Though classified under the wider visual novel umbrella, Danganronpa is far from an experience where you press a button to forward the plot. Danganronpa owes much of its existence to the Ace Attorney series, where plucky lawyer Phoenix Wright defends the innocent from a nightmarish justice system. Where Ace Attorney tends to balance playfulness and gravity, Danganronpa acts as the cynical and edgy younger sibling.
The situation in each game is immediately dire. A high school class finds themselves kidnapped by an evil bear named Monokuma. Taking inspiration from Battle Royale, the class is forced to kill one another. Where it differs is that Danganronpa avoids a simple killing spree by shifting the focus to getting away with murder. To escape, a student must kill and then avoid being caught by their classmates during a ‘class trial.’ Those who fail are executed in an excruciating and thematically relevant fashion.
What makes these games such compelling mysteries is the limited cast. By taking elements from the dating sim subgenre, you are given several opportunities to spend one-on-one time with characters between cases. Thus, these aren’t just random characters being brought in only as they become relevant. By spending the entire game with this same cast, every new death carries weight. With each new case knocking out both the victim and killer, the cast is ultimately reduced to only a handful. With such a colorful cast of characters, this can be devastating.
Danganronpa makes effective use of archetypes. None of these are ordinary teenagers. All of them have exceptional skills and have been granted the ‘ultimate’ label. The protagonist here, Kaede Akamatsu, is the Ultimate Pianist. Others include the Ultimate Entomologist and the Ultimate Cosplayer. Archetypes allow the player to immediately get a sense of this gigantic cast. More importantly, stark archetypes leave room for striking subversions during the cases.
Danganronpa V3 builds upon the gameplay of the earlier games. Where the original is all about pointing out lies and the second introduced the ability to support claims, V3 introduces the option to tell your own lies. What differentiates this from Ace Attorney is that these are not true legal cases; the killer is already known due to Monokuma’s constant surveillance, so he is only looking for the class to correctly identify that person. In V3, the player must use whatever means necessary.
Additionally, these games are just stylish. Instead of the straightforward presentation of Ace Attorney, dialogue during the class trials is a chaotic mess. People speak over one another, and the difficulty of drawing attention to a specific statement involves literally shooting through the background noise. Even with unmoving sprites, the game manages a feeling of constant motion during the trials.
To discuss what makes this entry so grand involves going into specifics. Due to the nature of its plot, discussing anything beyond the introduction can spoil the experience. Being a mystery game, I heavily suggest stopping here if you have any interest – I will be spoiling everything.
Again, these following paragraphs will spoil everything, including a few references to earlier games in the franchise; mysteries like these need to be experienced blind (In fact, don’t even look these games up – I had the first game spoiled due to a simple search).
The Danganronpa franchise is built around the idea of a limited cast where literally anyone can die. While there may be shades of plot armor in the first game with two of the survivors being rather obvious, the second made sure to subvert those expectations. V3 does this immediately.
Earlier, I had to falsely claim the protagonist was Ultimate Pianist Kaede Akamatsu. Halfway through the first case, you are presented with the familiar option of choosing the killer. As you consider the options, the truth begins to dawn; she has been the killer all along. Once she accuses herself, the game shifts perspective to Ultimate Detective Shuichi Saihara. With the first victim having an unknown Ultimate ability, V3 dared to eliminate two of the most intriguing characters right off the bat. Anything goes.
In fact, V3 goes to great lengths to pull the rug out from under the player again and again. This is not limited to the mysteries. Where the previous execution scenes were largely playful besides the very first (a remnant predating the decision to make the series darkly humorous instead of bleak – something like this would be nauseating with the wrong tone), Kaede’s death is horrific. Besides the moments where you stumble across the body, the earlier Danganronpa games rarely try to disturb the player. There are moments in V3 which are uncharacteristically exploitative.
At the same time, there’s something about V3 which feels too familiar. The middle cases seem to hit the same plot beats as the earlier entries. Even the subversive fifth case, the first in the series where Monokuma is as clueless as the rest of the cast and even the victim is unknown, revolves around characters in the same general roles as those involved in Danganronpa 2’s fifth case.
This all leads into one of gaming’s most controversial endings (at least for those who have experienced it). As usual, the finale revolves around identifying the mastermind behind Monokuma. The revelation that Kaede actually wasn’t the first killer is somehow immediately overshadowed by a bigger revelation; the mastermind actually says the title. ‘Danganronpa’ is nonsense, translated as ‘Bullet Refutation.’ It describes the series but never has reason to be spoken within the narrative. Never has a title drop been more jarring.
When the game was announced, ‘V3’ seemed a necessity to differentiate it from an anime sequel to the first two games titled ‘Danganronpa 3.’ That, too, turns out to be part of the meta-experience – the ‘V’ is actually a roman numeral; this is the 53rd Danganronpa in the nightmare universe where this game is set. Instead of being a direct follow-up to the earlier works, Danganronpa V3 imagines a world where the Danganronpa video games became a bigger hit than The Beatles and evolved into an exploitive reality show. All of the characters are sacrificial actors with implanted memories.
This serves one grand purpose which is easy to misunderstand. Playing Danganronpa offers a macabre pleasure, and this fourth-wall breaking finale allows the characters to directly confront the player through their interactions with the show’s audience. What sick monsters are we to enjoy repeatedly watching this same scenario play out over and over? Many reacted to this ending as if the game was pointing an accusatory finger; but we are not the same as this audience who devolved into demanding actual killing. The game never offers a firm explanation, but that’s because we as the players should be able to answer ourselves.
So I should close this out by answering that question; if I’m not some sick monster, why do I enjoy something as macabre as Danganronpa? It’s the same reason I play any other video game, to face off against adversity in a controlled environment. Danganronpa specifically captures the feeling of loss in a safe manner. Due to its structure, the connections to these bizarre characters feel stronger than almost every other franchise. To play a video game involves being more than a passive audience. I don’t play Danganronpa because I want to watch these characters die. I play Danganronpa because I want to help guide those remaining to safety.