Very rarely does a video game have me at a loss for words. Sure I've played countless masterpieces and the like on various consoles and PCs, with each of them deserving of a special spot in my hall of fame. However a video game has to truly knock my socks off to make me stand up and give it a loud, resounding applause. This is exactly what the Danganronpa series has gone and made me do.
For many years I've been left out of the world of Danganronpa, as I didn't have the proper handheld or PC to play its games. Thankfully NIS America and Spike Chunsoft have fixed that remedy with the PS4 release of Danganronpa 1・2 RELOAD, a packaging of the first two games (Trigger Happy Havoc and Goodbye Despair) seen on the PlayStation Vita. A mixture of visual novel and murder mystery, the two games focuses on a group of students who have been trapped in a school/deserted island. Their furry "principal" Monokuma tells then that they are stuck there for all eternity, with risk of death for anyone who attempts to break the rules. For those wanting an out, there's only one way to do it: commit murder and get away with it.
As such the Danganronpa series takes a similar approach to that of Capcom's Ace Attorney series, where players have to search for clues and motives whenever a murder occurs. From there, the students begin the trial and try to figure out who the culprit is. Get it right, and only the murderer gets to partake in Monokuma's special form of punishment; choose wrong, and everyone but the murderer dies. It's a fast-paced whodunit that keeps both the characters and players guessing and second-guessing their peers.
It also happens to be one of the best-written visual novel series I've ever come across. What makes Danganronpa good is how the characters feel three-dimensional, and when they are tossed into a situation that no one but Monokuma has control over you really start to feel something for them. The fact that they are forced to become a killer and get away with it in order to get out gives way to a sort of Lord of the Flies/Battle Royale mentality in the atmosphere, but instead of weapons the true path of survival is key intellect. When Monokuma soon tosses in blackmail, visual threats, and even cash to keep the killing going, you begin to feel the same anguish the characters do.
That's why it feels like a knife twists in your back when you see a seemingly good-natured character either strike a fatal blow or fall victim themselves when the story starts tearing at your heartstrings. While some characters have their unlikable traits, you soon come to find other good things about them, making them a lot more relatable than before. (Sometimes it's vice-versa as well, but we'll let you discover that for yourselves.) Whenever a character dies or gets executed, those moments will stay with you for quite a long time.
As a villain Monokuma is someone you can easily both love and hate. You despise him for throwing these kids into a horrible situation, but soon you'll find yourself laughing at his banter and antics. Even his little Monokuma Theater bits are good for a chuckle or two, even if they can be a little confusing at times. Obviously he is a screwed-up robotic individual, but he makes the darker moments have a more light-hearted flavor to the whole bloody affair.
Gameplay-wise Danganronpa 1・2 RELOAD is both thorough and exciting as a non-eroge visual novel can get. During the trial you are supposed to search for clues and misinformation in order to finger the killer, with various forms of rhythm game-based actions and even some rail shooter antics. Pointing out key evidence takes a multiple choice route, with bad decisions resulting in losing hearts. Get too much wrong, and you'll be force to start again at the trial's previous checkpoint. It's all fun and exciting, until you have to watch the convicted person executed right in front of you and realize that you've sent someone you may have bonded with down the River Styx.
Graphically you can tell that the game is a revamp of the Vita version. While the drawings are nicely detailed and such, their presence on the PlayStation 4 just doesn't come off as slick as on a small handheld. However the amount of emotion placed in both the English and Japanese voice acting makes up for some of the more flatter aspects of its artwork. Its musical score by Masafumi Takada (No More Heroes, The Evil Within) is a fine mixture of poppy jams, warped melodies, and even some club-worthy dance grooves.
The first Danganronpa game can take you roughly 25 hours to beat, with its sequel tacking on another 32. After clearing the first game once you are given the option to play in School Life Mode, where the students are tasked to build backup Monokuma units with the right materials. Completing this mode will give players the chance to discover an ending. Meanwhile the second game will unlock Island Mode, where the object turns into who becomes friends with whom instead of enacting the killing game. An alternate telling of the first game will also unlock if you beat this specific mode.
- Strong storytelling, well-rounded characters
- Great detective/trail gameplay
- Amazing soundtrack, voice acting
- Game doesn't look as crisp on the big screen
Danganronpa 1・2 RELOAD is a true necessity for fans of both murder mysteries and visual novels in general. A strong script, great characters, and enough twists that you won't ever see coming will give you all that your intriguing mind and heart desires. If you've yet to come face-to-face with Monokuma, now is the time. After all, that fuzzy fiend is due back rather shortly...
Promotional consideration provided by Robert Agustin of NIS America