Underneath the colorful visuals and the silly characters, the Danganronpa franchise has always secretly been a very dark series. Having adored the anime based on the first game, I decided to get my hands on the PS4 versions of the first two games of the series. Originally released on the PS Vita, Danganronpa 1-2 Reload is the best version to experience of the games.
The series is evidently inspired by a variety of different properties, creating its own unique aesthetic and tone. The basis of the Danganronpa games follow a similar premise to the Battle Royale movie and the Hunger Games; in Danganronpa, fifteen (sixteen in Danganronpa 2: Goodbye Despair) high schoolers are placed in a secluded area. Locked away from the outside world, the teens are watch over by a seemingly omnipotent bear called Monokuma. He reveals to the cast that they are in the Killing School Life (Killing School Trip in 2) game – the Killing game is won when one student murders another and successfully convinces the other students they are innocent.
The game will then take a cue from the Phoenix Wright games; after a murder takes place, the surviving students will look for clues for who done it. Then a trial will start – it is up to the innocent students to find the killer during this trial. At the end of the trial all the students put their votes of who they think has done it. If the majority does not vote on the corrected “blackened” (the person who committed the crime), everyone besides the “blackened” will be executed while the true culprit is able to leave the school (Danganronpa 1) or island (Danganronpa 2). If the majority is able to vote on the correct guilty person, then only that person will be executed. It is up to the playable protagonist in both games to survive the games, find the correct “blackened” in each trial, and find a way to escape with the remaining survivors.
The two games are ostensibly visual novels with JRPG elements. In both games, in between major story beats, you are able to travel the area freely and build relationships with whatever surviving characters you wish. Building relationships and having dialogues with the other colorful cast of characters always felt like fodder to me, but it does help give sympathy to these characters that are essentially in a fight for survival. Death is a very real consequence in the games narrative, with the victims and the executed forever gone within the game itself. You can never talk to them in the main story ever again, and the loss genuinely feels applicable.
The trials are the games main hook, and are probably the most exciting parts of the games. There are six chapters and a prologue in each of the games, with each chapter (minus the prologue) having a trial. Once a murder happens, and having collected enough clues, Monokuma will take the surviving students to the trial room where they determine who among them killed their fellow classmate. As you discover more and more about the case, twists and turns start happening. Each murder case becomes increasingly more convoluted, and it is up to the playable protagonists in each game to point out the killer.
There are always moments in both games where some of the reasoning is kind of faulty, and some of the cases become weird at certain moments. Several deductive moments are also stretches at times, with point A becoming point B in ways that make very little sense. Despite that, the trials are always exciting to see unfold. Learning more and more about the cases are the games highpoints, especially in the more difficult to solve ones. Also, to the credit of the game’s writing, each reveal always feel heartbreaking. You spend time with all these characters, so finding out they essentially betrayed everyone and murder one of their own is always upsetting.
During the actually trial, the game will have several mini-games for gamers to play. Presenting clues is a mini-game in of itself, with player having to shoot evidence/clues like a gun at certain dialogue pieces in the trial in order to find the truth. That is where the title Danganronpa comes from; the title is a combination of bullet and refute in Japanese. Danganronpa 2 adds in more mini-games, making certain parts of the trials even harder. Most of the mini-games feel like padding, with some of them being unnecessarily harder than they needed to be. Hangman’s Gambit, where the player has to connect moving letters on the screen in order to make out a word, is particularly not fun when it gets more difficult. With that said, Logic Dive in the second game is cool. Logic Dive is when you ride a board in a Tron-like area and avoid obstacles, while you come up with solutions to a particularly troubling mystery. I don’t know why the player would imagine a world like the Tron movie, nonetheless it is a fun mini-game and the music is awesome.
The games have a very anime aesthetic, with over-the-top designs and vibrant colors. The game avoids showing real blood by making the blood bright pink. They probably did it to avoid censorship, and reach a broader demographic. This is despite the fact that a couple of the characters swear like crazy in the games. The aesthetic is echoed among the very absurd cast of characters, with none of them having any sense of subtlety in their personalities. Within both games’ stories, each of the characters comes from the fictional Hope’s Peak Academy. Hope’s Peak is a school that has students that are all supposed to be the best of a specific skill. Each student is giving the title of an Ultimate, with their skill added in their label. For example, the main protagonist of the first game, Makoto Naegi, is labeled the Ultimate Lucky Student due to getting into Hope’s Peak because of winning a lottery.
The characters are generally hit-or-miss in terms of their personality and likability, yet to be fair all of them are very memorable in their own way. Each of the characters obsessions with their own ultimate skill is fairly humorous, and the optional conversations with the characters add layers to them. Some of the cast is weirder than the other; there is an exaggerated muscular girl in the first game, whose abilities defy any reasonable expectation for a teenager. Another cast member in the second game called Gundham Tanaka claims to be a being from another dimension with great power. What makes it more comical is that Gundham is the Ultimate Breeder, and carries with him four hamsters that he calls the Four Dark Devas of Destruction.
