Following the Danganronpa series over the past few years has been a turbulent ride, spanning over two excellent visual novels, a decent third person shooter that I should really revisit, an anime series that I railed on for 7 pages and still feel as if I was being a bit too generous towards, and various fan translated spin-off media that I never really checked out. However, all of that seemingly comes to a close with Danganronpa V3: Killing Harmony.
Danganronpa V3: Killing Harmony Review
Platforms: PC(Reviewed), PS Vita, PS4
Developer/Publisher: Spike Chunsoft
As one should expect from the prior main entries, Danganronpa V3 centers around a group of 16 super talented high schoolers who are taken away from their ordinary school lives by the adorable, nefarious, and slightly sadistic robot teddy bear Monokuma. Imprisoned in a distraught yet fully functional school, the teenagers are forced to engage in a killing game in order to both earn their freedom and entertain their captor. A familiar premise that is mostly differentiated by cosmetic changes, including an all new cast, a very different looking, and often underplayed, school setting, and Monokuma’s assortment of mutlicolored children, called the Monokubs, who serve as the largest source of comic relief in the story.
With a similar premise comes a similar list of strengths. The story itself is comprised of a lengthy lineage of reveals and twists in an attempt to keep things interesting while building up to a creative conclusion. Which itself is broken up by insanely intricate murders that verge on the absurd while still being understandable along with scenes portraying the lovable cast. The characters are diverse and lovable, and while some do veer a bit close towards certain archetypes, this game arguably has the strongest cast in the entire series. Which just makes the inevitable demises for the vast majority of the cast all the more disheartening.
It also manages to be the most routinely humorous entry in the series, with the disparaging murders and killing being tonally offset by a wide array of gags, goofs, and generally funny lines. Yet it manages to remain a zealous and energetic consistency despite these two factors being seeming opposites, and amount to a rather unique and playful tone that is probably the biggest reason this series has seen so much success.
However, as Danganronpa 2 proved when it was first releases, the Danganronpa team, or Team Danganronpa as they started calling themselves, is not the sort to simply rehash story ideas, and uses the assumption that anyone who is playing V3 is familiar with at least the first two games to its advantage. This allows the story to play with player expectations, casually reference past concepts, and build a more complicated and interwoven story. Yet, the core of what defines the mainline games in the series is maintained, and everything continues to revolve around the killing game.
The most glaring example of the developers expressing this freedom comes surprisingly early on when the game does… something. Something daring, surprising, and honestly kind of amazing, that nevertheless left a bitter impression on me for the rest of the game. It is a twist that I could compare to a similar one from… how to keep this ambiguous… a game released early on in the PS2’s lifespan, but even that comparison does not properly convey the sense of wrongness that follows this action. For as much as I want to praise this unnamed narrative decision, I could not help myself from reciting it throughout… basically the entirety of the game, waiting for the twist to be undone in some way or form, and for things to return to the way they should be. Probably because I honestly found the protagonist more interesting before this all happened.
This twist also happens to relate heavily into the core theming of this game, and the ending of Danganronpa. It is a wondrous and shocking series of discoveries and revelations that ends up putting a unique and slightly alienating twist on the story of the game and, to a lesser extent, the story as a whole. However, I can plainly see that it is a very divisive conclusion, and while I did ultimately enjoy it while the ending played out before me, the most I thought about it, the more I began to question it. There are just so many unanswered questions raised by this conclusion, so many questions about what exactly this or that were meant to represent, and the burning question of how it all is meant to be interpreted.
It wrapped my mind for the majority of the day after I completed it, and made an overall positive emotional impact upon me, yet even after looking up ancillary information about the conclusion and observing other’s interpretations, I still felt as if something a bit more should have been done in game to give the ending the time it really needed to explain and present itself. I mean, so much about the core theming is passed over that I felt like I accidentally skipped past a conversation. I felt a similar way about Zero Escape: Zero Time Dilemma, another trilogy topping visual novel developed by Spike Chunsoft, where the ending felt like like it was either rushed or rewritten late into development, despite the fact that both games allotted their core creators plenty of time to devise a compelling conclusion. Besides, V3 has so much extra content, it is hard to believe that it was ever rushed.
Beyond the story, V3 follows the same gameplay format of the original titles, where the game is divided into six chapters each with their own distinct sections. Starting with daily life, wherein the story progresses, murders are subtly foreshadowed, and the protagonist builds their bonds with other characters, increasing the player’s attachment to them all the more. Then moving to deadly life, which tasks player to gather evidence, known as truth bullets, by investigating relevant scenes to the murders. A fairly simple process that often lays out certain core elements of the murder, and continues the story all the while. Before leading into the class trials, where the bulk of the gameplay resides, as the protagonist must discover the killer, or rather blackened, and determine how they murdered the victim. Lest the blackened not be deemed guilty and be granted their freedom while everyone else dies a horrible death.
