"A world where nothing strange happens. It would be extremely strange if such a world existed"
"Danganronpa - The Academy of Hope and the Students of Despair"
Going to a big open second hand book market at the Shimogamo Shrine was interesting. It's kinda strange to see a big market on what is technically a ground to worshop kami, right? Got some interesting books though, including a Japanese translation of In the Queen's Parlor. Less fun was the sudden rain. Or actually, it wasn't that sudden, because it did appear in the forecast, but I had kinda forgotten my umbrella. The way back was also interesting, as I apparently still have the magical gift of being able to get lost everywhere. I really thought I was going east towards the station, but I ended up way up north, actually nearer to the place I wanted to take the train to in the first place!
Fifteen students in a closed circle situation, with Monokuma manipulating the students (blackmailing them) into murdering each other? It feels a bit like the classic Battle Royale, only with super class students. And don't forget the rule that you have to murder a fellow student without being found out by the others. In practice, this means that after every murder (yes, they do start killing off each other) the students are given time to investigate, after which a classroom trial is held. During the trial, students debate with each other about the identity of the culprit. At the end of the trial, students have to vote for who they think the murderer is. If the murderer is caught, he is sentenced to death, and the remaining students have to continue the game. However, if the murderer manages to fool the others, he will be released, while all the other students are sentenced to death in his place!
Wow, where to start! Let's just say it's an awesome game! The story is really thrilling: like I said, it's a bit like Battle Royale with students being forced to kill each other off. Like with the BR novel, you slowly get to know the other students, which makes it all the more shocking when one of them dies (by the hands of another fellow student!). As the game progresses, the story shifts beyond the normal classroom trials, as the students also slowly start to investigate about why they are captured by Monokuma and what the secret behind Hope's Peak Academy is.
The story is seperated in a couple of chapters / cases. The murders themselves are not particularly difficult though, while definitely better mystery stories than what you see in your average detective game. But playing this game did made me realize again how brilliant a writer Takumi Shuu was with the Gyakuten Saiban / Ace Attorney games. In Danganronpa, I figured out all the cases before entering the classroom trials (except for one, but there were reasons for that). In Gyakuten Saiban however, you often, deliberately, have incomplete information as you enter the courtroom. Sure, it isn't fair, but it does result in a very exciting game, as you have to react to every piece of information introduced in the courtroom on the spot, changing and adapting your theories as you go. As a story, the way of feeding the player information in Gyakuten Saiban is fantastic, showing how great a writer and game developer Takumi Shuu is. In Danganronpa, the classroom trials function as little more than a sequence where you check your theory, as opposed to actually being a part of a story still in progress.
Danganronpa, as a game, is an eclectic mix of all kinds of gameplay systems. Most of the chapters are divided in three phases: daylife time phases, investigation phases and the classroom trials. The daylife phases are pretty much the same like you see in dating simulation games, or a game like Sakura Taisen.You are given the freedom to interact with your fellow students: you can strengthen the bonds with a student by spending time with him / her, with little dialogues, quizzes and the opportunity to exchange gifts. If done right, you might in return acquire skills useful in the classroom trial phases later on. You only have limited free time, so you have to make wise choices who to spend your time with. It's also during this phase that the story slowly builds up to a murder.
The investigation phases are pretty much like the ones you see in any detective adventure game: the murder happens and Naeki has to investigate the murder by collecting evidence and statements. There is really nothing special to this phase of the game. The writing does kinda steer the player to where to go ("Maybe I should take a look at...") and it even refuses to let you leave a location if you haven't found everything there yet, so it's pretty much impossible to get stuck here. Normally, this might sound a bit too restraining, but there are quite a lot of locations within the game and I personally prefer being told what to do here in these kind of situations rather than being forced to wander through the school going through every classroom just to find that little piece of evidence I missed. I have to find that piece of evidence anyway and the act of wandering around isn't particularly fun (I kinda get motion sick from walking around in first person perspective in games actually), so yes, streamlining works here.
The classroom trials are the climax of the game and definitely the most fun. In form, they are a lot like the Gyakuten Saiban / Ace Attorney games. During the trials, the students present their arguments and discuss about who they think the murderer is. These sequence are automatic in the sense that the dialogue flows naturally (as opposed to the Gyakuten Saiban games, where players have to click through the testimonies) Here the player literally has to shoot down contradictions within the utterances of his fellow students: pieces of evidence are treated as bullets within the game and the player has to aim the cursor at the contradictions and shoot them down with the right 'bullets'. Which is where the title comes from actually, Danganronpa meaning Bullet Refutation.
This action-based system demands more of a player's reflexes than the Gyakuten Saiban games, because of this is basically a shooting game and the speed of the utterences you have to shoot down can be quite high and there are obstacles as well! On the other hand: you only have a handful of bullets/pieces of evidence per sequence, so you don't have to think that hard, as your choices are limited. In Gyakuten Saiban, you sometimes have to choose the right evidence to present among a list of over 20 items! But still, the shooting can be quite hard for people not used to those kind of games and there is a time limit for sequence, so you do have to hurry. But think a more action-oriented Gyakuten Saiban and you're 80% on the right way.
There are some other weird game sequences during the classroom trials, like the Machine Gun Battle, basically a music game where you have to shoot down a barrage of logical fallacies being thrown at the player (which is a bit of a miss, I think). A lot more fun are the Climax Inferences, which appear at the end of the trial, when you have deduced the right murderer. Here you reconstruct the crime by filling in missing panels in a comic reconstruction of the murder and subsequent events. Visually reconstructing the crime in a videogame (or any visual detective fiction) isn't particularly original, but most games I know do it through an abstract flowchart, which the player has to fill in. Danganronpa's comic book reconstructions are much more engaging.
Anyway, as you clear these gameplay elements, the murder gets solved. And while these sequences, except for the Climax Inferences, are all very action-oriented, the game is still a detective game, so you do have to think and deduce as you go through these sequences. Which is really unique. Gyakuten Saiban brought the concepts of hotbloodiness and action in its storytelling, but Danganronpa really succeeded in making an action detective game.
Danganronpa's presentation style is very addictive too (watch the trailer!) It is top-notch, with excellent character writing as well as a load of a pop-references from movies to manga and anime (of course). There is also a very distinct tone of black humor in its presentation, starting with the cute Monokuma who is actually very, very sadistic despite its appearance. Monokuma is made even more creepy because of the fact he's voiced by Ooyama Nobuyo, the voice actress who voiced the famous Doraemon until 2005. Personally, I loved having Ogata Megumi as the voice actress for protagonist Naegi. Sure, she might be more famous for voicing a certain protagonist in a mecha-deconstructing classic, but for me, she'll always be Tantei Gakuen Q's Kyuu. Especially if she's doing a detective role, like here! Seriously, she was Kyuu for me during the whole game (and in related news, Conan's Takayama Minami is actually playing the protagonist in the recently released sequel Super Danganronpa 2).
Anyway, an awesome detective game that really excells in presentations. It's a bit of a mish-mash of all kinds of game mechanics and almost all of them work very well. I don't it's really probable anymore that this will be published in English (because the PSP is pretty much dead outside of Japan), but for those who know Japanese, definitely one to try out. Preferably the budget version, as it has bug fixes and other fixes!
Original Japanese title(s): 『ダンガンロンパ 希望の学園と絶望の高校生』