2014 looks to be a grand year for Sony’s latest handheld. Having just celebrated its second anniversary, the console now plays host to a diverse catalogue of games, one of the most recent being Spike Chunsoft’s DanganRonpa.
Along with hits such as Toukiden and Ys: Memories of Celeta, this remastered cult hit proves just how refreshing Japanese imports are in a market dominated by the predictable and risk-free.
Falling under the “visual novel” category of videogame, much of DanganRonpa’s success derives from its core focus on narrative and characters. Comparable games include 2012’s Virtue’s Last Reward and, perhaps more noticeably, Capcom’s popular Ace Attorney series. Heavy on dialogue and exposition, its really only the content of their stories that separate them, along with whatever amalgam of mechanics they use to form any semblance of actual gameplay.
In DanganRonpa, players adopt the role of Makoto Naegi, an everyday average student who is the given the opportunity of a lifetime. From out of the blue he is invited to attend Hope’s Peak Academy, an elite institution that takes on only the best candidates. With his golden ticket, Makoto decides to enroll but, as players soon discover, this isn’t one of those Charlie and the Chocolate Factory kind of stories.
Having been drugged, you find yourself in a classroom with the windows covered by thick sheets of metal bolted to the frame. When Makoto spots a monitor and camera he realises that something is amiss.
After a little exploration, the pieces of the jigsaw finally fall into place upon discovering the fourteen other students. Each one is either famous or excels in a particular skill, including the “Ultimate” Programmer, Fashionista, Baseball Player, Affluent Progeny, and more. It turns out that you have been chosen as the “Ulimate Lucky Student” in what soon becomes a twisted game of hope and despair.
From out of nowhere comes Monokuma, DanganRonpa’s two-toned, potty-mouthed antagonist. The animated teddy bear lays out the regulations of an elaborate experiment in which only one student will survive. Winning the game is simple -in a convoluted sort of way – with the victor being he/she who commits a murder and somehow manages to evade detection.
Upon killing a classmate, a candidate becomes “blackened” at which point a trial is convened. If the student cannot determine who the murderer is – or gets it wrong – then they will all die, allowing the culprit to walk free. Guess right, however, and the killer is treated to an imaginative, albeit fatal, punishment.
As touched on before, DanganRonpa doesn’t shy away from huge amounts of dialogue. For up to twenty minutes players can often find themselves flicking through walls of text as characters converse. Luckily, due to its morbidly magnificent premise and characters, this never really becomes and issue. Of course the game will feel like a drag from time to time, yet this is mostly dispelled by the quality of dialogue and how well-written the characters are.
Each one conforms to a certain stereotype. For example, the Ultimate Bike Gang Leader is overpowering and quick to annoy, while the Ultimate Fanfic Writer is podgy, awkward, and gagging to whip out a reference wherever he can. Though seemingly transparent at first, these characteristics begin to change as the students open up to one another. Backstories soon unfold and you’ll no doubt warm up to one or two favourites.
When not sifting through text boxes, you’ll either be wandering the halls of Hope’s Peak academy or engaging in class trials. The former is done in 3D with players using the sticks to navigate as you would do in a first person shooter. Upon entering a room, however, you only given control over the camera as you highlight and trigger certain objects and characters, usually when trying to find clues.
Each one is compiled in the player’s trusty e-Handbook as “Truth Bullets”. The link may seem tenuous but the only part of the game in which DanganRonpa’s full title becomes relevant is during the trials.
Here, you will go through a series of different mini-games to determine the “blackened”. The most common of these are the Nonstop Debates. A series of characters will each give statements, one of which holds a contradiction. Using the Truth Bullet(s) loaded in the chamber, players must determine where the contradiction lies by literally shooting at the text as it appears. A timer is also present, as is a health bar which depletes with every mistake. Luckily, these sequences are replayed over and over, allowing you to read statements again instead of making random guesses.
Other mini-games include a quickfire version of hangman as well as a rhythm game and interactive comic builder. They may feel a little out of place yet work just fine and sure beat having to sit through even more text with occasional multiple choice quest here and there.
A solid Manga art-style permeates the entire games and never really gets old despite visiting the same locations and characters over and over. The background music also helps to the sell the package, matching the game’s fluctuating sense of atmosphere. The only downside is the absence of full voiceovers though, given the amount of dialogue on show, it’s not surprising that the localisation team kept it to just the class trials.
Whether or not a player will like DanganRonpa hinges almost entirely on how well they connect with both the story and its characters. If you can’t get behind the Anime-like over-dramatisation and occasional bit of weirdness, chances are you’ll switch off within five minutes.
For those who have the patience, however, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a visual novel as consistent on PlayStation Vita.