I can't remember the last time I played a game so engaging that it took over my life from the moment I started it to the moment I finished it. I marathoned DanganRonpa over the course of a long weekend, barely eating or sleeping because I was so obsessed with finishing the story. And that has led me to two conclusions. A) DanganRonpa is one of the most gripping games I've ever played. B) I never want to play another DanganRonpa game in my entire life. This isn't just a story about my lack of self-control; DanganRonpa is a game in which you are a student, trapped forever alongside 14 other students in Hope's Peak Academy, which is run by a psychotic robot teddy bear and the only way to leave is to kill someone and not get caught at the following class trial. The bear then very forcefully... motivates the students by implying that their loved ones are in peril, threatening to reveal their darkest secrets, and generally doing anything he can to ensure that they kill each other. Given the murders, investigations and trials, the comparison to Ace Attorney is inevitable. DanganRonpa's overarching storyline means you truly care more about the characters who die and kill, and they have more depth; every murderer is sympathetic, because you are almost literally being forced to kill each other. But this also really sucks, because in Ace Attorney, the victims are strangers, but the crime is still fun to solve, and the murderers are usually antagonistic assholes and it's fun to watch them break down when caught. In DanganRonpa, you're gutted that someone died, uncovering the killer is painful, and once caught, the psychotic teddy robot brutally murders the culprit in what I can only describe as ironic anime Final Destination traps. I found the plot addictive, but unrewarding. I liked the story, but every time I advanced it, things just got even more depressing as my senseless battle against an invincible Complete Monster continued to get worse. You do eventually get to make progress on this front, but only after more than half of the charming, likeable cast have been savagely murdered. This does tie in to the game's overarching theme of Hope VS Despair, the power of not giving up, no matter how bleak the situation, but to be totally honest with you all... I wasn't having fun. I was hooked, but I didn't really enjoy much of it; actually, I felt like shit. And I'm not sure if I can recommend a 25 hour visual novel where I spent 20 hours legitimately depressed, and 5 hours repeatedly combing the school for Monokuma Coins I could use to buy gifts for the other students, which rarely mattered because so many of them died. I can see why people like these games so much, but if I wanted to slog through a neverending journey of despair where my victories were short-lived and ultimately just brought about more misery, I'd start speaking to my family again.
Good, but Nothing Incredible
I'm probably going to Accentuate the Negative in this review, but I'd like to make clear that despite my reasons for having only bought the first two games, my overall opinion of Dangan Ronpa is still positive. There are two very significant aspects of this series that effectively make it what it is and contribute immensely to its appeal, but could be deal-breakers if you've got issues with one or both of them. The first is that Dangan Ronpa is dark; the main villain of the series is motivated exclusively by a desire to cause as much despair as possible, and to that end, they'll go to great lengths to make the protagonists suffer. The cruelty exhibited by the main villain came off as senseless at times, and that's because it was supposed to be. The second is that Dangan Ronpa is very over-the-top; the characters are often caricatures, the villain is ridiculous, and the story, while starting out reasonable, eventually reaches a point at which it is in danger of breaking Willing Suspension of Disbelief. The latter, while usually good for humor, ultimately played a role in my decision to just read synopses and watch Let's Plays after completing the second game. Dangan Ronpa has more than its share of funny moments, alternating between Black Comedy and more lighthearted gags. Personally, despite its reliance on the absurd, I think it does a better job with the former. That's not to say I wasn't able to laugh in the lighter moments, simply that I believe I would have enjoyed them more were I not expecting someone to be murdered soon after. As a fan of the Ace Attorney series, I was able to enjoy the mystery aspect of Dangan Ronpa, feeling right at home investigating and solving the murders that happen in the games. Like the Ace Attorney games, the characters are often good for a laugh, if nothing else, and there were some I was able to grow legitimately attached to. My main problem with the series, as I mentioned earlier, stems from its over-the-top nature. While it worked well for the moments meant to be funny, problems arose for me when the series applied this formula to something it took far more seriously. I found the finale of the first game annoyingly heavy-handed in its delivery of the "hope vs. despair" theme. I also think that while the villain's character was well-written, the developers made a critical mistake regarding the villain's actions that severely restricted where they could go with the series after the first game. To avoid spoilers, I will not name the mistake. All I will say is that it involves spectacle creep.
