Danganronpa 1・2 Reload doesn’t add anything new, but it does bring together two of the finest games of the last few years in one neat package.
Danganronpa is one of the best franchises in gaming. It’d be easy to write it off as a simple visual novel / adventure game cribbing the popularity of the likes of Zero Escape with its whodunnit approach to puzzles. There are clear inspirations from the likes of Battle Royale, with its story about school students forced into a killing game where only one person can come out alive. But such reductive comparisons don’t even begin to do justice to Danganronpa; its inspirations are apparent, but it’s very much its own thing. It’s equal parts disturbing, hilarious, outlandish, thought-provoking, crass, and philosophical, making it one of the best – and most important – game franchises around.
The good news is that this masterpiece is now available to an even wider audience, thanks to the PlayStation 4 release of Danganronpa 1・2 Reload. This collects the first two games in the series, Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc and Danganronpa 2: Goodbye Despair in one package, making it a great place for newcomers to dive in (or for veterans to get a refresher) ahead of Danganronpa V3: Killing Harmony’s launch later this year.
(A quick note: though Danganronpa 1・2 Reload includes two games, I generally refer to them as one throughout this review. Almost everything I have to say applies equally to both games in the package, and it’s just easier to read and write when I refer to them as one thing. Where I need to talk specifically about one of the games, I’ll refer to it by its full name.)
It’s all fun and games until someone gets killed
At the centre of Danganronpa’s story is the elite, invitation-only high school, Hope’s Peak Academy. The only way to get in is to be the “Ultimate” in some particular skill or personality trait, but that could be just about anything. Over the course of the two games, you’ll meet the “Ultimate Swimming Pro”, “Ultimate Cook”, “Ultimate Breeder”, “Ultimate Moral Compass”, and “Ultimate Yakuza”, among plenty of others – admittance to Hope’s Peak isn’t about what you’re good at, only that you’re the very best that Japan has to offer. The one exception to this is a single person each year who earns a spot through a lottery, making them the “Ultimate Lucky Student”. In Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc, you play as that lottery winner, but in Danganronpa 2: Goodbye Despair, you’re an amnesiac whose specialty is a mystery. .
But Hope’s Peak isn’t what it seems. The students soon find themselves locked in, and a manic (yet adorable) teddy bear called Monokuma announces that the only way to escape is to kill a classmate without getting caught. When someone does kill someone, the rest of the class has to investigate and accuse the murderer in a class tria. Pick right, and the murder gets “punished” (executed) in some bizarre fashion related to the ultimate ability; pick wrong, and the murderer walks free while everyone else gets punished.
With that sort of setup, you might be expecting some sort of survival game, or a narrative adventure where your decisions determine who lives and dies. Danganronpa is neither of these things, and it’s all the better for it; instead of sacrificing plot for some hamfisted lip-service to “player freedom”, the focus is on a tight, well-written, authored story.
It’s a complex, multi-layered murder mystery with more twists than a bag of pretzels; a rollercoaster of distrust, fraught alliances, betrayal, murder, and despair. It somehow manages to be batshit insane and completely grounded, terrifying and fall-off-your-seat funny, all at the same time. Despite an ensemble cast, there’s a lot of time made for deep characterization; anime archetypes quickly give way to rounded, empathetic, complex characters.
Even if you’re just here for the surface-level Battle Royale-style murder mystery, Danganronpa does that better than any other game I think of.
And yet, there’s so much more to it when you start peeling back the layers. Hope and despair are major themes across the whole franchise: it explores how people respond to desperate situations, how they cling to hope, and what happens when that hole is lost. That’s the whole point of Hope’s Peak: to be a beacon of hope that gives way to the ultimate despair, crushing people’s willpower in the process.
But there are so many other ideas at play in Danganronpa as well. Like Zero Escape, it explores game theory as a model of human behaviour – that is, that people tend to approach decision-making as a sort of game, and tend to look for the best outcomes for their own interests. Each Hope’s Peak class has the option of not partaking of the Killing Game and simply living a peaceful, harmonious life, but the desire of individuals to win the game – even at the cost of others’ lives – throws their whole world into chaos.
It touches on communism in a similar way, as well as the absurdity of individualism. The option is there to live in peace (albeit in a captive state), with your every need provided for, but people choose chaos, death, and despair as a result of their own self interest. I’d recommend reading Matt Sainsbury’s review of Danganronpa 1・2 Reload at DigitallyDownloaded.net; he explored the game’s communist themes in much more detail, and it’s a fascinating read.
Through its colourful characters, Danganronpa explores more personal ideas. Gender roles, expectations, and identities come up often with characters who don’t conform or conform too much. It looks at social class, in terms of both the privileges that come with it and the burdens placed on people expected to live up to a family name. Really, that theme of expectation placed on teenagers finding their place in the world is shared across the cast, different though those expectations might be – that’s something that’s a big issue in Japan, and with its many characters, Danganronpa looks at that from a lot of different perspectives.
As superficially bizarre and comical as it can be, this is a series that doesn’t shy away from complex moral and philosophical questions. There are so many layers to unpack, and doing so is a fascinating journey. That’s the beauty of really great art, and Danganronpa absolutely is great art.
Shooting the breeze
Danganronpa is, first and foremost, a visual novel, but it does incorporate some more game-like elements as well. When someone gets killed, there’s a switch toward an investigative style of play reminiscent of Ace Attorney: you explore different scenes, looking for clues and questioning people, until you have as much information as you can get.
At this point, the game shifts to a “Class Trial”, and you have to use what you’ve gathered to argue your case try to accuse the right person. Rather than simple dialogue choices, though, this plays out through a series of minigames that put an abstract twist on shooter mechanics. Armed with “Truth Bullets”, you literally shoot holes in people’s arguments, as text floats across the screen and more dubious claims very in the way.
It’s a brilliant subversion of the typical shooter. Here’s a game that’s all about murder, where you’re armed with a gun – yet you never shoot anyone and certainly never kill. That’s a powerful statement in an industry that’s all too happy to put guns in players hands and send them on killing sprees in the name of fun, without any kind of critical thought towards the message that sends.
There are a few other styles of minigame, too; Danganronpa 2: Goodbye Despair has you end each trial by piecing together the sequence of events with a comic book, for example. There’s a relationship sim element to the visual novel side of the game as well, as you choose who to spend time with and get to know better. Still, the brilliant upending of shooter mechanics are the main form of “gameplay” present, and Danganronpa has a lot to say through that.
Reloaded? Not quite
One question that a lot of people may be asking is: “what’s new for people who already played these on Vita or Steam?”. The answer is, unfortunately, not much. Each game is identical to their Vita / Steam versions (which were based on the Japanese version of Reload in the first place) in terms of content. Coming from Vita, the HD display on PS4 is most welcome, and it really brings the game’s stylized 2D art to life. For people who’ve played in Steam, even this won’t be new.
Danganronpa 1・2 Reload is very much aimed at newcomers. With Danganronpa V3 around the corner, now is the best time to get yourself acquainted with one of the best game franchises around, and this package is the perfect way to do that.
Danganronpa 1・2 Reload is developed by Spike Chunsoft and published by NIS America. It’s available now for PlayStation 4.
A PS4 press copy was supplied by NIS America for this review.