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?