Danganronpa: Panic at the high school
I’m sitting at home after work, twiddling my thumbs. For some time I hadn’t been much interested in the act of gaming, so a visual novel had been just the thing to ease me back into it. Now that there’s a Hakuōki-shaped hole in my
heart time, I’m finally able to pick up something else. (This also coincides with my willingness to listen to podcasts again; I’ve been avoiding them for over a month.) My 3DS has been dead for weeks, so I throw that on the charger since I’m in the mood for some map-making bullshit. (Nope, still haven’t finished PQ. I am a terrible person.)
But I figure I’ll pick up Danganronpa while I wait. I had bought this game at Patrick Klepek’s behest, as he continually fought for it in several categories during Giant Bomb’s game of the year deliberations. (Thankfully, he managed not to spoil anything.) All I really knew about it before I got going was a nebulous name-dropping of Persona and Ace Attorney.
Upon starting you get to choose between English and Japanese audio, and I go with Japanese (which, obvs, we’ve previously discussed Toriumi Kousuke). You also choose between three levels of difficulty (gentle, kind, and mean) in two separate categories: logic and action. What this actually changes, I’m not really sure, so I choose kind and gentle, respectively. The music . . . is loud, even after turning it down as far as it can go. I mean, I don’t strictly dislike it. In fact there are some pieces I actively like. But in general it is really obnoxious. That doesn’t start me off well.
The player-character is Naegi Makoto, admitted to Hope’s Peak Academy, a high school for “ultimate” students—the ultimate baseball star, the ultimate programmer, the ultimate fashionista. . . . Graduation from this school is said to “guarantee” success in the real world. So what’s Makoto? He was chosen to attend the school by lottery, making him the “ultimate lucky student”. (In other words, he’s utterly normal, besides being “a little more gung-ho than other people”.) Sounds pretty good I guess. Okay, let’s poke around then.
But what’s up with all the security cameras, and the bolted-over windows, the giant vault door in place of the main entrance, the ceiling-mounted Gatling guns? Here’s where it gets crazy.
The headmaster is a sadistic stuffed bear that explains what graduation really means: you’re the last one left alive. You can either choose to live a full life stuck in the school (food/water/electric/gas/trash included), or you can kill someone and get away with it. That second part is the sticker. When someone dies, the students are to hold a class trial to decide whodunnit (the bear already knows, because security cameras); if they figure out the true culprit, the bear executes that killer in a delightfully gruesome fashion befitting his/her “ultimate” status. If the class decides incorrectly, everyone but the killer gets executed. Therein lies the premise.
At first I see only Ace, in stereotyped-to-the-max characters and click-on-all-the-things-to-progress gameplay. But as I gain freedom in the world I see a little more Persona: the day-by-compartmentalized-day passage of time, and the concept of making friends to strengthen skills.
There is 3D movement, but make no mistake—there are no 3D people. They are so 2D, in fact, that when I rotate the camera in a room, the characters remain flat as cardboard cutouts. In my time playing I see exactly one polygonal character model in a cut scene, and for maybe one second. Most cut scenes are series of static images shifting as if pinned together with brass fasteners, or warped for artificial movement. It’s a manner much befitting its visual style, which is terrifically cartoony and tongue-in-cheek. For example, the “ultimate fanfic creator” (which I assume is a clumsy translation of “doujinshi publisher”) perpetually dons a kitty mouth, and the blood. . . .
A couple indecipherable grunts had been instantly recognizable as Nakai Kazuya playing the cast’s resident
Hijikanji biker thug. And it takes some time to fully realize since his character is standoffish and bitchy, but that’s definitely Ishida Akira. (Aw yiss, Gintama rears its pretty head twice.) Another gem (Sawashiro Miyuki—Kanbaru in Bakemonogatari, Lag Seeing in Tegami Bachi) is, unfortunately, tucked away behind an insufferable character, as is Yamaguchi Kappei—he’s so talented, how do I consistently find his most horrid roles?
