Bear with me on this, before I talk about Danganronpa, I’d like to talk about Mass Effect. The original Mass Effect trilogy is an acclaimed video game series, a sci-fi epic where you build your squad, fight baddies and shape the galaxy with your decisions. It was also, as of March 6th 2012, complete. The three games told an entire narrative, with a beginning, middle, and conclusive end — regardless of your particular thoughts on that end. And years went by. Five years went by, until this March came the release of Mass Effect: Andromeda. Marketed as a soft reboot of the franchise, it takes place in the same world, with the same species and technology, but the plot and characters are wholly new.
As always, this review is provided in video format and transcribed directly below. I would like to note that my reviews are written first and foremost to be experienced as videos (that is, read aloud), so no guarantees that jokes, grammar, or anything else will transition entirely smoothly to text.
The existence of Andromeda was, from a narrative perspective, hardly something the original trilogy demanded. No, it got pushed out at least in part because Mass Effect was still a popular franchise whose name would probably make money... and as it turns out, Mass Effect: Andromeda was not especially well-received. The rampant technical issues were the focus of most of its media coverage, but strong writing can overcome that. Mass Effect 1 has pretty terrible gameplay, but it’s still fondly remembered for the universe it created and the attitude of its storytelling, while the fact that Andromeda is not should speak volumes about the quality of its own. In short, it felt like a game created as a product, to make money, not because there was an actual story to tell.
Mass Effect is hardly the only game franchise, or the only entertainment franchise in general, to run into this problem. Movies, books, TV, anime— as much as we might wish otherwise, these are all businesses. That’s just how the world works. If it keeps making money, chances are they are going to keep making more. They are going to keep stretching it out, and they will not let it die until the flames of life are thoroughly extinguished. And this was my chief concern heading into Danganronpa V3. Much like Mass Effect, Danganronpa 3 had finished the story. Fans will nitpick the minor unanswered questions, or voice their complaints with specific plot details, but in broad strokes, Danganronpa 3 left the series with nothing more to say. It was the end of Danganronpa, and while V3 did label itself a “reboot”... as we saw with Andromeda, that does not necessarily mean it had a new and engaging reason to exist. So with that apprehension in mind, let’s take a look at what works, and what doesn’t, with Danganronpa V3: Killing Harmony.
I doubt anyone reading this is unaware of the basic Danganronpa premise but just in case: sixteen students, trapped in a school, the only way to leave is killing another without being convicted in the post-murder class trial, and V3 does rigidly adhere to formula. Someone dies, you investigate, unravel the convoluted murder, learn a confusing tidbit about the overall plot, wash, rinse, repeat — but formula is not necessarily a bad thing. The very similar Ace Attorney franchise has thrived on formula, for six games now. And here, with Danganronpa, there’s still an inherent fun to investigating crime scenes, breaking down arguments, and the Eureka moment when everything clicks. Even if you might be able to guess at how a crime was committed, the path to nailing down all the details is a winding and exhilarating one, fraught with pitfalls and dead ends, sweet lies and ugly truths.
However, in adhering to formula, while those usual strengths of the series remain, so too do the usual weaknesses. Chances are every so often you’ll figure things out well before the characters, and have to sit through as much as half of hour of arguing before everyone’s up to speed. And likewise, for better or worse, the series’ ridiculous, campy edge has never been more apparent, several murders requiring absurd timing and luck to actually pull off, with the characters’ defenses being no less ridiculous, such as the cosplayer who couldn’t have been disguised as another student because dressing up as real people gives her a full-body rash. (The executions are also pretty lame and unmemorable, continuing the downward trend since the series’ beginning.)
Then, as always, there’s a hit or miss quality to most of the trial minigames; quoting my two-year-old review of the first game, they are often “simplistic to the point of boredom and tedium”. Psyche Taxi (wherein you drive down a narrow road collecting Mario Kart-style boxes) is way too long for its own good, and they still haven’t given up on the fruitless task of trying to make Hangman’s Gambit actually fun.
The most prevalent minigame, the Nonstop Debates where you must use evidence to support or refute everyone’s arguments, have been given their own notable addition. The truth is no longer everything. Now, you can also make your case by lying, testifying one thing when the reality is another. At first, I was not fond of this mechanic, on any level. From a gameplay perspective, it was unwieldy and somewhat overwhelming, doubling your options and allowing you to lie about any piece of evidence. From a philosophical one, I felt it ran counter to the entire throughline of the series thus far, that rational thought and evidence was everything. If everyone just went with their gut to justify lying, none of the trials in Danganronpa would ever implicate the right culprit.
However, as time went on and the story unfolded, I began to see the bigger picture. Unlike the rest of the franchise up this point, lies are a recurring thematic and narrative touchstone of V3. One student, by the name of Kokichi, is almost solely characterized by his love of lies. He uses lies readily, almost dismissively, in an attempt to warp every situation in his favor. That is hardly the extent of the game’s infatuation with lies, that’s not even the tip of the proverbial iceberg, but it’s impossible to give better examples without giving away key plot details.
