m well aware that you can’t judge a book by its cover, but the cast Spike Chunsoft had come up with here seemed, to me, horribly stereotypical. Before knowing one single detail about them, I felt like I could place exactly what other games or anime they could have come from, and what particular character tropes they’d be there to represent. When you first start the game, the story seems to do nothing but solidify those expectations. The perfectly pretty pop idol, the sports sensation, the hoity-toity heir to an empire, the brash-and-boastful street punk. I’d met these characters before—not these exact people under these exact names, but the parts they’d play in what was about to unfold.
If Danganronpa were a living entity capable of expressing emotions, then I’d say that it no doubt took glee from how quickly it set about crushing those expectations.
The stage was set by Monokuma—the game’s half-white, half-black mascot bear who we believe to be the mastermind behind locking our 15 students into Hope’s Peak Academy. Monokuma wants the students—and the whole world—to be filled with despair instead of hope, and as a way to show how low the best of us will sink when faced with despair, he challenges his prisoners to a little game. In order to escape, a student must kill one of his or her fellow students; well, not just kill, but get away with it. After a murder, a short period of investigation time will take place, followed by a court trial held by all remaining students. If the group can correctly determine the killer—referred to as the “blackened”—then that student will be punished to death. If, instead, the group places blame upon the wrong person, then the blackened will be set free—and the entire group will be killed instead.
I knew, in my gut, how things would begin. I knew—well, had a good suspicion—who would be first to go and who would be the cause. Having met my 14 fellow students, I knew who would snap first, who couldn’t be trusted. As the pieces began to fall into place, however, they weren’t falling in the right way. Things I expected to happen didn’t, and things I didn’t expect to happen did.
The game set me up for expectations on how this story of survival would play out—who I’d side with, who I’d trust the most, who I’d know to stay away from. By the time we hit the first class trials, I was already starting to feel betrayed. This wasn’t how things were supposed to happen. Things weren’t going to go so wrong, so quick. It was only the first step down the journey of Danganronpa’s narrative, but it was a clear sign that the game was ready to pull no punches.
Those trial scenes are where Danganronpa gets closest to being considered a “game.” Things start simple: The students begin discussing their thoughts on the case, what could have happened, and who the killer may be. During this discussion, inconsistencies may show up, highlighted by orange onscreen text (instead of the usual white). Evidence you’ve collected can be used as “Truth Bullets,” and if you’ve got a particular Truth Bullet that can prove a contradiction or incorrect assumption, you literally shoot down the inconsistent text using crosshairs.
That mechanic serves as the main means of getting to the truth, but other, lesser-used concepts soon come into play. One involves having to hunt down letters in a Hangman-esque minigame; another is a take on the music/rhythm genre where hitting the proper buttons in time to the beat help shut up someone who’s gone on a tirade. On some levels, I couldn’t help but be reminded of Phoenix Wright while playing Danganronpa’s class trials, but I felt like Spike Chunsoft’s ideas were actually better accomplished at times.
The problem with any game where players are asked to play detective still exists here: There’s only one correct path; it’s too easy to figure out exactly what evidence to use; quite often, you might know what to do but not what exact order the game wants you to do it in; and it can be frustrating when you know exactly what’s going on but still have to go through the paces of getting to the reveal. Still, Danganronpa sets up some gameplay situations that really require quick thinking and mental gymnastics. At those moments, there’s a real sense of accomplishment.
Yet it’s when Danganronpa is least like a game that it is the most rewarding. While I’m somebody who has to be forced to read books, I’m a sucker for Japanese visual novels—well, at least when they’re done right. That’s the hook, and so many games can lose players not so enamored with this unique genre of entertainment. If a game includes characters that aren’t interesting or a storyline that doesn’t grip you, every block of dialog ueis just one more painful needle stuck into your face as part of some sadistic means of torture.
Remember earlier in this review when I was saying how generic and stereotypical I expected Danganronpa’s cast to be? In a way, and at times, they are—and yet they’re so much more. As I got to know each of them—either through the natural storyline progression or through the “Free Time” segments where I could pick who to hang out with in order to strengthen our bond of friendship—they changed from characters into people. People I wanted to get to know, to befriend, to survive with. As I got to see deeper parts of them beyond who I just assumed they were, I feared for their safety. Every time the next inevitable murder creeped closer, I’d actually become worried about who would be involved. Not just over a fear for who would die—but who we would be putting to death soon after for having been the perpetrator. I felt betrayed when certain characters weren’t who I thought they were, or when somebody ended up dead before I was ready to say goodbye.
Above anything else, games like Danganronpa live or die based on how much they can make us care about their characters, and how much they can make us want to find out their fate. I cared. For the 25 hours I put in from start to finish, there was never one time where I wasn’t wanting to play “just 15 more minutes” in order to see what would happen to me and my fellow survivors. Danganronpa had me enthralled and enraptured in a way few games have been able to in the past year, and when its end came, it was bittersweet. (Well, part of that was because its ending is a point of frustrating wishy-washiness.)
And, let me point out that all of that works as well as it does because the game’s writing is backed up by a fantastic translation job. We don’t always give translation teams the credit they deserve—but, without them, all of the quality writing in the world wouldn’t have meant anything if it had been butchered when making the jump from Japanese to English.
Danganronpa isn’t without flaws: It desperately needs an option to turn off the back touchpad during the trial scenes, panning around a room can at times be awkward due to the set camera angle, and with as much voice acting is present in the game, I would love to have had every line of dialogue voiced. Yet those are small bumps along what’s otherwise a fantastic (and fantastically twisted) trip through a tale of despair and hope. If titles like Gravity Rush and Tearaway are reasons to own a Vita for any standard gamer, then Danganronpa is a must-have for those of us fueled by a love for experiences a little less ordinary.
I no longer have to hope that Danganronpa will get an English-language release—or that I’ll actually like it when it does. Now, I have to sit here hoping that its sequel will also be booking a flight over here soon.
No matter what adorably evil lengths Monokuma went to in order to try to make me believe otherwise, however, I will hold on to hope—and I won’t be afraid to do so.
|Developer: Spike Chunsoft • Publisher: NIS America • ESRB: M – Mature • Release Date: 02.11.2014|
Danganronpa’s heavy storyline segments and somber themes won’t be for everyone, but for Vita owners looking for something fresh, stylish, and enthralling to play on their handheld of choice, this is an utterly fascinating game that shouldn’t be missed.
|The Good||From the moment it kicks off, Danganronpa is a gripping tale that never lets up.|
|The Bad||Misplaced fingers on the back touchpad can screw you up during the class trials.|
|The Ugly||How attached you’ll end up feeling to a murderous trickster bear.|
|Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc is available exclusively on PlayStation Vita.|