Publisher: NIS America
Developer: Spike Chunsoft
At the tail end of the Noughties, Spike was having a crisis of creativity. Having spent a couple of years releasing sequels and updates, the Japanese developer decided to introduce an original game for the first time in a while. The Sony PSP was chosen as the target platform, as it was cheap to develop for and had an audience considered receptive to new ideas.
A notable concept called Distrust sprang from Kazutaka Kodaka, who proposed a mystery set in a high school, featuring trials and executions. The initial prototypes of this visual novel adopted a straight horror theme that was considered too gruesome – the antagonist was a man missing half of his skin and the environments were gritty and splattered with blood. Worried that sales would suffer as a result of this overly dark tone, Spike reworked the Distrust concept into Danganronpa, a visual novel which shared many common gameplay themes with Capcom’s famed Ace Attorney series.
Despite Spike having had designs on an English language release, the game wasn’t finished until 2010, which scuppered the chances of a viable localisation due to the decline of the PSP market in the West. However, the game picked up popularity outside of Japan thanks to the dedicated fans discovering the game on forums and subsequent unofficial translation efforts, leading to an official localisation of the PlayStation Vita version in 2014.
Danganronpa is a visual novel game with strong puzzle elements. Much like the Ace Attorney games, Danganronpa presents you with a series of murders to solve. These cases are divided into investigation sections, in which you search crime scenes for evidence, and trial sections where you use that evidence to reveal the identity of the killer.
However, in Danganronpa you play the part of Makoto Naegi – an ordinary boy chosen by lottery to attend Hope’s Peak Academy, a high school that only accepts students of prodigious talent. You arrive on the first day only to find yourself locked into the school by the “headmaster” Monokuma, a two-tone stuffed bear who stipulates a series of rules. The first is that you must live in the school until you graduate. The second is that if you wish to graduate, you must murder one of your fellow students. The last is that your success in graduating will be determined by class trial. If your classmates fail to identify you, you go free and they will all be executed. If they succeed, you alone will be executed.
Initial attempts at cooperation to find a way out of the school are inevitably doomed to failure, thanks to Monokuma’s “helpful” provision of motives, and soon the killings begin. Your classmates include students with conventional talents, such as the novelist Toko Fukawa and the programmer Chihiro Fujisaki, as well as those with offbeat skills such as the fortune teller Yasuhiro Hagakure and the fan fiction writer Hifumi Yamada. Some of these will factor into cases, but each character also has hidden depths that will be revealed through the course of the game.
Investigation scenes are simple point-and-click affairs, and the real meat of the game comes in trial scenes. During the Non-Stop Debate sections students will talk over one another, and you shoot down contradictions with “truth bullets” (evidence, in actuality). Other sections include the Hangman’s Gambit, in which you try to piece together a key word relating to the case, Bullet Time Battle, a rhythm action game in which you ride out the desperate assertions of a key witness, and a concluding section in which you piece together comic book panels to establish the true events of the case. Though characters are represented with static 2D art, clever camera direction and a strong soundtrack ensures that proceedings feel suitably dramatic. Character executions are presented as FMV sequences, and they’re certainly memorable – mostly for their humour.
As the number of students dwindles and despair sets in, your ultimate goal is to find out the true identity of the mastermind behind Monokuma, as well as the reason that you’ve been trapped inside the school. The key question is how many Hope’s Peak students will survive to learn the truth…
Why It’s A Future Classic
Although the visual novel genre first broke through in the West on the Nintendo DS, the Vita is the first system to offer a really robust selection of English language releases, and Danganronpa will be remembered as one of the most engaging examples of the form. The puzzles are well constructed, if sometimes slightly too obvious (a point addressed in the sequel), and the presentation is much more exciting than in similar games thanks to strong visual style – the distinctive character designs, strong camera direction and striking executions all serve to make the game a joy to look at.
What’s more, the game is a genuinely funny and well-written one, which is rare in any era. The cast is easy to become attached to thanks to strong writing and outlandish scenes, a fact which makes the character deaths that much more gut wrenching when they do come, and you’ll constantly be kept guessing as to which way the plot will turn next. The lack of alternative endings means you’ll probably only play it once, but you’ll definitely never forget it.