The Class Trials are primarily structured as dialog scenes where the characters are given full voice acting, and debate the facts in order to uncover the blackened with interstitial minigames that test the player’s reflexes and logical deduction skills. The most common of these are the Non-Stop Debates, sections where the player must go through a conversation in order to uncover contradictions, points to agree with, or points where they may take the truth and invert it into a lie in order to keep the conversation going. Although, I never really got the hang of lying, as it required a creative approach to problem solving that I could never get the hang of unless the game basically told me that lying was necessary to progress. Which it does most of the time.
Being the core gameplay of this visual novel, there are a variety of minigames or subgames inserted throughout each trial that test player’s logical and reflex skills. Spanning from a puzzle themed rendition of Minesweeper to uncover objects hidden under multicolored tiles. Psyche Taxi, a driving section not unlike Logic Drive from DR2 that involves a convertible taxi driving across a Las Vegas inspired roadway, collecting Mario Party item blocks in order to mentally articulate questions that must be answered by driving into women who shout “good” before plopping into the back seats. Which is easily the oddest sentence to appear in my… 300+ game reviews. And Hangman’s Gambit, where the player must play hangman by assembling the word based on a concept brought up by the developers by collecting floating balls hidden behind a dark veil.
Hangman’s Gambit is also the best example of how, much like its predecessors, V3 has very specific answers in mind and it is easy to not be on the exact same wavelength as the writers and designers. It is an inevitability with games like these, but I think the translation and phrasing are worse here than in prior titles, which resulted in a couple of confusing mistakes. Ones that I brute forced my way to answering before reloading to maintain my class trial score.
While airing out additional grievances, there is a change to one part of the Class Trial that I truly do not care for, the Argument Armament which replaces the Bullet Time Battle as the rhythm game aspect of this title. These require the player to switch between multiple face buttons and press them in conjunction with a circle that gradually surrounds the buttons. Once that circle is full, only then should the button be pressed or held. It is far more complicated and less intuitive when compared to the equivalent from other games, and I honestly could never get comfortable with this format. Even if these sections are rather generous with missed actions. Plus, with my coordination being what it is, even rather simple things like this can be quite difficult for me.
Moving back to the additional content, the prior Danganronpa titles each boasted a fairly grind intensive mode where characters are assigned to collect resources which can then be crafted into things needed to meet various goals, all while picking away at the social links the protagonist may form with other characters. This is replaced with a more straightforward relationship grinding mode, while the more gameplay driven aspects are redistributed to a board game section that is used to grind character stats which can then be used in a dungeon crawling RPG.
In this RPG, earn gold that can be used in a gashapon system in hopes of getting characters with higher rarities to move the process along. While intricate, it is not particularly enjoyable, and the best reason to do this is to witness the friendship scenes in the board game. Scenes that have characters of various games interact together as regular old high school students, and it is so, oh so good to see. They alone serve as a highlight of the game for me, and considering how well crafted and engaging the majority of the story is, that is certainly saying something.
As for the presentation, Danganronpa’s signature art style is something that I have praised in the past, and I feel it has continuously improved and refined itself with each release, and that remains true with V3, which features a very diverse and well designed cast, each with their own assortment of detailed and character establishing expressions. While CG and event art pieces are liberally used and serve to paint characters and the world a bit more vividly.
Beyond the 2D art assets, which are the focus for a lot of the game, the game does try to take advantage of the capabilities of the Vita, which is assuredly the primary platform for this game, yet in an uneven way that results in some very highly detailed 3D models, along with some low quality art assets and sterile 3D environments in the school. A school that itself adopts a downright perplexing design, one that features multiple floors yet no universal stairwell for them. Instead the stairways are scattered each floor, often at opposite ends of the building. Which is a downright perplexing design decision that only incentivises players to fast travel around the game’s small map.
Moving on, the UI elements for the background music and chapter signifier are far more appropriately sized than they were in prior titles. The presentation of conversation scenes, which is the majority of the game, has an additional level of flare as characters are placed in panels that shift and move, allowing for multiple characters to be on screen in separate panels, including the protagonist. This more dynamic presentation also demands that character sprites be presented at a higher resolution, and while that is the case, the black outlines for characters, and the lines that are used to signify panels, are aliased and look jagged when taking a closer look. It is something that would not really be noticeable on anything other than a PC monitor, but is still distracting nonetheless.
After Danganronpa 3: The End of Hope’s Peak High School proved to be one of the worst conclusions to anything that I have ever seen, I was very worried about how Danganronpa V3: Killing Harmony would turn out. However, the skill and talent of the developers once again shines through with a game that easily stands next to the two inaugural entries. Though, one not without a few narrative foibles that I take umbridge with, as they are not given quite enough focus, detail, and attention to be as satisfying as they ought to be. Ultimately, Danganronpa V3 is a slightly bittersweet end to what has become one of my favorite game series in recent memory that still manages to capture everything that made me love the titles that came before it.