There’s something deliciously bonkers about the Danganronpa series. Not only is it one of Spike Chunsoft’s most successful Japanese exports (it’s found a dedicated following here in the West) but it’s also one of the most resonant and popular murder mystery adventure titles in its home country, too. With a multitude of smartphone and console games, plus a couple of anime television adaptations and spin-off series under its furry belt, it’s a franchise that exemplifies the enterprisingly bold, terrifically cool and lamentably niche mid-tier scene that has been cultivated within the East.
‘But is it any good?’ I hear you asking. Well, the short answer is: no.
Unlike the action-focused 3rd-person shooting found in 2015’s Danganronpa Another Episode: Ultra Despair Girls off-shoot, Danganronpa V3: Killing Harmony is a continuation of the first two’s amalgamation of murder mystery adventure antics, spliced with a visual novel and a Phoenix Wright-esque courtroom twist. Though it’s not essential to have played the previous titles in the franchise (they’re all well-crafted, self-contained stories), I’d recommend newcomers check out the first two games first as they’re both pretty low-cost and terrific experiences to boot.
For those unfamiliar with the series, the core premise is a little like a wacky concoction of Battle Royale, Cluedo and an Agatha Christie novel. Sixteen strangers awaken trapped in a large, abandoned school-like structure where they must live their lives day-in, day-out. What’s strange about these sixteen individuals are that they are the “ultimates” at certain things, such as the ultimate detective, ultimate tennis player or ultimate pianist, for example. To escape from their prison, the strangers must murder one of their classmates and get away with it.
Following each killing, the game switches gears and turns into a tense courtroom debate where evidence and theories are sifted through with a fine tooth-comb. Finally, the group must vote as to who the culprit of the murder was. If the murderer, or “blackened”, gets away with the assassination, then they can “graduate” and escape scot-free, though, the rest of the group are executed for their mistake. Conversely, if the culprit is identified correctly, then the group continue to live for another day, but the blackened is executed in their place.
Overseeing the ensuing mayhem is the “headteacher” Monokuma, a black and white robot bear with a penchant for chaos, anarchy and destruction. Though he cannot directly harm the group (it’s against his “rules”), he can administer short-term regulations to help accelerate the bloodshed. Early on in Danganronpa V3, Monokuma gives the group 48 hours to begin the killing game, or else the whole group be executed, for example. He may look super cute, but the truth is, Monokuma is a stone-cold bastard. And he revels in the murderous bloodshed.
Tagging along for the ride are a quintet of smaller Monokubs (they’re weirdly cute, too) and each of them come sporting their own anarchic, madcap personalities. The blue Monokid, for example, is a horrid guitar-playing bully who torments the robotic Monodam, while the pink Monophanie is fairly chilled and somewhat perturbed by all the violence that she witnesses. Which is shown in her bizarre fits of barfing. Weird, right?
If you haven’t already noticed, the game often juxtaposes the dark and the serious with the silly and the bizarre, and it does so surprisingly well. It’s a tone that is — in most other games — pretty tricky to pull off, but because of Danganronpa V3’s smart, clever writing (and some excellent localisation too), it’s incredibly captivating experiencing the game’s twisted and intricate storytelling.
Along with its roster of strong characters and its gripping premise, the game is brimming with a plethora of twists and turns that’ll keep you guessing until the credits roll. False summits are delivered deftly — you’ll be convinced that the murderer is one particular individual, only to have the rug pulled from beneath you, leaving your head spinning in both awe and intrigue.
The game is roughly split up into two separate parts; the day-to-day “school-life” exploration segments and the courtroom class trial sections. During the day-to-day activities, you are given free time to explore areas in 3D from a first-person perspective. Talking to other characters helps to build up a rapport with them while also fleshing out their own unique back-stories. The relationship building process is similar to Persona’s social link system, albeit not quite as well developed. You can even give individual teammates gifts that enamour them to you even more. Or in my case, give them gifts that they hate. Sorry Miu, I didn’t realise that you hated greek yoghurt…
As your day-to-day school-life activities unfold, your fellow classmates soon begin to drop like flies at the hands of unknown killers. After thoroughly investigating the murder scenes in a point-and-click adventure game style, you’ll pick up pieces of really important evidence, AKA “Truth Bullets”, which you’ll need in the courtroom class trial portions of the game.
In this section, you’ll go up against the other prisoners and listen to their evidence, while trying to find contradictions or weaknesses in their statements. Peppered into proceedings are short mini-games where you have to “shoot down” the incorrect statements with your Truth Bullets. Other mini-games include Rebuttal Showdowns, where you counter the other person’s claim by slicing them with your Truth Blades; Debate Scrums, where you have to match your subject with your opponents’ and put them in the correct order, and, Hangman’s Gambit, where you have to deduce keywords from letter orbs that float around the screen. Thankfully, the game’s tutorials are fairly clear and, though there are fail-states, the game often saves very shortly before your failure which facilitates a quick, harmless reload.
The class trials can be nail-bitingly intense and are the parts of the game where the strong narrative and incredible writing really has a chance to shine. It’s all very edge-of-your-seat stuff and it’s satisfying getting to the bottom of each of its head-scratching murder cases, mainly due to your personal connections and friendships that you’ve built with many of these brilliantly written characters.
Presentation-wise, the game sports a neat comic-book style aesthetic that comes with a few bells and whistles, too. Each character has a ton of different poses, with little snippets of dialogue to add some personality to the experience. The catchy J-pop soundtrack can be occasionally atmospheric and is also worthy of praise, however, I just wish there was more of it. Over time, you’ll notice that the game recycles many of its audio tracks, though, they’re so good it doesn’t become too much of an issue. Also, I wish there was more of the excellent voice work as the majority of the dialogue is merely text-based. It’s just a minor gripe, but it would’ve been nice having more of the terrific voice work to soothe my ears and rest my eyes.
For those into their visual novels, or those hankering to revisit the old adventure games of yore, Danganronpa V3: Killing Harmony may well be the blood-soaked ticket you need right now. Its twisted helter-skelter ride of bloody murder and dastardly bears is a thrilling concoction of whodunit high jinks imbued with some surprisingly deep social satire, and to top it all off, it’s terrifically written and marvellously presented, too. It may not be a surefire hit for the masses, but for those deep under Monokuma’s spell, this could well be the send-off the series deserves.
This review is based on the PlayStation 4 version of the game, which was provided to us by NIS America.
Danganronpa V3: Killing Harmony's twisted helter-skelter ride of bloody murder and dastardly bears is a thrilling concoction of whodunit high jinks imbued with some surprisingly deep social satire, and to top it all off, it’s terrifically written and marvelously presented, too.