With visual novels experiencing something of a resurgence thanks to lovingly localised imports from Japan, more and more publishers are willing to reach out and experiment with niche products – especially if they already have a built-in audience. Dangan Ronpa found relative internet popularity thanks to fan-translated Let’s Plays on influential website SomethingAwful, and it seems likely NIS America have decided to port over this 2010 PSP title on the strength of that reputation. And we’re bloody glad they have, because it’s one hell of a ride.
Here’s the setup: a group of ‘ultimate’ students are trapped in the prestigious Hope’s Point Academy by someone controlling a sociopathic teddie bear and are forced into a deadly game of life and death. The only way to exit the game is to murder one of your competitors – and, crucially, to get away with it by surviving a ‘class trial’ without being correctly accused and declared guilty. If the class gets it right, only the murderer is executed; if they get it wrong, the villain walks and everybody else gets killed instead. Dangan Ronpa therefore splits the difference between Ace Attorney and Zero Escape, taking the pervasive fear and oppression of 999 and Virtue’s Last Reward and mashing it with the evidence-taking, contradiction-spotting legal shenanigans of Phoenix Wright. It works beautifully.
As a visual novel, Dangan Ronpa obviously lives or dies on the strength of its characters and story, and credit has to be given to the writer – and localiser – for turning something that appears on its surface to be a mishmash of anime clichés and tropes into an intense, gripping experience. Characters that initially appear one-note reveal hidden depths and secrets, and questions of trust and intention rear their ugly heads as you struggle to determine who is guilty or innocent or some weird grey area in between. More to the point, once you start playing you’ll find it very difficult to stop, because you’ll always be wondering: what happens next? Who’s next on the chopping block?
Unfortunately, Dangan Ronpa’s overall story is not as intricately plotted as the big-picture narratives of the Zero Escape series and in a sense relies a little too much on elements explained in further side-story materials. Nor does the ultimate conclusion of the game feel as cathartic as the best that the Ace Attorney series has to offer, for the most part. Nonetheless, it’s definitely no slouch in story terms, with shocking twists and turns throughout and a pleasing variety of deadly murder mysteries to solve.
Dangan Ronpa features probably some of the slickest visual and audio presentation we’ve seen in a visual novel to date. Think of it like a dark, twisted version of Persona 4 Golden; the game oozes a disturbing, creepy, but always straight-up cool sense of style. From the razor-sharp UI or the neon-pink blood, to the flat paper-cut-out characters and the pervasive, vaguely deformed, semi-painted artstyle, to the way a room loads as if it were an animated gif for Aperture Science or the willingness to suddenly deep-dive into an 8-bit world. Everything about Dangan Ronpa just exudes a weirdly compelling, slightly unearthly charm, especially its incredibly intense execution scenes that do a lot with very little ‘real’ animation.
The game’s soundtrack is likewise extremely strong, with a heavy emphasis on beat-heavy jazzy or electronic elements and vocal samples to bring a maniacal flare to the game’s soundtrack of despair. Songs range from edgy high-tension electronica to intense dance/trance/trip-hop to bright, cheerful futuristic music all the way to haunting ambient soundscapes. Oddly catchy, often intensely suspenseful and always well-utilised, Masafumi Takada’s offerings do much to enhance an already incredibly stressful experience.
For purists, Dangan Ronpa offers a choice between the original Japanese or English voice actors. As is standard, not every line is voiced – short vocal barks that can get repetitive is the order of the day for the majority of the game – but those that are voiced are generally well done in both languages, especially as characters begin to break down throughout the deadly class trials.
There’s a few phases to Dangan Ronpa, but you’ll be spending the majority of your time in visual novel mode, pressing a button to scroll through pages of text – hey, that’s what you signed up for.
Free time is spent social linking with fellow students, levelling up relationships to reveal backstories and unlock abilities to use during the other phases of the game; Investigation phases are your standard click-on-nodes-on-the-map-to-gather-evidence kind of thing. Where differences kick in is during the class trials, which consist of a number of minigames that represent the ebb and flow of a deadly debate.
These minigames differentiate the series significantly from the calmer, more cerebral Ace Attorney style of argument, with a time limit and reaction-time requirements putting pressure on the player. However, they can also be intense irritants when you, as a player, have already realised the solution to a puzzle but can’t determine what the game logic requires of you in order to express it. Probably the best minigame is the closing statement, which tasks you with recreating a comic-book version of a series of events to sum up a case; however, even here, a complete lack of labelling indicating what is happening in any given panel can annoy.
Perhaps as a consequence of this higher-tension climax, Dangan Ronpa’s cases feel perhaps a tad too easy to solve; it’s very likely that observant players may determine whodunit before even beginning the trial phase. To compound this weakness, various characters have a tendency to laboriously hint at solutions throughout, robbing players of the pure satisfaction of coming to an insane but plausible conclusion themselves. It doesn’t ruin the experience, but it certainly doesn’t accentuate it either. Nonetheless, on the whole, it still proves enjoyable to work out precisely really what’s happened.