The first Danganronpa was quite the deceiving little gem: underneath the guise of its saccharine-sweet visual style, (deceptively) shallow characterization and general swathe of uguu~ anime charm lied a narrative that painted itself with the same dark and light swatches that its raison d’etre Monokuma displays. One that consistently leads its protagonist and the player through murder, mystery, and the loss of the human condition, segueing at times into what can be construed as a… dating simulator. I booted up its sequel, Danganronpa 2: Goodbye Despair with both excitement and trepidation; expecting another well-spun yarn leading me through another twenty or so hours of furrowed reading, attachment to characters who—spoilers—might not even make it through the end of the game, and the eventual existential crisis the game puts the player through. At the risk of sounding like a total putz, Danganronpa is a very emotionally-demanding videogame.
As with the first game, the plot centers around the ominous Hope’s Peak Academy, a school vaguely located in Japan that recruits only the best of the best. Goodbye Despair expands upon the first game’s cast of Ultimates and comes up with new über wunderkinds to interact with; and while some of them may sound lame or forced at first glance, each character once again has several underlying secrets hiding behind their archetypal titles.
Unlike the first game, which cast the player as the “Ultimate Lucky Student,” a faceless, unremarkable schmuck that only got to Hope’s Peak because he won a random drawing, the events of Goodbye Despair are now told through the eyes of one Hajime Hinata, a bombastic, oft-arrogant and sometimes unlikeable avatar that professes to be the ultimate…. Plot twist! He doesn’t actually remember what he’s supposed to be at the game’s onset. Even this simple bit of unreliable narration clues the player in to the game’s greatest asset: being able to take what is essentially an unbelievable set of circumstances and somehow weave that together into a narrative that appears to be spun-out by the first chapter, off-the-rails by the middle of the game, and somehow neatly tied-together by the game’s conclusion.
For those that haven’t had the opportunity to go through the first Danganronpa, the game can best be described as a strange amalgamation of 999 (or its sequel, Virtue’s Last Reward) and Phoenix Wright, with the design sensibilities of Persona hewed in. The game plays like a standard visual novel for the first half of every chapter and abruptly segues into a morose version of Ace Attorney where you gather clues about each murder, pointing out contradictions later on in the classroom trial and ultimately piecing all of the information you’ve gathered to finger a final suspect. At its core, however, the game is a visual novel through and through, with exploration elements that undoubtedly give the player some semblance of freedom; that is up to the point that he or she realizes that a certain character or event is awaiting to be triggered for the storyline to progress.
As a sequel, Goodbye Despair does not disappoint. The first game ended on a little bit of a cliffhanger, and while the second game does expand on the first game’s lore a little bit, it stands alone well enough without relying too much on the first game’s keynotes. That being said, I think you got to stretch your suspension of disbelief with this game a little bit more than you had to with the first game. It’s not quite the claustrophobic, urgent thriller that Trigger Happy Havoc was either—while one could understand why someone would go stir-crazy in the first game’s sealed, cramped school corridors, the deaths in Danganronpa 2 hit you way harder than they should in that “aw man, why’d you have to do that” sense, simply because there appeared to be a common goal between the participants in part deux of this sick social experiment.
Goodbye Despair’s failings come at the hands of its own linear trappings. As with its contemporaries in the adventure game genus, solving the game’s myriad mysteries oftentimes falls under the hands of the player understanding the writers’ and developers’ logic, rather than the player’s own. No matter how early or late the player’s own “whodunit” epiphany comes into play, during class trials you are still at the mercy of the game’s pacing, and each mini-epiphany that leads to each chapter’s crescendo needs to be played out first; and that may frustrate some. I personally am numbed enough by “videogame logic” where I can shrug my shoulders and exclaim “welp, comes with the territory” whenever this happens.
I cannot deny the stigma that the game faces as being part of the visual novel pantheon (a bias that, unfortunately, most cannot look beyond as the genre is saturated with less-than-savory entries). However, with expectations in check I can guarantee that any player will find Danganronpa’s convoluted tale one of the most compelling chronicles to be found on any videogame system, ever.
|PlayStation Vita||NIS America||Spike Chunsoft|
Disclosure: thanks to the folks at NIS America for providing us with a pre-release copy of Danganronpa. Class starts today for the R3 release at your friendly local Datablitz or iTech-type retailers. The game comes out on the US PlayStation Network this September 2nd.