Meanwhile, Monokuma is a hidden gem of great video game villains. He is mean, rude, and an overall horrible bear. His personality contradicts his semi-cutesy appearance, and his constant harassment of the characters makes him a joy to love to hate.
The playable protagonists in both games are pretty bland and generic, with Makoto Naegi from the first game acting the very stereotypical anime teen hero. Makoto essentially saves the day with his undying devotion to the idea of hope, which is able to overcome despair. Hajime Hinata from the second game is also kind of bland, though ends up having a more nuance character arc in the end. SPOILER ALERT It turns out that Hajime does not have an Ultimate Skill, and was part of a reserve course of Hope’s Peak Academy. The reserve course is where the students who paid to get in the academy go. Overcoming his insecurities and being able to look forward to the future makes it one of the most powerful moments in the games, making him a far more complicated character than Makoto ever was.
The main female leads in the games, Kyoko Kirigiri from 1 and Chiaki Nanami from 2, are overall better characters than the playable leads. They both aid the player tremendously, and have more interesting personalities. With all that said however, the best character in both games is probably the antagonistic Nagito Komaeda from the second game. Nagito is a parallel of Makoto – they are both Ultimate Luck Students, both winning a lottery to enter Hope’s Peak.
Like Makoto, Nagito believes in hope, but he believes in it so much that he constantly sabotages the trials in order to see whose hope will win out. He wants to see if the murder’s hope will be greater than the other students hope, so he often aids the killer to see if they can win out. He is always a step ahead of all the characters, and often chastises them for not being able to keep up. Despite that he always has a friendly face, and often says he has faith that the truest hope will win out in the end. He is also delusional, wanting to have a real talent other than luck and aims to be the Ultimate Hope, a title that Makoto would be labeled at the end of the first Danganronpa game.
Nagito’s goals aren’t too far off of what Makoto wanted in the first game, though Nagito takes it to a different extreme. Monokuma recognizes the similarities, comparing the two. Both characters even have the same voice actors in English and Japanese. It’s a clever way for the games to recognize the faults of Makoto’s personality, and deconstructs the stereotype of the typical male lead. Nagito was always evidently an antagonist, yet his lack of self-esteem and wanting to be more than the Ultimate Lucky Student is what makes him complex.
Having listened to the English audio of the games, I can say the voice over work is decent. There are a lot of flat deliveries, and even some flat performances. The mastermind at the end of both games is not nearly as over-the-top or outrageous as I would have prefer. I was also put off how the anime and the first game do not share the same English voice cast, especially since I prefer the English voice actor for Monokuma in the anime rather than in the game. There are some gems among the voice works – Johnny Yong Bosch shines as the lead of the second game, giving Hajime nuances and absolutely sells the motivational dialogue at the end of the game. Bryce Papenbrook gives a fairly generic performance as Makoto in the first game, nevertheless his performance as Nagito in the second game is great. The games’ soundtrack is also amazing with most of tunes being very catchy and memorable.
Since the game is mostly a light novel, story is the most important of it. I have had mix feelings of the games in terms of story, even though I do like it a lot. However I can never tell if the game is secretly a very smart game hidden under the silly characters and premise, or if it is game thinking it is smarter than it actually is. There is a lot of ridiculous dialogue, particularly from Monokuma, which makes it hard to take serious at times. The cartoony aesthetics and the pink blood are also distracting. The overall theme of hope versus despair is nowhere near subtle. It takes a very anime approach in terms of storytelling, with the story expressing the themes through very passionate dialogue and execution.
Still, I do believe the morals of the stories are expressed well within the narrative. The passion gets to me, and I do believe in what the story is trying to convey. There are general emotional moments in the games, and the ending of the second game is a particular highpoint in the game’s story. The first game may have a tighter story and a more grounded cast, the overall themes in the second game feel more complex than they did in the first game. The first game was straight forward with its approach of presenting the themes and conflicts, the second game added in more layers of the hope versus despair argument.
There are many cliché moments in the games, with many big moments in the game being solved through the power of hope and the faith of a better future. In spite of that, the second game more effectively shows why it is important to have hope in such dire times. Hajime and Chiaki’s final scenes in Chapter Six encapsulate the overall message that was present in the series since the first game, and Hajime’s big end game scene is very empowering. The ambiguity of second game’s ending also helps convey the message of hope, as the fate of the remaining survivors are left to the imagination of the player. There is enough hope to believe that everything ended up okay, which is probably what the game wanted to show.
There are moments in both games that I would rather watch than play, as many of the playable moments feel tedious. Nonetheless I enjoyed my time in this collection a great deal. Both games are fantastic, and what it lacks in subtlety, it more than makes up with how genuinely the games were in their message. While there is some padding, it helps create a world that is so uniquely weird, something you wouldn’t see normally in other games. It’s silly, it’s absurd, it may make you feel depress or it may make you have a more positive outlook on life. It is something you would only find in Danganronpa.