Good morning, everyone! Welcome to Kotaku's review of Danganronpa 2: Goodbye Despair. Since the two of us—Jason and Kirk—have already spent a ton of time this year talking about Danganronpa, we figured we'd team up to review the sequel together.
Ready? A body has been discovered! Let's do it.
Jason: Hi Kirk! It's time we stop procrastinating and do what we've wanted to do for months: REVIEW DANGANRONPA 2.
Kirk: I think it's safe to say that we've been looking forward to doing this ever since... well, ever since Danganronpa 1.
Jason: Can't believe it's already been 20 years.
Kirk: If you wanna feel old, think about this: The first Danganronpa came out in 1994.
Jason: Right. Yes. And by "1994" you mean "literally seven months ago."
Kirk: Which is basically 20 years in video-game time. Still, though - how wild that TWO games in this series both came out in North America in the same year, right? We both really liked the first one—I wound up reviewing it—and when we found out that the sequel would also be out in 2014, it seemed too good to be true. But here we are.
Jason: Realistically, after playing Danganronpa 2, it feels less like two games and more like two parts of the same game. Like when Kill Bill Vol 1 came out, then Vol 2 came out a little while later. But we'll get to that a bit more later. For now... well, want to describe just what Danganronpa is?
Kirk: Okay, yeah, let's start with that. So, quick and dirty: Danganronpa is a visual-novel-style game about high school students who are locked in a location together and told that they must kill one another. If one student kills another one and gets away with it, he or she "graduates" and is allowed to leave, and all the other students are killed. But if the other students can gather enough evidence and correctly identify the culprit during a high-energy "class trial," the murderer is executed and the other students live to see another day. It's a big mash-up of a bunch of different pop-culture junk, basically like Battle Royale meets Phoenix Wright meets... uh....
Jason: Persona 3/4? When you're not following along in the story or participating in those class trials, you're building social links with the other students, which reveals more about their characters and lets you unlock new abilities to use during the trials.
Kirk: Yeah, it's definitely got some of that stuff going on, plus the clean user interface reminds me of Persona 4 Golden, in particular. (Incidentally, the last game that you and I co-reviewed.) There's also some Clue in there, only it replaces "Mr. Plum with the revolver in the study" with some more, uh, elaborate setups.
And it's got a lot in common with the Zero Escape games from developer Spike Chunsoft, like 999 and Virtue's Last Reward. But despite all those familiar influences, it does manage to carve out its own weird identity. Sort of this creepy, mixed-art-style anime thing with undertones of violence, exploitation and voyeurism... but then lots of surprising, heartfelt character moments? It's a funky cocktail, but a potent one. You never feel like you're playing anything but a Danganronpa game.
Jason: I think that's mostly because of Monokuma, the psychopathic, charming, hilarious, amazing, murderous bear that serves as headmaster in Danganronpa 1, then interloper in Danganronpa 2. It's Monokuma who sets the rules in each game and forces all the students to murder one another, and it's Monokuma who pops up randomly to deliver hilarious non-sequitors and tease everyone with threats and silly puns. I've long believed that a great villain is what makes a story work, and there's really no villain like Monokuma.
Kirk: It's funny, when I started the first game, I haaaated Monokuma. He's such an annoying mascot character, he has this awful voice, he's always doing this annoying laugh "puhuhuhu." But as time went on, he grew on me, and yeah, now he's one of my favorite things about the game.
Which, okay, let's get into the plot of the second game, and how it differs from the first one. The setup is basically: Like last time, a group of students from Hope's Peak Academy wake up with some of their memories removed. Like last time, they're a group of "ultimates," kids with one ultimate ability that sets them apart from the rest of the world. There's the ultimate swordswoman, the ultimate cook, the ultimate gamer, the ultimate gymnast, and so on. So that's all a lot like the first game. But there are a lot of differences, too.
Jason: So this time, a bunch of students get to Hope's Peak Academy and... find out they're actually on a tropical island, where they're going on a school trip. The setting is totally different this time around, as are your methods of transportation. Danganronpa 2 is much more liberal about letting you use fast-travel to bounce around when you're investigating or spending free time with your classmates. Also, there's a rabbit.
Kirk: Right, a rabbit named Unami. Well, Monomi. It's complicated.
Jason: Beary, beary complicated.
I liked how you get around in this game. You're on this lovely tropical destination called Jabberwock Island—though it's technically an archipelago—and when you walk from place to place, it does this nifty side-scrolling thing that lets you watch your character (who, incidentally, is an unremarkable bro named Hajime Hinata) on the move. You walk Hajime from place to place, and some locations open up into first-person and let you walk around and explore, while other places are just still frames full of objects you can investigate. There's this minigame in the menus where you have a Tamagochi-style pet that grows and changes the more you walk? I don't know, it never really grabbed me (I kept remembering to check only to find a dead pet), but some more thorough players may like it, as it encourages you to walk everywhere.
The game's also got the same weird 2D-meets-3D style going on, where characters all look like cardboard standees that bounce around when you click on them. That said, it doesn't exactly demand all that much exploration, and usually pretty clearly tells you where to go next. It's all pretty rigid and linear, you know?
