Developer: Spike Chunsoft
Publisher: Spike Chunsoft, NIS America
Reviewed for : Vita
Played: 40+ Hours
With Danganronpa V3: Killing Harmony, Spike Chunsoft delivers an explosive and somewhat divisive third entry in the Danganronpa series. Without spoilers, its kind of hard to describe just exactly why this game is so controversial amongst longtime fans. I wont spoil anything here, but V3 stands out as one of the best visual novels on the market due to its impeccable writing, despite ultimately falling short of true greatness due to its clunky gameplay mechanics and some pacing issues around the middle.
For newcomers, the basic concept of Danganronpa goes something like this: Sixteen Ultimate students are imprisoned together and forced into a killing game. To escape, a student needs to kill one of their fellows and get away with it. The flip side of this is that if the “blackened” (the murderer) does succeed, everyone else will be executed instead. Once a body has been discovered, a class trial will ensue after an investigation period. During this trial, the player engages in a bunch of mini games and shoot “truth bullets” at key phrases to progress the plot. All of this is overseen by the maniacal series mascot Monokuma, a monochromatic bear that presides over this crazy kangaroo court, dolling out his own dark brand of justice. In V3, he is joined by his evil offspring, the Monocubs.
If all of that sounds like a lot to take on, its because it is. Danganronpa has always been insane, but that’s part of the charm. Take for instance the Ultimate’s themselves. These students have hyper advanced skills in their chosen fields, whether it makes sense or not. From the Ultimate Anthropologist to the Ultimate Tennis Pro to the Ultimate Supreme Leader, each character is wildly colourful and has a lot of personality, even if their Ultimate abilities don’t actually come up thematically or in gameplay a whole lot.
But where V3 really sells itself and its twisted world is in its aforementioned writing, which is really top notch. From the characters themselves, to the twists and turns of each of the murders and the ultimate reveals of the overarching plot itself, Danganronpa is rarely predictable, V3 in particular. Unfortunately, at least for me personally, the big twist of this entry falls a little flat, which was kind of disappointing. The narrative had me completely enthralled for around 35 hours, but sadly lost me with a reveal that I didn’t quite feel was earned, either through the narrative buildup or by the groundwork laid by past entries in the series. Now, that last point is totally subjective, I respect what the devs where going for, it just didn’t entirely work for me. I think they should be applauded for the risks they took though, as it may be one of the most ambitious endings to a piece of media I’ve yet seen, and very unique to the medium of video games.
Well done, too, is the dialogue of characters during the free time events that occurs several times in a chapter. These give the player a chance to learn more about the other Ultimates, and if you spend enough time with a certain character you will unlock a Friendship Fragment, which can be used to buy skills for the various mini games used in class trials. I appreciated getting to know more about the other characters in the game, not only because they are all interesting, but because in hindsight some of them foreshadow future events. Remember, some of these people will commit murder, while others are potential victims. These relationships are on a timer, without explicit time limits!
I wish I could heap praise on the aforementioned mini games as well, but sadly these have always been the series weak point. I really wish that the Danganronpa games of the future would just get rid of them all entirely, they really bring nothing to the table and actually take away from the product as a whole. It would be fine if these were a once off thing, but you end up doing each one several times per trial. Spread out over the games six trials, and you’re looking at hours of awful mini games just to advance the narrative. I think, of all of them, the Non-Stop Debate is probably the best, because it has a sort of narrative focus. Characters will chime in and throw dialogue at you, and you need to “shoot” a certain phrase to either agree or disagree with that character. This is actually where the series gets its name, Dangan (bullet) Ronpa (refutation). I’ve seen it translated literally as ”winning an argument with a bullet”, which I think is pretty cool. New to the series is the ability to lie during these encounters, which ends up being thematically quite resonant with the overall story, but only occurs a handful of times.
The games best character. Sadistic, psychotic, and incredibly entertaining!
Less cool, segway, are the other mini games. Hangman’s Gambit is literally just the word game Hangman that we all played in primary school, but you pick out moving letters with the help of a sonar. There is a minesweeper-esque mini game that is forgettable at best. Another new section is the Debate Scrum, in which two sides will face off over a point of contention by way of a word association game. Again, if that sounds interesting, it might be the first time you do it, but quickly wears out its welcome, like an unwanted house guest that moves in to your spare bedroom when you weren’t looking. But the most egregious of all is Psyche Taxi. I would audibly groan whenever this one popped up, as it meant I would be spending the next several minutes of my life driving a taxi that controls poorly down a neon stretch of highway gathering orbs that represented part of a phrase the game was trying to spell out. Its not that this segment is bad per se, it is just so aggressively bland that it might as well have not existed. Oh, and when you spell out the word you run over women who then climb into the taxi with you. Again, just unnecessary.
And despite spending so much of your playtime slogging through the boring mini games, Danganronpa V3 is, as a whole, better than the sum of its parts. While it would invariably be a better title without the dead weight of the series baggage, would it still be Danganronpa? That’s not for me to say. What I will say is that V3’s strength’s far outweigh its weaknesses, its narrative is compelling and somewhat controversial. It rewards its players with a well crafted story, and I couldn’t wait to find out what would happen next.