Wavers Back and Forth, But Ultimately Recommended
This is definitely a game that got a bit too much hype. Perhaps being a good game, one of the few good ones for the PSP and Vita and for so long only accessible by looking at translated Let's Plays, this was inevitable. But one should not expect pure genius from it. The first focus is on the characters. Some I found to be very interesting and added a lot of color to their world, others I thought had potential that just didn't get realized and unfortunately there were one or two that I felt just didn't have much to them. Sadly, the main character falls into the latter as a pretty generic "hope and friendship" protagonist. Fortunately the boss does definitely go into the former, adding a lot of fun to the last part. The art style is nice, with the pop-up art somehow helping the weird feel of the story. And the story does realize just how crazy this is, and with the idea of Ultimate students, the ironic and improbable punishments and the final reveal of the state of things it might not go as far as it could, but it makes a good effort for a bizarre story. After that we have the meat of the game, the mysteries and trials. I would say that it felt like they were split between ones you really didn't see coming, or fairly obvious ones. Some parts of the mechanics like word bullets I felt were fun, others like Hangman's Gambit and the rhythm game were annoying. All in all I found the trials manageable, but they did need more explanation of mechanics and some kind of free time mini-game to let you get used to them without worrying about ruining your score. And you are going to run into places where you know what argument to make, just not what word bullet to use on what argument. For the miscellaneous parts of the game, I have to say that it can feel slow in the time before the next trial, even with quick travel. In another sense, I don't know why they bothered with having Monocoins hidden in objects, because it takes so long to find them among all the objects you can click on that you'll quickly give up and rely on trials for Monocoins. To its credit, the game has a nice feature that allows you to revisit any previous chapter to replay it (but only from that save) and a School Mode where you can interact with the group more and learn more about the people who would have died. All in all, recommended, though only if you already have a Vita.
Little Bit of Everything.
What the Sonic the Hedgehog series was to the SEGA Genesis, this game (and franchise) should be to the Vita: a Must-Own. If you own a Vita, get this game. This game has a little bit of everything. It's best to avoid spoilers and experience the plot blind the first time through. The characters are heavily interesting (though we lose someone of them a bit too soon to really to get to know them.) The gameplay and story is seamlessly integrated. (More so than in the second game.) The soundtrack is a must-own. My one issue is the lack of expansion of the free-time events. At certain points in the game, you will have the opportunity to spend time with your classmates. Not only are there far too few in-between trials, but aside from occasionally asking some questions, they really aren't that interactive beyond reading. I bring this up because there is something a 'RE:ACT' system. (That was unfortunately removed from the 2nd Game) The 'RE:ACT' system allows you as the player character to respond to select phrases of dialogue by other characters. Often times, there are many several phrases and you can choose which order you 'RE:ACT'. The main strength of the 'RE:ACT' system is that it allows the dialogue to flow more naturally, and it keeps the player involved in the game, and it means that they aren't just going to skip the text to just get to the next trial. I would have loved to see this system integrated into the free-time events. And I would have loved to see 'RE:ACT's within 'RE:ACT's. With confirmation that another game is in the works, I sincerely hope that they bring back the 'RE:ACT' system and expand it greatly. This is a character-driven franchise. Let the player character interact with the other characters as naturally as possible. Also note, I love the first person perspective. You really feel like you're in the shoes of Makoto as he wanders around the school, and it certainly beats the side-scrolling nature of the 2nd game. I'll give this a 9.1/10.
A Murder Mystery Game That Lacks Mystery
Unfortunately, I cannot say a whole lot of good things about this game. Mostly because the mysteries of Who Dunnit in the game lack all its mystery and it's just too easy to figure out who killed who. None of the characters are all that interesting, they feel more like exaggerated caricatures of the biggest stereotypes of characters that you can think of like the Big Eater, the Tough Guy and the Mysterious One With A Mysterious Past. Perhaps this game was trying to cater to younger audiences, younger than older teenagers, and hence made the cases and murders and plot twists easy to figure out, but I was thoroughly disappointed in how little effort I had to put into this game to point out the killer or how non-plussed I was at any of the plot twists, seeing as how I had predicted them hours before they were revealed.