The sequel to one of Japan’s weirdest story-based games makes the journey from PS Vita to Steam, and it’s just as good as ever.
As pleased as we’ve been to see Danganronpa get a sequel, we’re sure that had nothing to do with its success in the West. But for once we can’t blame people for not taking the risk on an unknown game. Between the unpronounceably weird name (it means bullet refutation, if you’re wondering why they didn’t bother to change it), unusual anime art style, and apparent lack of action or traditional gameplay we can’t fault anyone for giving the original a miss – especially as you needed a PS Vita to play it. Or at least you did…
The first Danganronpa was released on Steam earlier in the year; an unusual but welcome move for a Japanese game originally aimed purely at a home audience. If you’ve enjoyed games like Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney, Persona, or 999/Virtue’s Last Reward then you’ll almost certainly enjoy this. And if you don’t know what any of those games are then you’re about to take a step into a very strange world…
The most obvious non-gaming influence for the plot of the game is Japanese movie classic Battle Royale. Although the setting has now changed from a high school to a chain of desert islands (the all-new cast are on a field trip) the central premise is the same: you’re all prisoners and you’re told the only way to escape is to murder someone else and get away with it at the subsequent mock trial.
The Danganronpa games are essentially expanded visual novels, the gameplay being much in the style of the Ace Attorney titles. Each chapter begins with a new murder and then segues into investigation and interrogation of the suspects, before moving on to the trial. The judge is the demonic bear Monokuma, who might look like a cute anime mascot in the trailer but is actually a sadistic monster.
Although the basic idea of finding inconsistencies in a witness’ testimony is the same as Ace Attorney, Danganronpa tries to spice the pot with what are essentially judicial mini-games. As interactive metaphors these just about worked in the original, but by replacing them with more complex variants the sequel over-eggs its pudding.
The stupid snowboarding game where you have to dodge obstacles while answering questions about the case is bad enough but the new version of Hangman’s Gambit, where you have to collect letters to spell out an answer, is now tediously complicated. And the new Rebuttal Showdown, where you’re supposed to be ‘cutting down’ false statements, makes it far too easy to accidentally remove obviously true ones.
The PC controls do actually make the Rebuttal Shodowns a little easier than originally, but otherwise the keyboard and mouse controls feel clunky and ill-suited to the style of game. Considering the unusual inputs of the PS Vita though there’s nothing much that can be done about that, and even using a joypad only helps to a degree. Upscaling the artwork to 1080p can also look distractingly grainy at times, but again it’s a hardship worth enduring simply to have the game available on a more accessible format.
As before, it’s the unexpectedly sharp writing which is the game’s primary appeal. The dialogue is rarely more than competent but what’s fascinating about the game is how the other characters react to the situation. Each chapter is split into two parts, and before the trail at the end you’re free to wander the islands, speaking to your classmates and getting to know them.
At first most of them just seem to be straightforward anime tropes but they do react to what’s going on in something like a believable way. Everyone starts off optimistic enough, but as the bodies pile up the realisation begins to sink in that at best only one person is going to make it off the island alive.
Alliances are forged and broken, betrayals and set-ups are planned, and a growing sense of paranoia means that when you do discover who’s behind the latest murder it’s often genuinely shocking. Simply finding out who has been killed is traumatic enough, as a character you’ve previously spent hours in the company of becomes nothing more than another puzzle to solve.
As with the original, Danganronpa 2 is one of the few games where death in a video game actually means something to you as a player. In most cases the reasons behind a murderer’s actions are perfectly understandable, given the situation, and considering the accused end up being horribly murdered by Monokuma even wining a trial is a double-edge sword.
Mechanically there’s not much difference between Danganronpa 1 and 2, and so the problems in both are essentially the same as well. Not just the irritating mini-games but the languid pacing that may put off new players. In the sequel it’s almost the halfway point before you really become invested in what’s going on – or have to make a real effort to solve the murders.
By the end of the third case though the game really takes off, and as the desperation of the survivors builds your investment in their fate also rises. The ending is particularly good, but it’ll only have its full impact if you’ve played and understood the original game. But we’d advise you to do that anyway, because these really are two of the best story-based games of the last several years.
And not because of cinematic presentation or even particularly good dialogue, but because their plots have meaning and purpose. They challenge the player to understand and empathise with characters in a way few other games do, and we can only imagine what the same developer might do with a bigger budget…
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