Jason: Right, and, like, I think adding non-linear exploration would really screw with the pacing too much. Even the social link sections—"Free Time," they're called—feel like they drag a little bit on what otherwise is a tightly crafted story, an emotional rollercoaster ride that keeps taking you up and down and up and down through murders, betrayals, parties, movies, carnival rides, and even a video game. (Yes, there's a video game inside this video game.) The reason to play Danganronpa 2—and you should definitely play Danganronpa 2—is to experience the story, which never stops being compelling even when it gets batshit insane.
Kirk: Both the first and second games operate on two levels. On the one level, there are the standalone chapters, each of which gives you some time to explore a new area, some downtime to socialize, then there's a murder, and a class trial where you use the evidence to finger the murderer. Those are each pretty self-contained. Then there's the big-picture story, which offers answers to why you're here, what's going on, who's pulling Monokuma's strings, that sort of thing. I have to say that in this game even more than the first one, I liked the individual cases a lot more than the overarching story.
Jason: Yeah, I think that's because the individual cases are just well-crafted mysteries, while the overarching story is, like, sci-fi babble. In both games.
Kirk: They're really smelling their own farts in the sequel, too. Without spoiling anything: At least in the first game there was this sense of dread, like, "What's really going on outside of the school?" It gave things a certain momentum. The sequel takes everything established in the first game as a given and goes off on a largely incomprehensible tear. I appreciated that they didn't half-ass it, but I also couldn't help but wish that the big-picture story had the kind of focus and careful construction that the best individual cases had.
It's so philosophically muddled - the primary theme of the Danganronpa series is the ongoing conflict between Hope and Despair, but I've just never quite understood the series' definitions of the two things, or the ways they play against one another. One character says, basically, "The greatest hope comes from overcoming despair, so I embrace despair, because I love hope!" It's the main theme but it never actually lands with any clarity, so it doesn't have much impact. Either the writers were unsure of their own philosophy and disguised it with convoluted nonsense, or something's being lost in translation from Japanese to English.
Jason: I guess the point is that you can't have Hope without Despair? And the most Hope comes out of Despair-filled situations? Night is darkest before the dawn, that sort of thing?
Kirk: In other words: Nice pink bunnies only seem nice if they have weird red-eyed bears beat them up from time to time. Makes sense to me!
Jason: OK, so, let's talk about the characters, because part of the charm of Danganronpa games is meeting a bunch of people and then hoping none of your favorites die. I'd say the Ultimate students in Danganronpa 2 are interesting, and great, but not quite as lovable as some of the ones in #1. What do you think?
Kirk: Yeah, that's about right. It's always funny how I start these games and am annoyed with, like, half the characters, but after a few hours, they've really grown on me. Both of the jocks this time around—Akane the gymnast and Nekumaru, the coach—became two of my favorites after a while.
And of course, there's Chiaki, the ultimate gamer. *swoon*
Who were some of your favorites?
Jason: Chiaki is the best. THE BEST. I like Nagito, too. I couldn't stand Sonia or Mikan.
Kirk: I liked Sonia because her name is "Sonia Nevermind." Which is probably my favorite video game character name of 2014.
Jason: Sonia... Nevermind. That actually sounds like a line of Chiaki dialogue. "Sonia... I think."
Kirk: Ha, it does. So okay, here's something I wanted to ask you about. There's this creepiness to the way that Danganronpa treats its female characters, and it felt more prevalent to me in the sequel than it did in the first game. There's this constant leering going on, with pervy male characters going on and on about the women and how sexy they are, and the women are always letting sexual double entendres slip or tripping and falling in revealing positions...
I sense that a lot of it is meant satirically, but it doesn't always come off. The game may be mocking the male characters for crudely objectifying women, but in the end, it's also still crudely objectifying women. What do you make of all that? Did this game ever make you uncomfortable?
Jason: Well... as far as Japanese otaku-friendly games go, this one's pretty tame. And I'm willing to forgive some of the creepier moments when so many of the women are written in interesting ways. Take Chiaki, for example. When I first saw her, I groaned: "Oh no, this is going to be some sort of fantastical dream girl who LOVES VIDEO GAMES JUST LIKE YOU, LONELY MAN PLAYING THIS GAME." But she turns out to be an interesting character full of quirks and personality traits that make her stand out without the need for sexualization or objectification.
It'd be nice if you could play as a woman, though. I hope the hero of Danganronpa 3 is a chick.
Kirk: Yeah, it's definitely something that's happening on multiple levels, and it's a far cry from more overtly sexual Japanese visual novels. Despite all the off-putting objectification, the women turn out to be the smartest, most resourceful characters, just like in the first game. Which doesn't excuse the other stuff, since surely the game could only benefit from from excising it, but it's still welcome.