In all the voice talent is there, but boy is it used poorly. There are a few instances of fully-voiced lines, but Danganronpa does that adventure game thing where a few short stock phrases are recorded for each character, and then tangentially relevant ones are played against completely different dialogue text. There’s so much “Eto. . . .” and “Yabai yo!” that I kind of want to strangle these people myself. Which, by the way, is not an option as the player-character. Ugh. This fucking bear. I button through its dialogue faster than I can read it so I don’t have to hear the thing speak. I don’t give a shit if she does voice Doraemon, it’s. the. worst.
So most of these people are fucking irritating and I can’t wait for somebody to bite it. When someone finally does, that’s where the game really turns into Ace Attorney: explore the environs for evidence that’ll help point you to the culprit. I say “help” because while the game says I’ve found all the evidence I need, I feel just as unprepared for the trial as I often did in Ace. There are some things I figured out simply by having eyes (or ears), but I don’t have all the connecting threads to prove that with actual evidence. I don’t like this, going into something without all my threads woven together in a nice Bayeux tapestry. (That comes at the end of the trial.)
While I don’t have all necessary information myself, it will get teased out of the other characters over the course of the class trial. It begins with a “nonstop debate”, in which we all pool our accounts of the event to get to the bottom of things. Everyone starts talking, throwing out whatever observations or crazy theories they have; your job as the player is to fire “truth bullets” (bits of evidence) at specific statements to point out their contradictions or set them straight.
But the whole first chapter is a rolling tutorial so I’m still getting a handle on all the controls (I’m not paying all that much attention honestly) and whoa they are talking about a lot of buttons right now—I can use the touch screen to tap or aim with the left stick and fire with X but don’t shoot the wrong statement or you take damage and if your credibility expires then you lose and they kill you and did I mention this is all taking place on a time limit? Holy shit. I start fanning my face because I’m sweating. Literally. It’s February, less than 70 Fahrenheit in the apartment, I’m alone in a huge living room, wearing a tank top, and sweating because I’m so stressed out.
That’s not all either. There’s a hangman minigame I guess, you make a cut-and-paste comic of how the murder event went down (and hell if I can tell what’s happening in these tiny pictures—wait, really, I’m doing this all by myself? is it because of the gung-ho thing? y’all aren’t going to help even a little?), and then for some reason there’s a rhythm game (!?) that nearly causes me to fail the trial because of these damn controls, do you want me to hit X or triangle whaaat why did I lose.
I know, I know. A lot of this sounds negative. But actually—Danganronpa is fun. The gameplay doesn’t overstay its welcome; just before I start feeling like “Welp, this is going to get old,” the game introduces a new mechanic, or a new plot device, or just plain moves on. It’s engaging and affecting—not necessarily emotionally, but mentally for sure. It’s not the mechanics that make this game (in fact the gameplay often left me saying what the fuck?), but the story is so well-paced and intricately written that it’s exciting to see those threads come together in real time over the course of the debate. And this was only the first trial; presumably this pattern will continue until only one student remains (me lol). However by the end of the first trial, the death toll is already greater than two, so I expect the game to break its own formulae as I dig deeper. Byakuya, I’m looking at you. Prick.
. . . yes sir.
Addendum: I replayed the prologue to get a taste of the English voice actors, and . . . don’t play it in English. Just don’t. Is it because the cast is headed by Bryce Papenbrook and I think he’s awful? Maybe. He “does voices” rather than “plays characters”. Is that his fault? Is it the ADR direction? Is he just cast in roles that don’t fit him? I don’t know, but there weren’t even lip flaps to match here, and still half the cast sounds forced and unreal. I don’t know what it is with dubs lately but it’s like they’re not even trying. You can have the nicest voice in the world and still be a poor actor, and in my opinion, a lot of these new-name English-language VAs fall under that category. And, unrelated, but Brian Beacock as Monokuma makes me pine for the Doraemon person, so, I take that back, it’s not the worst.
. . . what? I have to say something nice? Ugh, fine. The role is annoying as shit, but at least Beacock could act his way out of a paper bag. Also, Grant George—keep on rocking those Sakurai roles. You’re doing a hell of a job.