Reviews: Dangan Ronpa

Spectacle creep is a hell of a drug.

Let's start on an up note. The original Danganronpa (or at least, the PS Vita remake) was a pretty great self-contained story that ended perfectly but still left plenty of mystery and concepts for sequels to explore. It had well-written characters, some of whom were exactly who they appeared, some of whom were imposters, plants, or otherwise had ulterior motives, and some of whom were good people who snapped under the pressure of the situation and did terrible things. While some characters got cut down too soon, a few additional game modes, while grindy, gave the player the chance to see them fully explored. Even the most unlikable characters were interesting enough to carry engagement. And, of course, the trials were fun logic puzzles that dripped with style, a few clunky minigames and the usual quirks of the genre aside.

But, unfortunately, that's not what made it famous and popular. Lots of unexpectedly brutal and gritty violence and a series of whacked-out, surreal twists that often completely forced the player to rethink earlier events did.

The sequels have mostly refined the gameplay of that first installment to make the trials and adventure game elements more fun, and while some have doubled-down on making the cast more-ridiculous and silly, they at least usually manage to get some actual emotion out of the reader.

But, unfortunately, they have *also* chosen to take those final twists further and further, more and more surreal, and, well... Inevitably, putting in twists for twists' sake and trying to shock the audience rather than tell them a good story leads to an audience that feels cheated and lied to rather than excited by a good surprise.

Plus, they pushed the setting, stories, and characters into darker and darker places, turning more and more background characters and setting elements monstrous and corrupt, until, even after a reboot in the most recent title, almost literally the whole world, except for a very small number of victims, is decadent and rotten through. Worse, they sometimes try to one-up the on-screen violence and depravity with uncomfortable results that are not only bad storytelling but just plain bad taste.

Plus, while the first game's themes weren't exactly the most complex thing in the world, they were well-presented and well-linked to the narrative. Subsequent games have gotten... weird with it. Things like trying to equate hope to being just as bad as despair, that sort of thing. It doesn't work, and it reeks of trying to add thematic depth and heft without really knowing how to.

I won't say the series has gotten bad, but it's certainly failed to evolve in a way that causes it to improve, and the reason is clearly trying to one-up previous titles' content rather than making theirs interesting on its own terms.
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