But I guess there is one lie I can reveal, because it’s something any prospective player should know: the marketing lied. This is not a reboot. Not exactly. I could never recommend it to anyone unfamiliar with Danganronpas 1 through 3. Some may cry foul here, accuse me of spoilers with that sudden remark, but the hints are there almost immediately, and I think it’s important for potential newcomers not to be taken in by the talk of reboots, because they’d likely be very lost by the game’s finale.
Which I suppose makes for as good a time as any to talk about that finale. Danganronpa, as fans knows, is a series built on its Big Twists. The murders and investigations are fun enough, but these are games designed to hit hardest in their conclusions, world-shattering developments in the eleventh hour that come out of nowhere and change everything. Danganronpa 1 had that, Danganronpa 2 had that, and Danganronpa V3 has that. It’s a system that logically seems set up to fail. After the first time, the audience is going to expect a bigger and better twist every time, and constantly one-upping yourself is just not sustainable. Eventually. In my opinion, Danganronpa has yet to reach that breaking point, and V3 manages to successfully match the heights of Danganronpa 2. It manages this, not only with the quality of the twists, but the quantity as well. In the midst of playing the game, I thought I had carelessly spoiled myself by spending too much time on the wiki, and while I did ruin one particular piece of the puzzle, there was so, so much more left to know.
In many ways this is the most unpredictable Danganronpa yet — which some naysayers might argue is another way of saying the most erratic. Early on I did worry that V3’s Big Twists would be rehashes of Danganronpa 1, with only trivial alterations, but after some initial hiccups, I was proven wrong, and I really do think the story finds its footing, only coming further and further into its own as it nears the finish line. From my glances through the community, this is apparently a controversial stance, but I in fact thought V3’s ending was brilliant. I struggle to think of another game that has in such a short span of time so sharply reversed all my prior opinions — except for, perhaps, another Danganronpa. It does leave some doubts, some open questions, some baldfaced lies, but I have my own answers, and I like them well enough for the ending to be satisfying. It actually in some ways reminded me of Metal Gear Solid 2, and going into specifics would heavily spoil both, but I think veterans of either one or the other can imagine what I mean.
Moving to the technical side of things, Danganronpa still isn’t much of a graphical powerhouse, but what do you expect from a game that’s basically a visual novel with some extra bells and whistles? You spend your daily life awkwardly traipsing through pop-up environments, talking to 2D characters with canned dialogue. Some of the Ultimate talents still irked me, by being more titles than talents (like the Ultimate Supreme Leader), but at this point I’m willing to roll with that, just as I am underwhelming character designs. Seriously, whereas the characters of Danganronpa 2 were somewhat over-designed, the cast of V3 are just... kind of poorly designed. It’s not that you look at these people and something is immediately glaringly off — aside from maybe Kaito’s swoosh of hair — no, the looks just lack much memorability or cohesion.
The gameplay outside of the trials is likewise pretty much the same as always. They added this whole casino area, but I frankly didn’t even touch it, ‘cause I’m here for the story. I’m not here to waste my time with forgettable distractions. One slight upgrade I did appreciate was an alternate optical mode that highlights clickable parts of the environment. No longer will you be hung up on a room unable to progress because you didn’t notice the tiny bloodstain in the corner.
Nothing much to say on the soundtrack either. The same big themes are used in the same big places, Monokuma’s theme, the execution theme, the main theme — and the new tracks that I’m sure existed just went in one ear and out the other. In a word, inoffensive.
It might seem like I kinda came down hard on V3 this past minute or so, but that wasn’t really the intention — I’m just making it clear that the presentation is more of the same. If you come to V3 hoping for a revolutionary gameplay experience, you will be definitely leave disappointed.
But luckily, that’s not why people play these games. Or at least, not why I do. So the question becomes: did Danganronpa V3 actually have something to say? Did it justify its own existence? In my opinion, very yes. Once it got rolling, I was as entranced by this series as ever. Danganronpa, there were times when I worried, but you hasn’t lost me yet.
So after taking everything into account, on a scale from F to S… Danganronpa V3: Killing Harmony brings the franchise back to an A. From what I’ve gathered on a cursory look through the internet, it seems that fan reaction to V3 was very mixed, so I expect that dislike bar to start growing right about now (if you were watching the video...) — but me, I liked it just as much as I ever have. I will say that despite that, I don’t think I want any more Danganronpa after this, but in the same way that I didn’t want another Red vs Blue after Season 13. I just don’t see where there is left to go, and I think any attempt to go further will feel hollow. But who knows? Maybe they’ll surprise me. It wouldn’t be the first time.
If you would like to play Danganronpa V3 for yourself, the English version hit stores last month for PS4, PS Vita and Windows. I’m really happy the series has expanded over the years beyond the Vita, because it opens itself up to way more people actually playing it.