The Danganronpa series – and V3 in particular – are really hard to talk about in any meaningful way without spoilers. In fact, to go any further into the meat of the game other than the basic premise has the potential to ruin the experience for someone who hasn’t played yet.
In fact, I managed to inadvertently spoil myself twice during my play through, so I fully understand how annoying that is. So I’m going to keep this free of spoilers for the characters and the plot line, and focus more on my relationship with the series as a whole, and some of my issues with the mechanics of this game (as well as its predecessors).
The Danganronpa games are part murder mystery visual novel, and part friendship / dating simulator, with some very twitch action sequences, which as far as I’m concerned, plays as oddly as it sounds. In each installment, you have a group of teenagers with memory issues that need to figure out who they are, why they’re trapped together, and how to deal with the evil teddy bear who wants them to kill each other.
Each game is divided into three separate segments that alternate throughout the story, as well as periods of pure VN exposition. Player choice is limited to who you choose to spend time with during the daily life segments, and how much effort you want to put into figuring out (and obtaining) gifts for those characters. Investigation segments have no fail state – in fact, the game will prevent you from moving on until you’ve found all the necessary evidence.
The class trials are where that evidence gets put to use, and get progressively more difficult mechanically as the game progresses. Although these segments are my favorite parts, they can also be the most irritating, as they require a level of skill that the rest of the game doesn’t (although turning down the difficulty for the action portions should give you far more time than you’d ever actually need).
It was a little over a year ago now that I dived into the world of Danganronpa for the first time. Initially, I was drawn to it because of the “stranger in a room” conceit – I love well told stories that start with this premise, and Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc was extremely well-reviewed. Despite not being a huge fan of the aesthetic, and in truth, not really enjoying a good portion of the elements of the game, I still charged through the twenty-odd hours of game, being dragged along behind a whirlwind story, and mostly unconcerned about the other elements.
I only managed to wait a couple of months before similarly devouring the sequel Danganronpa 2: Goodbye Despair, putting in about 25 hours over the course of a week. As with many successful sequels, it was more of the same, with minor improvements, and with the outlandishness kicked up a couple of notches. The things that didn’t impress me from the first game were still key to the game’s completion, but I was so invested in the plot, it was – at most – a minor inconvenience, providing me with an opportunity to catch my breath in between the parts I found more interesting.
After I finished it, I tracked down the “third episode” anime – I wasn’t ready to be finished with the story, and according to the fans, this was the next step. Once I finished watching that, I was more or less content with that being the end of the story.
I knew there was a third game, I poked around enough to learn that the ending really divided the fanbase, and I decided that – especially considering the $40 price tag – it wasn’t something I needed to play, and so, I mostly put the Danganronpa universe out of my mind until the Steam Summer Sale, when I decided to get Danganronpa V3: Killing Harmony for about $12.
I have spent 26 hours in the last five days with Danganronpa V3: Killing Harmony, and in a lot of ways, it’s my least favorite of the series. However, part of the reasoning for that is how deeply uncomfortable the game made me in places, and for me, that’s a sign of a successful piece of art. It doesn’t matter if you love it – what matters is that it makes you feel something.
It may seem obvious – of course a game about teenagers being forced to kill each other as a mystery game is going to be at least a little bit uncomfortable, right? Well, having seen this exact setup twice before now, the game has lost some of its shock value. It wasn’t the plot twists either – if I could get this far in the series without expecting plot twists, I clearly hadn’t been paying attention.
In fact, I would say that, as a video game, DV3 plays well into its own established tropes. There are characters you’re supposed to love, and characters you’re supposed to hate. There are mysteries of all sizes to be solved, and sometimes the player will feel clever, and sometimes they won’t, but in the end, they’ll get the answers they’re looking for. None of this is subverted.
So what was it about Danganronpa V3: Killing Harmony that actually made me squirm in my seat? It was the offhand background commentary, the stuff played off for laughs. Although the game is around three years old at this point, there are several moments that feel especially poignant as someone living in the United States in 2020. One or two references felt absolutely like foreshadowing of current events, and although my logical brain realizes that in a lot of ways, that’s a result of the writers throwing a lot of things at a lot of walls, it still broke me out of the in-game universe and sent me back into my own reality.
In all three games, there have been characters I felt were solid, some of them almost in spite of their unlike-ability, while others were just painfully absurd, but overall, I felt as if the characters in the third game were the least interesting when taken as a group. This meant for the first half of the game, I was less invested in the outcomes of the cases than I otherwise might have been. Sure, I wanted to know what happened, but I didn’t much care about the victims or the murderers, which for me was definitely a weak point, and if I hadn’t been invested in the universe as a whole, I might not have continued playing through what – for me – are the dull parts, and just read a plot summary on the internet somewhere.
I wouldn’t classify myself as a hardcore Danganronpa fan – to be honest, I have never even poked into any of the bonus modes that unlock at the end of each game. For me, when the story is over, there isn’t any point in continuing to play, because I play for the mysteries. Still, I was satisfied with the game as a whole, and the ending didn’t ruin anything for me, rather, I appreciated it for what it was and how it fit into the themes of the game as a whole.