Danganronpa 1-2 Reload Review
If you aren’t one of the twelve people who owned a PS Vita, you may not have heard of Danganronpa, a unique murder-mystery visual novel series introduced to the West through Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc in 2014. The game’s unique style and delicious premise made it a cult classic, and warranted the subsequent translation and release of its sequel, Danganronpa 2: Goodbye Despair, a middling shooter spin-off and two anime series. Now, finally, the series is getting to reach a larger audience with Danganronpa 1-2 Reload on PS4, a collection of the original two games from the Vita, ‘re-mastered’ for the big screen and for home console play.
If you’re already a Danganronpa fan from its Vita releases – I’ll save you having to press on through the rest of the review – you’re not missing out on anything with Danganronpa 1-2 Reload. Unless you desperately need to see these stories play out on a big screen (in which case, perhaps the anime might be another option), any upgrade or benefit from the PS4 is minimal. Sprites, images and movies are not noticeably sharper, in fact appearing a little fuzzy at times having been upscaled, while 3D environments retain the exact same textures and clarity.
If you haven‘t played Danganronpa before, then I have the exact opposite recommendation – this is an instant purchase. Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc and Danganronpa 2: Goodbye Despair are some of the best recent examples of the visual novel genre, mashing up elements of Ace Attorney, Zero Escape and school simulators like Persona to great effect.
Behind the series is a great idea for a tense murder mystery. In the first game, Makoto Naegi has just been accepted to Hope’s Peak Academy, a school for ‘Ultimates’. If you’re of high school age and you’re the best in your field you’re accepted – whether you’re the Ultimate Novelist, the Ultimate Hall Monitor, or even the Ultimate Bike Gang Leader in the country. Makoto is none of these things – simply winning a spot at the school due to a lottery, but on arrival his good luck instantly goes awry.
He and the rest of his class mysteriously pass out and wake up to find themselves locked inside Hope’s Peak Academy with no escape. Every window is barred with iron plates, and a giant vault door protects the entrance. The figure behind their predicament, a robotic remote-controlled black-and-white bear named Monokuma, announces himself as the school’s new Headmaster, and proposes a deadly game as the only means of escape. If a student is able to murder another, and get away with it, Monokuma will allow that person to leave (but execute everyone else who remains). If a murder is committed, and the perpetrator discovered, then they’ll be the one executed. If nobody commits a murder at all, then the students will remain trapped for the rest of their lives.
It’s a terrific little set-up, with shades of Battle Royale and Zero Escape, but while the situation is deadly serious, the actual presentation is anything but. Danganronpa is colourfully presented with fluorescent gaudy shades highlighting every environment, which 2D characters populate like cardboard cut-outs. The game has fun with its unique style, always presenting blood in bright pink for instance, and occasionally switching to grungy, almost MTV-esque, cutscenes when an execution occurs.
Danganronpa 2: Goodbye Despair presents a similar situation to the first game, with new protagonist Hajime Hinata and his class finding themselves trapped on a tropical island, with Monokuma once again in control with another ‘Killing Game’. The game plays around a lot more with video game tropes and references, while having its own dark twists and turns on the formula.
While the premise of both games is similar, they’re both remain memorable thanks to their distinct and hilarious casts. Filling a high school with ‘Ultimate’ personalities is just a license for the writer to come up with as many over-the-top and zany characters as possible, sometimes even parodying aspects of anime and video game culture. There are highlights from both games, with the original cast being my personal favourite, but there’s really a love to love, with a tonne of great dialogue.
Visual novel games are by their definition narrative-driven, and the gameplay reflects that. Most of your time in Danganronpa is spent flipping through dialogue and story scenes, with minimal voicework (which is however, nice, when it appears). This is slightly easier to swallow on a portable, like the PS Vita, akin to reading a book you’re able to pick up and put down again whenever you need to, however it feels clunkier on a home console. Gameplay mainly comes down to simple exploration through the game’s basic 3D environments, and finding clues and objects in a point-and-click like manner.
The games follow the students’ day-to-day life, allowing you to spend ‘free time’ each day conversing with characters you want to get to know, exploring, or engaging in mini-games.
However, things really kick into high gear once the (inevitable) murders start happening. After investigating a crime scene and speaking to the suspects, you’re taken to the ‘Class Trial’. In this circular courtroom, students face each other directly and present arguments as to who they think committed the crime. In what amounts to this game’s action gameplay, you can literally shoot down statements with ‘truth bullets’ to counter their arguments. In practice, this basically means moving a targeting cursor over dialogue on-screen and shooting a contradictory statement with evidence from a pre-selected list.
It’s a weird, but engaging way to show an interactive argument, although they can get repetitive as the dialogue repeats over and over again, waiting for you to shoot down the right response. Both games have their own ways of spicing up this action as well, none perhaps more ridiculous than the snowboarding ‘Logic Dive’ mini-game in Danganronpa 2. That said, in the ridiculous context of the game itself, they work in an oddball fashion.
If the murder mystery premise of the Danganronpa games peak your interest, and you’re not allergic to some heavy reading, Danganronpa 1-2 Reload has two fantastic titles at one very reasonable price. With minimal upgrades, it’s not worth the revisit for longtime fans, but it is a great entry point for newcomers, especially with Danganronpa V3 on the way later this year.