There are certain pieces of media I will praise which I feel the need to partially explain with my concept of the High School Angst Factor. The most emblematic work of this particular niche is the film Donnie Darko. Its view of life and human relationships are absolutely juvenile, but it all works perfectly if you take the film as an exaggerated embodiment of the lonely teen experience. The problem is, most people refuse to take teenagers seriously, and thus look down on these works which attempt to confront those heightened emotions. These are the works that ask, “what if high school really was as bad as your anxiety led you to believe?”
The Danganronpa series works within this same exaggerated structure. For many of us, high school was an emotional battleground. Some of us were bullied for immutable traits, others hid struggles at home, while those who led the gossip were constantly aware how easy those words could be turned against them. At the heart of the series is a predatory force who abuses their knowledge to manipulate others into harming one another.
Danganronpa 2 works so much better than the other two games in its series largely due to the cast. The first game rapidly chews through a third of its cast before you ever truly connect with them, and most remain underdeveloped. The characters in the third game are too exaggerated to connect with – this may be intentional, but that still lessens the emotional impact. The characters in Danganronpa 2 balance on the line between absurdity and believability, adding up to what just might be my favorite ensemble cast in any video game. The other games in this series hooked me with their central mystery. In Danganronpa 2, I became so attached to these characters that I truly dreaded progression.
The bellweather character of Danganronpa 2 is Gundham Tanaka. On the surface, he’s the most bizarre member of the cast. Gundham dresses in gothic fashion and constantly speaks of himself as an evil overlord. Yet he’s not the ‘Ultimate Sorcerer’ or whatever you might imagine. No, he’s the Ultimate Animal Breeder. The more he speaks, the clearer it becomes that his behavior is a defense mechanism for his underdeveloped social skills. He’s that awkward kid who understands animals better than people and knows certain abrasive behavior will turn people away. Under all the more extreme characters is a meaningful explanation to ground them – except maybe Ibuki, who really appears to be a hyperactive yet loveable goofball.
The central trinity of Hajime Hinata, Chiaki Nanami, and Nagito Komaeda is quickly made apparent. In many ways, Danganronpa 2 is a deconstruction of the simplistic theme of the original game, which pitted hope against despair. In contrast to the optimism of the first protagonist, Hajime Hinata remains largely cynical throughout. Meanwhile, a central problem in the original game is that one character guided most of the investigation. Chiaki takes on a similar narrative role, but her lack of expertise gives other characters more room to speak. In many ways, she simply acts as a calming agent among everyone else’s panic. And like the protagonist of the first game, Nagito Komaeda is the Ultimate Lucky Student. He clearly strives to be the embodiment of the shallow ‘hope’ which overwhelmed the original game’s message, which obviously annoys the more cynical Hajime.
Like most games of this type, it can be difficult to discuss without spoilers. While I will not discuss anything beyond the first trial in detail, too much of Danganronpa 2’s spirit relies on a twist during the first trial. Thus, the next two paragraphs will freely discuss that revelation (so feel free to skip below the picture if you aim to avoid spoilers).
Halfway through the first trial, it becomes apparent that Nagito Komaeda set everything up in the hope that he would be murdered. In his frenzy, he explains his twisted desire to be a stepping stone for everyone else. Danganronpa 2 posits hope as a negative delusional energy which thrives in moments of despair – to create a need for hope, Nagito intentionally drags his fellow students into despair. Even Nagito’s label as the Ultimate Lucky Student is corrupted in a similar fashion – his unnatural luck has more to do with surviving awful predicaments, which naturally requires him to constantly be put in horrid situations. After a lifetime of this perpetual torment, it makes sense his view of hope and despair are so entangled.
This twist adds a lingering internal tension which the other games lack. All of these games have a clear external agent serving as a puppetmaster, but Danganronpa 2 is smart enough to include a blatant antagonist among the central cast. Hajime acts as a perfect foil to Nagito’s nonsense – in such an awful situation, one can’t fall back on mere hope.
Much like the cast, each of the six cases are better than anything from the original game. The chemistry between these characters makes this possible. Even when cases tread familiar ground from the first game, they work so much better because you’ll inevitably be pointing a finger at a character you actually like. While it’s easy to compare this series to Ace Attorney, keeping each case focused around the same set of characters adds extra emotional potential. This culminates in the fifth case – no other video game moment has hit me so hard. It’s something which simply needs to be experienced, a disarming mystery only Danganronpa could pull off through all its twisted logic and rules.
Which, I have gone all this time talking about the narrative. But like Ace Attorney, the gameplay is the narrative. Making sense of these various characters and their potential motivations is key to solving these mysteries. One of the fun ways to compare the two series is how, in each Ace Attorney game, the cast tends to get bigger with each case. More characters means more suspects. Danganronpa works in reverse. One might think the shrinking cast would make the mysteries easier to solve, but there were few moments in the second game where I identified the murderer until right before the game prompted the final accusation. These are well-crafted mysteries with dozens of stunning “a-ha” moments – and a few other moments where proving the truth feels like a sinister but necessary act. Survival has rarely felt so numbing.
Like its characters, Danganronpa 2 hides some serious emotional depth beneath an aggressively stylized exterior. Video games are the perfect medium for mysteries, and this game with its island setting is a magnificent evolution of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None. Looking past the aesthetic can be hard – even as a huge fan of Phoenix Wright, I spent years overlooking this series because its thematic content appeared exploitative. I assumed from the edgy presentation that this is a series where death came cheap. This may have been true in the original. But in Danganronpa 2, each and every death carries weight. Plenty of stories have copied Battle Royale, but Danganronpa 2 is the first since the original book to really treat all of its characters like individuals with their own dreams for the future. While this may appear a hokey high school horror on its surface, at its core is a deeply upsetting tragedy.