A few days ago, the incredibly fine folks over at Project Zetsubou released their fan translation of the 2010 PSP visual novel/mystery game Dangan Ronpa (developed and published by Spike) that has only been officially released in Japan. I had not heard of the game until a couple of months ago when my wife played through a Chinese fan translation. As a fan of the Ace Attorney series, I was intrigued by the gameplay and concept, so I’ve been waiting patiently for this fantastic game to finally be playable in a language I know. That all being said, here’s my quick review of the game.
Dangan Ronpa is a game that takes place inside of a school for the best and the brightest, with nearly every student excelling at a specific skill such as a sport, computer programming, or writing. The number of students admitted to the school is very small, just a bit more than a dozen. The main character has no particular skill and is only average in all school subjects, but one student is drawn randomly from a pool of average students from across Japan. Upon arriving, things are not what they seem from the very beginning, and you find yourself in a sort of twisted game in which the students are told by a remote-controlled teddy bear that only one of them can “graduate” and leave the school if that person is able to murder a fellow student and successfully trick the other students into placing the blame on someone else during the “Class Trial” that takes place after each murder. If someone does commit a murder and is found guilty, that person is executed, and the rest of the students can go on living in the “school”. If the Class Trial finds the wrong person guilty, then everyone but the murderer is executed, and he or she is free to leave.
Your task in the game is to get to know the other students, try to get them to work together, solve the murders, explore the locked-down school, and discover the mysteries behind the person or people running the twisted game.
While I’m sure there are tons of other great games that play out similarly to Ace Attorney and Dangan Ronpa, I have generally steered away from the “click on everything and talk to everyone in order to progress the story” visual novels that permeate the Japanese market, and I was worried that this might be the case with DR since it is basically a murder mystery game. However, the gameplay mixes things up enough that there are hardly any dull moments. Sometimes you are given a specific goal such as to find out where something or someone is hiding. Others you are free to roam about the school to building to build relationships with other students or just explore. Most of your time outside of the Class Trials will be spent, however, investigating murders and having informal meetings with the rest of the students.
This all takes place through a conventional first person perspective where clicking on another character will bring them into the foreground, and you can listen to what they have to say or ask them questions. Clicking on various objects around the school will add them to your “ammunition” which are used during the trials. After a dead body is found, you are given an amount of time to investigate and try to determine who the murderer is. There’s no actual time limit to the investigation, and there was never a time in which I simply didn’t know what to do. The pacing of the game allows for you to kind of learn the flow of the investigations as you go, and, while it doesn’t hold your hand all the time and always tell you where to go, it does occasionally give strong hints, and you usually can’t leave a room until you have examined everything there of importance.
After you have done a thorough investigation, the start of a Class Trial is announced. Coming from the Ace Attorney series, I expected the trials to play out as similarly to that series as the investigations do. While there are some elements that are borrowed, especially during the Nonstop Debate, the trials in Dangan Ronpa are a combination of several different gameplay types that mostly work. Nonstop Debates have you firing ammunition (in the form of evidence or testimonials) to contradict what people are saying. Machinegun Talk Battles act as very simple rhythm games in which you have to keep up with your opponent’s barrage of useless banter. Epiphany Anagrams have you spell out words by shooting the letters as they fly across the screen. Climax Logic has you put together a manga/comic that gives a rough timeline of the events of the murder. Of these, I feel like the MTBs were a bit too easy, and the Epiphany Anagrams probably work better in Japanese than they do in English. In one particular instance, the answer was an abbreviation of a longer phrase that was confusing at first.
As you go through the story and unlock more areas of the school to explore, the mysteries get more complicated and new elements are addded to the investigations and trials. The pacing of this is pretty spot-on, although I did feel like the 3rd chapter was more complicated and required a bit more work to piece together than the 4th. This is, of course, a very minor quibble, and there’s no particular reason other than general video game difficulty curves for the order of events to be so convenient.
The gameplay overall is solid, but there are a few questionable choices such as using the control stick to move around and the dpad to look around. Others, as mentioned earlier, are the less-than-stellar Machinegun Talk Battles and Epiphany Anagrams. These do not detract from the overall experience, however. If you are familiar and comfortable with the Ace Attorney games or even the daytime elements of Persona, then you should feel right at home, except this home is a bit more action-oriented.
The music and art direction set this game apart from other murder mystery games which tend to be dark in tone, color, and atmosphere. Dangan Ronpa is full of upbeat music, funny dialogue, great character designs, and a high contrast color palette that is both creepy and cheerful. Every time you enter a room, the floors, ceiling, furniture, and characters fly onto the screen from every direction and form a pop-up book or diorama style 2D/3D hybrid that is truly unique. Even rooms I had gone into dozens of times still occasionally caught me off guard with plenty of little details and stuff to examine that I didn’t notice before.
During certain moments, the game shows still image close ups that let you admire the truly distinct characters and environments. At other times, there are full-blown CGI movies that play. Most of the time, you are looking at the different rooms throughout the school, which are all well-designed and distinct from each other, the hallways, which are a bit less exciting than the rest of the visual elements – especially since you’ll usually have your map overlaying the screen, or character art of the student you are talking to.
While I would never play a visual novel to be wowed by the presentation, I find little to complain about with this game. It’s got a style all of its own, and the characters are some of the best designed anime/manga style people I have ever seen in a game.The voice acting is fantastic, with each character’s personality really coming through the Japanese VO, and the translation by Project Zetsubou is nearly flawless. Add all of that with some great music (which can be played outside of the main game in the extras menu), and you have a game that bleeds style.
I am keeping this as spoiler-free as possible (although my overview does admittedly spoil the premise), so this section will be short. To put it simply, the story is very hard to predict but is explained well enough that you never feel like it is using cheap tricks to justify the twists or surprises. Every new chapter brings more questions than answers, and I found myself staying up far later each night than the previous for the past three days as I could not wait to find out what happens next. Generally, I am very critical of the stories in video games, and I tend to play games in which the story is not the main draw, such as puzzle games, fighters, and platformers. That being said, I found the story of Dangan Ronpa to be a great mix of serious and whimsical. Every character is well developed (especially if you take the time to speak with them during “free time”), and the game does not have a single weak chapter. If you enjoy stories that combine mystery, deception, betrayal, diverse characters, and teddy bears, then I highly recommend the game.
Dangan Ronpa has unique story gameplay, story, and stylistic elements that set it apart from other games in the visual novel genre. I can’t say it’s better than my absolute favorite game of this type (Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney: Trials and Tribulations), but it is the first game in a long time that has left me wanting more once I finished it. Often, I feel more of an obligation to finish out a story-based game once I’m about 2/3 of the way through because, by then, I’m probably tired of the gameplay or have already figured out the rest of the story. Dangan Ronpa has only made me wish I had waiting until the novel and sequel were already translated because I cannot stand to only know part of the story.