To borrow a word I used when talking about the first game, there's a certain tawdriness to it all that I find appealing in a weird way, even though it sometimes turns me off. Like how after each class trial, you watch this elaborate execution sequence where the murderer is killed in front of everyone. The sequences are cartoonish and never as messed-up as that description sounds, but there's a certain dark thrill in knowing that it's coming up on time to watch a student be killed. And of course, Monokuma plays right into that, gleefully announcing "It's PUNISHMENT TIME!!" just before it happens. A lot of the time, the game makes fun of you for liking its grimier aspects.
Jason: It's almost a send-up of splatter horror.
Kirk: It's a send-up of a lot of things, really. And while games have to walk that line between "funny meta joke about the game itself" and "makes you feel like the butt of the joke for playing it," Danganronpa 2 mostly manages. Which... we haven't talked about the actual *game* stuff yet.
Monokuma is very serious about being taken seriously as a true game, so we should probably talk about that!
Jason: Right, Monokuma would not be happy if we didn't acknowledge that this is a real video game. I think at the beginning he makes sure to yell at you if you're playing a friend's copy, too. If you don't buy your own version of Danganronpa 2, Monokuma will be beary disappointed.
Kirk: He's gotta think about that bottom line!
Jason: So yeah, as part of the trials, you have to go through a series of mini-games and puzzles in order to piece together who did what. Some of these mini-games are fun; others are... not so fun.
Kirk: Yeah. The whole thing is prefaced on the concept of "truth bullets," which are, like, objections that you shoot at certain coded phrases that people say in their testimony. It's a fun metaphor, but then you have to actually blast unrelated text-junk out of the way, aim your shot, and fire. And then there are times when you have to hold your finger down on a DIFFERENT piece of testimony, "load" that into your truth-gun, and fire it back at an earlier piece of testimony to break through. Still other times you can fire a truth-bullet to demonstrate that you consent with something someone is saying.
And that's just basic testimony, there are all sorts of other minigames—spelling out words hang-man style, doing a rhythm game where you tap the screen to destroy arguments, going on wacky snowboarding "logic dives" to connect clues, and so on—and while they're all more involved than they were in the first game, that's not necessarily a good thing. I got waaaay more game overs in Danganronpa 2 than I did in the first game. While I could've just caved and set the difficulty to easy, that doesn't feel like a great solution. The minigames often do a good job of breaking up the pacing of the trials, I just wish they were better designed.
Jason: I think I liked all of these mini-games more than you did. I thought the truth bullets made for some interesting puzzles, and I dug the rhythm of those logic dives. The rhythm game was easy to hack, and at times I even enjoyed the "word duel" games in which you have to swipe the screen to literally chop apart your opponent's arguments. Fuck the Hangman one, though. That sucked.
Kirk: Oh man, I really didn't like the word duels. You have more patience than I do! But despite how annoying some of that stuff can be, it's worth saying that the game isn't actually very punishing - the worst thing that happens is you get a game over, and the option to try again from right where you failed. I feel like the minigames are attempts to graft actual gameplay onto a style of game that doesn't really need it, but I do like how they shake up the formula. Then again, the mysteries you're trying to solve are generally so well put-together that they're interesting enough without rhythm-matching minigames. And man, some of those mysteries are so freakin good.
Jason: Yeah, it's great that you don't have to restart from anywhere... didn't the first Danganronpa make you jump back a bit if you got a game over? And yeah, I dunno, I liked the feeling of figuring out the answers to each mystery through interaction rather than just reading. I remember a few particular moments where the twists dawned on me AS I was playing one of the mini-games, and those were really rad.
Kirk: That's a good point, there are a few minigames where that happens. Like on those snowboarding "logic dives" where you'd have to answer different multiple-choice questions about what happened in a certain place by steering a snowboard down the path associated with the answer you choose. I actually didn't always know where things were going at the start of those, and it was cool to (literally) trace the lines of reasoning that led to a conclusion. Much better than the "guess the letters in the words" minigame.
Jason: Yeah, exactly. So, OK, we've talked a lot about the specifics of Danganronpa 2... what's the verdict? Worth playing?
Kirk: I'd say definitely, although with a caveat - it's really only worth playing if you've played the first game. (Our own Richard Eisenbeis agrees; he really liked the Japanese version of the game when he played it last fall.)
Perhaps to put it more positively, play the first game if you haven't! And then absolutely play this one.
Jason: Yeah, I think everyone should play them both, though I'd be fine recommending the sequel to someone who hasn't played the first, so long as they're more interested in the individual cases than they are in the overarching story. Though... yeah, you won't understand the overarching story at ALL if you don't play the first one.
Kirk: And really, it's like you said - together they feel like two halves of a full game, a la Kill Bill vols. 1 and 2. People would be missing out to skip the first game and jump into the second one, particularly given that many of the revelations that came at the end of the first game are treated as common knowledge in the sequel.
Playing both games at once might be a bit of an overload—they took me somewhere in the neighborhood of 17 hours apiece to complete—but anyone who does that will almost certainly have a hell of a good time. I'm dying to know (pun intended) where things can possibly go in the third game... I can't even imagine.
Any final thoughts before we sign off?
Jason: I want to be IRL friends with Monokuma.
Kirk: That'd be a weird friendship, but things would definitely never get boring.