When it comes to the culinary arts, there are a few different approaches to creating and preparing a recipe. Some recipes take skill, finesse, and a deep knowledge of many different kinds of ingredients and the way their flavors will blend together. Years of knowledge and talent can go into creating something that is pleasing to both the eye and the palette. And then there are recipes that involve taking a whole bunch of things that taste good separately, stuffing them inside each other, and seeing what happens. The turducken and its dessert equivalent, the cookie-cake-pie, for example, probably fall into this category.
How is this relevant to video games? The answer to that is Danganronpa.
What is Danganronpa, anyway?: On the surface, an absolute mess. It’s a visual novel style game in the same vein as Ace Attorney, Zero Escape, or Persona 4. And when I say ‘in the same vein as’, I mean ‘directly copied from’. All of them.
What.: Yeah. It sounds crazy. And it is crazy. It is literally the turducken of visual novel games.
Sooooo what’s it about?: In Danganronpa, you play as high school student Makoto Naegi, as he attends the prestigious Hope’s Peak Academy. The Academy prides itself on selecting for admission students who are the ‘ultimate’ in their particular field, whatever that field may be. For example, the school might select the ‘Ultimate Martial Artist’ or the ‘Ultimate Baseball Player’, but might also select such abstract representations of perfection as the ‘Ultimate Moral Compass’. Or, it might select something incredibly weird such as, I shit you not, the ‘Ultimate Fanfiction Writer’. So what version of ‘ultimate’ is Makoto? Well, he’s not. For each class, the Academy chooses one completely normal student to be the “Ultimate Lucky Student” who is accepted into the academy. Makoto appears to be the regular student who will be overshadowed by all of the strong personalities and talents that the other students possess.
Well, until everyone in his entry class passes out on the first day and wakes up in a bizarre alternate version of the school that has all the doors and windows bolted shut and is run by a sadistic, murderous stuffed bear named Monokuma.
In short order, Monokuma lays down a set of bizarre rules for the group to follow and threatens them with execution if they refuse. He then presents the class with a contest: if anyone can successfully commit murder and pin it on somebody else, that person will ‘graduate’ and be let out of the school.
Uh. So. What does it play like?: Well, depending on what part of the game you’re on, it plays like any of the three games mentioned above. Your time at Hope’s Peak is spent doing one of three things: “School Life”, “Deadly Life”, and “Class Trial”. The first part is a life simulator, where Makoto attempts to learn more about his classmates, their personality quirks, and their possible motivations for attempting to get out of the school. This is carried out in much the same manner as Persona 4‘s social link system: you get a certain amount of free time in which you can choose who you want to spend time with. The second part, “Deadly Life”, begins once a murder scene is discovered. In this mode, Makoto must gather evidence to puzzle through who is responsible for the murder, with more and more of the school opening up the longer the killings go on. The third part, the “Class Trial” plays out like Satan’s debate club, and it is easily the weirdest part of the game.
So it’s not a straight-up Ace Attorney-style trial?: Not precisely. Sure, you have to pick out the contradictory statements, much like Phoenix Wright does. However, the manner in which you do so is a lot more involved than just selecting and presenting the evidence. Your evidence is compiled in the form of ‘truth bullets’ that you load like a revolver, and you target the statements that are contradictory and ‘shoot’ them. To make things a bit more chaotic than the standard visual novel fare, the trials are handled like a Twitter argument, with each person trying to shout over everyone else in the room, causing you to have to aim between multiple overlapping statements to strike the correct one.
….Man, describing it that way makes shattering someone’s bullshit with a well-aimed burst of logic feel oddly satisfying.
Okay, this is even pushing the bounds of ‘weird’ here.: Oh, it’s not over yet. At the very end, you clench your victory by loading up your ‘final strike’ and playing a rhythm game against the most probable suspect, followed by your ‘closing argument’, where you arrange the murder, start to finish, using comic book style panels.
And then, if you guessed correctly, you ‘get’ to watch the murderer’s execution. Though…with the exception of the first one, the impact of the capital punishments are lessened by how absurdly cartoonish they are. This is no Saw… or rather, it is Saw with a healthy dose of Itchy and Scratchy thrown in.
The look and feel of the game make it not so..serious?: Yes and no. The graphical style takes it’s influences from a lot of things, but the end result of the oddball design choices is that everyone looks like a cardboard cutout caricature of their ‘ultimate aspect’. And by that I mean that when you’re walking around, the characters pop up in 2-D, sort of like an anime-style Paper Mario thing. The UI is ripped straight from Persona 4: Golden, with just a bit of 8-bit pixel art thrown into the menus. It’s trippy as hell, and even now, I’m not sure whether I like it or not.
The end result of the offbeat humor and the design choices were that I was never legitimately creeped out by the game the way I was with Zero Escape. Nor did I really have the same kind of attachment to the characters as I did with either that game or with Persona 4, mostly because some of the most interesting characters don’t really stick around long enough for Makoto to get to know them very well at all.
No ‘Unbreakable Bonds of Friendship (TM)’ this time around, huh?: Quite the opposite, actually. From the beginning, the characters are predisposed to being suspicious of each other for one reason or another, and that only escalates once the murders start happening. On top of that, very few of the characters are especially enjoyable to be around, and that can have the effect of making the player feel like a horrible person for wishing that certain characters end up becoming the next victims.
So how does the game compare to its obvious influences?: The thing about games like Zero Escape and Ace Attorney is that they each do one thing very well, but their flaw is that they do that one thing over and over again. Danganronpa takes the one thing that each game does well and never settles on doing any one thing for any length of time. While it means the mechanics might lack depth, it also means you never really get tired of any particular segment of gameplay. By mixing things up, Danganronpa manages to not really overstay its welcome in any one place.
Plus, if a person has played all of the games that Danganronpa is referencing, certain plot points will seem very familiar. And by that I mean that Danganronpa rips them directly from their sources and then either plays the plot points straight or subverts them in the most unexpected way possible. The end result is that the overarching plot has the exact twists that one would expect it to, and yet manages to pull several surprising turns with the character subplots.
But.. all in all, is the game any good?: Let me put it this way. Sometimes a thing can be greater than the sum of its parts. And sometimes a thing is exactly the sum of its parts. Danganronpa is the latter. It pulls gameplay elements from Persona 4 and Ace Attorney and rips large chunks of plot directly from Zero Escape, and while it does each thing about as well as the source material did, Danganronpa never quite surpasses its influences.
That’s not really a mark against it, because that means it’s still a very good game. It’s just that I found myself wishing that I were playing a new Zero Escape game or a new Persona game and not something that seems to be desperately trying to either imitate or lampoon those games.
Would you recommend it?: Yeah, I would, to anyone who would get the references. Meaning: anyone who has played other visual novel games like Ace Attorney or especially Zero Escape. I think I’d also recommend it to fans of Persona 4, though I’d give the caveat that if a person didn’t like Teddie in P4, seeing him recast as the villain from Saw doesn’t make him any more bearable (hur hur hur).
Is it a reason to own a Vita? No, not really. Persona 4: Golden is. But if a person already has a Vita, that person could do far, far worse than Danganronpa.