Platforms: PS4 (reviewed), PS Vita, PC
Danganronpa is one of the weirdest puzzle franchises to come out of Japan in a long time. The franchise traps sixteen kidnapped highschoolers , each with an “ultimate” talent, in a deadly game, where they’re tasked with committing a murder and getting away with It. Their reward? Their freedom.
It’s up to you to investigate crime scenes, sift through evidence, and participate in debates, while simultaneously strengthening your bonds with your classmates and winning mini-games. It’s like Phoenix Wright meets Battle Royale, meets Persona, meets Wario Ware, and it’s exactly as crazy as it sounds.
A Puzzling Franchise
The Danganronpa franchise has exploded in the past few years. We’ve seen shooters, dating games, mobile games, anime spin-offs, and even VR titles. But the latest entry in the series, Danganronpa V3: Killing Harmony, is a return to form. Once again we are following a group of high-schoolers trapped in a school and forced to murder each other. We won’t see them traveling to far off destinations like they did in Dangaronpa 2, and we won’t see any combat like we did in Danganronpa Another Episode. Everything is scaled down to provide a stronger focus on the characters and their murder mysteries.
The action of Danganronpa V3 largely mirrors Danganronpa 1, as it’s broken up into similar segments. The first is “free time,” where you will talk with your fellow students, learn their backstories, and earn friendship fragments for doing so. You can then spend these fragments for special abilities that aid you in other parts of the game. The next is “deadly life,” which occurs after a murder has taken place. This is essentially a point-and-click investigation which has you examining crime scenes for evidence, talking to witnesses, and preparing yourself for the next phase, the Class Trial. Here you’ll debate with your fellow students; find contradictions in their testimonies, present evidence, and seek out the truth.
It’s the Class Trials that feel newest in Danganronpa V3. A number of new debate styles have been added to the game. Panic debates have you scrambling to sort through the testimonies of multiple students at once. Debate scrums split the students up into teams that all debate at once. Instead of simply contradicting or agreeing with testimony, you can now lie and fabricate evidence in normal debates. Skillful lying will even open up alternate paths in the narrative. There are also a number of new debate mini-games including driving games, platformers, puzzle games, and more.
Danganronpa V3’s biggest problem is its pacing. It takes two hours to get through the prologue, and over five hours to get to the first class trial. Some trials are over three hours long. That’s a long time to be solving puzzles. It’s mentally exhausting. There’s also a ton of fluff and exposition that does little to further the plot, establish characters, or give you important information about an investigation. It’s just there to pad for time. It’s such obvious padding that Monokuma actually points it out at the beginning of the game.
It feels like all this filler was added on purpose just to torture the player.
This is where it becomes difficult to continue describing the game. I’m going to discuss the plot in detail, and while I won’t give away specific spoilers, I will speak about the overall tone and goals of the narrative.
This is your last warning.
Dangaronpa V3 loves to screw with its player. The Danganronpa series has always been obsessed with despair, but while prior entries attempted to instill despair in their cast of characters, DGRV3 wants to push it on the player.
No matter what you think the plot is about, it’s not. There are a million red herrings and fake outs. The demo? That was a false lead. Official marketing details? Misdirection. Leaks about the ending? Bait and switch. Spike Chunsoft set up a tangled web of misinformation to make sure that they could surprise you at every turn.
Yet these surprises are never satisfying. No one is who they seem, but no one is who you want them to be either. Important and interesting characters are set up just to be killed off, playing no bigger role in the plot. Massive backstories are handed to you in huge exposition dumps, only to reveal that they were fake and the reality is far more boring and disappointing.
It actually feels like DGRV3 is making a statement. It’s specifically giving the player crappy payoffs because it thinks the player enjoys it. It knows the player wants to see high school students get brutally tortured and murdered while the good looking and charismatic protagonists work behind the scenes to take down the conspiracy that trapped them here in the first place. It knows that, and it laughs at you for it.
In fact, the series’ iconic villain, Monokuma, laughs at you for it. This is a game that loves to break the fourth wall. While that means we get some pretty solid comedy writing in the form of anime references and Donald Trump jokes, it also means that every flaw of the game is acknowledged by its characters. If the plot is dragging Monokuma laughs at you for slogging through it. If a mini-game feels unfair, Monokuma laughs at how determined you are to beat it.
Monokuma constantly points out how exploitative and poorly written characters are only there because the fans want them to be. It’s as if DGRV3 stares you right in the eye and says “this is what you sickos wanted right?” It feels a lot like Spec Ops: The Line in that way, but with quite a bit less to say.
And like Spec Ops: The Line, many portions of V3 simply aren’t fun. If a game attempts to be bad to make a point, does that make it good or does that make it bad with a good excuse? I wouldn’t hesitate for a second to call Spec Ops: The Line a good game for the point it makes, but DGRV3’s point feels less important. It’s not a disturbing narrative about the reality of war, it’s just wagging fingers at its fanbase for being otaku garbage. I already know I’m otaku garbage! I’m playing Danganronpa!
Feel the despair
This all culminates in one of the least satisfying endings in the series. It’s an ending that retcons and erases the events of every other Danganronpa game and anime. Once again, it’s clear this unsatisfying ending was created on purpose, but after seeing it I didn’t find myself sitting down and examining my morals and values. I just sat there, confused, asking myself “what the heck did I just play?”
I certainly didn’t have a bad time with V3, but the purposeful lack of payoff left me feeling empty inside… which was the point. V3 wants you, the player, to feel despair, and it succeeds in creating that feeling, but that’s not necessarily an experience every gamer wants to have, especially long time Danganronpa fans. In fact, I’d wager that you’d have far more fun with DGRV3 if you were totally new to the series. Without connections to other titles it’s just a wacky and convoluted murder plot.
But I wonder if I should even criticize V3 for its narrative, because the narrative is the only reason play the game. Sickos like us want to be messed with. We want to have our expectations shattered. We want to see something different than the “hero saves the day” narrative than gets repeated in every other video game on the market.
I didn’t enjoy it, but I think I liked that I didn’t enjoy it? I hated the story, but I think I respect that the writers made me hate the story? This is a very emotionally confusing and exhausting game.
They must be doing something right because I keep coming back, even after completing it. This is partially because there is more endgame content in this than there was in any other Danganronpa title. As always, you will gain access to a dating game mode that removes the threat of murder to allow you to socially interact with and discover the backstories of your fellow classmates. Then there is a card dispenser that gives you collectible cards featuring characters form the Danganronpa franchise. You can then power-up these card games in a Mario Party style board game, and then use those cards in a full 8-bit dungeon crawler RPG, which gives you more currency to use the card dispenser. Its three entire games that you unlock after completing the main story, which is pretty awesome.
And that’s Danganronpa V3: Killing Harmony. It’s a well-constructed game with thoughtful puzzles, interesting characters, tons of mini-game content, and multiple layers of murderous intrigue that leaves you feeling emptier than when you started.
You got me Danganronpa. You made me feel despair. You made me get involved in your narrative and then denied me any sense of payoff. Are you happy? Is this really how you wanted to end your trilogy, with a whole lot of build-up to inevitable disappointment? Is this supposed to be a metaphor for life?
I’m going to go play some more of these mini-games and try not to think about it.