Since its release, Danganronpa V3 has been a controversial game for a bunch of reasons. A lot of fans are unhappy with the big twist ending. The localisation quality has come under fire. It’s a new direction for the Danganronpa series—at the very least, it’s a fresh start, with no direct narrative connection to the previous games—which is always hard to sell.
I find myself sitting in the fence about the whole thing. Odd as it may sound, Danganronpa V3 is both my favourite in the series and my least favorite. It’s a game that pushes the boundaries of Danganronpa in a way that the series really needed, and self-reflectively looks back on its legacy. Tweaks to the Class Trial mechanics make these more exciting than ever, and the move to PS4 has been very kind to the game’s unique art direction.
At the same time, I found it a slog to actually get through. Aside from a few noteworthy standouts, characters aren’t as sympathetic or as compelling as those of past games, making it hard to invest in them emotionally. It’s also a game that overstays is welcome, with lots of padding that undermines the shock factor that the series thrives on.
Danganronpa V3: Killing Harmony starts in much the same way as the first two games: a group of high school students, each an “Ultimate” in their field of expertise, find themselves trapped in a strange school and forced to take part in a Killing Game. Their captor is a maniacal teddy bear called Monokuma, who informs them that the only way out is to kill a classmate and then get through a trial of peers without being found guilty. Kill and get caught, and the punishment is death; kill and don’t get caught, and you get to go free while everyone else is executed.
This paves the way for a rollercoaster whodunit mystery as students start killing each other off, one by one, and then are then forced to investigate and solve each murder. While that’s all going on, there’s also the bigger mystery to solve: who’s controlling Monokuma, what’s the purpose of the Killing Game, and is there a way to end it without any more deaths?
So far, Danganronpa V3 is much like it’s predecessors. But all throughout, there’s a niggling feeling that something–not sure what–isn’t right. The way characters talk feels… off, somehow. Their ultimate talents are as strange as varied as any other Danganronpa game, from Ultimate Pianist to Ultimate Supreme Leader, but each character’s relationship to their talent seems like there’s something missing.
I initially chalked all this up to poor writing, but it all becomes clear in the ending. Obviously, I don’t want to give anything away, but it’s a shocker that puts the whole game, and the whole series, into perspective. It takes the series common themes of hope, despair, truth, and lies to their natural conclusion, and it does so brilliantly. The ending has been divisive, but I think it’s exactly what a new Danganronpa game needed.
Where the game fell short for me was in its characters. Danganronpa is renowned for its complex casts, full of people who are eccentric and irreverent in their designs, but very human in their personality and in the stories that unfold around them. The past games are full of caricatures, but they’re caricatures grounded in something real.
Danganronpa V3, by contrast, is full of shallow characters who seem like they’re mainly there to fill an archetype: the stalwart hero; the hot-headed youth; the shy girl; the mysterious, is-he-evil-or-isn’t-he wallflower. There are some wonderful sorts among them—Miu Iruma, the most foul-mouthed character I’ve ever seen in a game, is a particular delight—but few characters get to be more than their archetypes.
To some extent, this seems deliberate; it feeds neatly into the big ending twist. At the same time, it makes it hard to care about the cast as you’re working through the rest of the game, sucking the emotional weight of if every other plot beat. The ending would work just as well with a more sympathetic roster sporting some odd idiosyncrasies, and would have made the bulk of the game a lot more compelling.
Miu Iruma, the most foul-mouthed character I’ve ever seen in a game, is a particular delight
Which brings me to my other big complaint: Danganronpa V3 is far too long, to the point that it dulls the impact of the whole game. The story is as full of twists and turns as you’d expect, but each point gets dragged out. Instead of moving the story along or fleshing out the cast, most of the dialogue seems to just tread old ground. You could probably edit out a third of the script and be left with the exact same story, albeit a much harder-hitting version.
Class Trials feel especially bloated, each taking a few hours to work through. The cast argues the same points back and forth, and the mini-games you have to fight through seem endless. This is something the series has always struggled with to a degree, but the issue is far more pronounced in Danganronpa V3.
It’s frustrating, because Class Trials are, on paper, some of the best parts of Danganronpa: the climactic reveals of each murder, played out in creative, interactive ways. If they were kept brief, they absolutely would be that–like the satisfying end – of-episode recap in a police procedural–but they’re dragged out to a point of losing their weight.
Individually, the mini-games are the best in the series to date. Non-Stop Debate still has you firing “truth bullets” at arguments in a shooting gallery, with the added wrinkle of “lie bullets” that you can use to steer the debate (at the risk of getting caught out). Rebuttal Showdown and Argument Armament—in which you reject false claims with, respectively, “truth swords” and rhythmic button pressing respectively—sport smoother controls, making them enjoyable rather than frustrating. There are brand new minigame in Debate Scrum, which splits the students into two groups to fight head-to-head over a deadlocked opinion, and Psyche Taxi, which has the protagonist processing her thoughts by driving along a palm tree-laden highway.
Each of these games is a twist on familiar game genres like shooters and action games, cleverly applied to a court trial. They’re a lot of fun, and are much more polished in V3 than in previous games. But still, when you’ve been doing one trial for three hours and you’re up to your fifth Non-stop Debate, relitigating a bunch of things already dealt with, it gets tiresome.
I was pleasantly surprised at how good Danganronpa V3 looks on PS4. This is a series that’s more interested in art direction than pushing technical boundaries in terms of graphics, so I didn’t expect the new console to make much of a difference. I was wrong. V3 still has the same art style, with 2D character portraits placed over 3D environments like cardboard cutouts, but everything’s more crisp and detailed this time around. The school’s odd quirks, like grassy hallways and vine-covered walls, all come to life in a way that not even the bizarre locals of Danganronpa 2 did, adding to the game’s sense of strange unease. This isn’t an Uncharted game with each blade of grass individually animated, but it’s a new level of detail for Danganronpa that fits the art style perfectly.
The end result is a game that—as I said before—is very conflicting. Danganronpa V3: Killing Harmony tells a story that’s one of the series’ best, and the way it turns the focus on the Danganronpa’s own history and standing is a stroke of genius. The various mini-games that make up Class Trials have been expanded and refined, and this is the best that Danganronpa’s ever looked. At the same time, the cast is shallow and unsympathetic, and the game drags on far too long, to its detriment. If you can fight through its weaker parts, though, Danganronpa V3 is a game with a lot of interesting ideas to explore and things to say.
Danganronpa V3: Killing Harmony is developed by Spike Chunsoft and published by NIS America. It’s available now for PlayStation 4 and PlayStation Vita.
A press copy was supplied by the publisher for this review.