Danganronpa: the murder mystery visual novel series in a class of its own
Bear with me if you've heard this one before: Danganronpa [official site] is a game about teenagers locked in a high school, driven to murder one another by a robotic bear. A tale as old as time. The eye-catching premise partly explains how the series has captured the attention of even those who would shy away from the majority of visual novels.
The third game comes to Steam today, having a simultaneous console and PC release for the first time, and its predecessors are rated 'overwhelmingly positive' by PC players. But what is the secret to the success of these bizarre hybrids of social sim and murder investigation? Class is in session and today's lesson is Danganronpa 101.
I like to imagine it as the setup for a bad joke: a group of Japanese video game developers stumbled into a midnight showing of Saw one foggy night, and the two best visual novel-slash-adventure-slash-protracted-murder-simulator franchises you've never heard of managed to crawl out of that theatre with them. Though 'never heard of' probably isn't true anymore; you might well have heard of them because both Kotaro Uchikoshi's Zero Escape and Kazutaka Kodaka's Danganronpa series have made the jump to Steam.
They're part of a deluge of visual novels, ranging from cutesy click 'em ups to often unromantic romances, many of which have been making their first appearance on PC via Steam, sometimes years after their original release.
Zero Escape's twisting tales of torture and thoroughly-questionable pseudoscience found a largely laudatory reception in the West, long before their PC release. The success of Hideo Kojima and his imitators had prepared critics and audiences for lengthy treatises on topics seemingly-irrelevant to the central plot, and that's precisely what Uchikoshki's games offer. Between those plots and diversions, there are escape the room sections that resemble deadlier versions of the kind of thing that classes as a pleasant day out with the kids in the year 2017.
Danganronpa is different. The unqualified strangeness of the setting eludes classification. You see, the only way to escape the prestigious Hope's Peak Academy in which Danganronpa takes place is to kill one of your classmates and convince everyone that somebody else did the deed. Then - and only then - will you be allowed to walk out the front door, leaving the rest of them to their grisly fate. Get caught red-handed, however, and you'll be executed in a fashion that paradoxically manages to be just as "ironic" as you'd expect.
While comparisons to Uchikoshi's enameled puzzle-box of a series are inevitable and somewhat appropriate, the two actually have far less in common than their shared parentage at developers Spike Chunsoft would imply. If you'll countenance a spooky metaphor, Zero Escape is a monstrous corn maze that expects you to explore its every leafy tendril and shadowy dead end on your own, while Danganronpa is more of a haunted mansion where you're pulled by the arm through set-piece after set-piece, with high-schoolers in bad makeup jumping out from creaky closets and half-collapsed couches. Yet the second you allow yourself to chuckle at their clumsy efforts, a masked devil leaps at you with a chainsaw, and you can't help but recoil in fear.
In terms of its basic play structure, one could certainly accuse Danganronpa and its sequel of cribbing work from its upwardly-mobile classmates in Visual Novel University. The most distinguished of these alumni is the Phoenix Wright series, which arguably set the stage for these aspirational VNs to make their way west in the first place. The extent to which Danganronpa brazenly repurposes the skeleton and lexicon of everyone's favorite spiky lawyer might be called just criminal by some (hardy har har), but since competition in the genre remains thin even today, we can forgive some imitation.
Your blank-cipher protagonist spends his days hanging out with his classmates and shooting the shit in optional sidequests a la Persona, until you get the unfortunate notice that one of your fellow students has bit the bullet. Once that happens, it's Murder Time, and that means you get to don your deerstalker cap and investigate, investigate, investigate. Much like the decent graphical adventures out there, the game is never unwinnable - my apologies, Sierra fans - and, thus, you cannot proceed to the "trial" until you've gathered every little pixel-scrap of evidence from the scene of the crime.
Once you pass that threshold, which can sometimes prove a bit tiresome, you are whisked to what I'll refer to as the Murder Chamber by your wisecracking host/warden, who challenges you to pin the rap on the guilty student. Though these sequences essentially boil down to the classic "spot-the-contradiction" mechanic that self-styled detective games have relied on since the days of yore - albeit with "truth bullets" instead of the stalwart "objection!" - they bring a flashy kineticism to a genre that is oft-maligned for its static presentation; after all, staring at the same character portrait for thirty-five hours isn't exactly enthralling.
So, with a chamber-piece death-trap premise similar to Saw, mechanics familiar from its most successful contemporaries, and characters nicked from the Alliterative Anthology of Anime Archetypes Omnibus Edition - the hot-blooded biker, the preening pop-idol, the oblivious otaku - what arcane magic allows both the original Danganronpa and its sequel to receive such acclaim and glowing fandom? While I can't speak for every player out there, I would posit that it's a peculiar sense of style and tone.
As many have said before me, games that aim for the funny bone are few and far-between, and there are perhaps only two or three each year that actually manage to hit it with purpose and poise. Danganronpa strides one step further than even that: the humor serves to leaven the ever-escalating tragedy, which makes it sting all the more.
As you lumber your way through case after case and the body count rises into the sky, even the first Danganronpa begins to grapple with the problem that the latter Phoenix Wright games have faced - it comes to resemble a parody of itself. The daring methods and florid schemes lose their lure; the iconic pink splashes of blood and viscera fade into more muted hues; even the wicked and witty bear Monokuma seems to go through the motions, his cutting jests blunting over time.
Yet it's only then, at the point of absolute fatigue, that the game reveals its most tantalizing twist, which elevates it from B-movie homage to an arch-camp classic. And though its sequel can sometimes feel a bit too eager to repeat that first performance, it still manages to out-ridiculous itself in a manner that feels fresh and novel.
Toby Fox once labelled his beloved post-modern masterwork Undertale as an "8/10 niche RPG," and I would ascribe similar loglines to both Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc and Danganronpa: Goodbye Despair. These are undeniable flawed games, absolutely rotten with anime cliche and abrupt plot swerves, fumbled threads and abstruse pacing. Yet beneath all that lie two of the most intriguing, daring, and downright transgressive murder mystery games this side of Blade Runner '97. If, like me, the gaslamp period posturing of LA Noire left you out in the cold, maybe you should give Hope's Peak Academy a little visit. Just don't join the class rolls - you'll never make it out alive.
Danganronpa V3: Killing Harmony has a simultaneous release on all platforms, PC included, today. You can find it on Steam where it costs £49.99, or try the demo for free. The first two games are £14.99 each and shooty spin-off Ultra Despair Girls is £22.99.