Danganronpa 2: Goodbye Despair Review
Reviewed on Sony PS Vita
The best villains always make a triumphant return. Whether it’s the T-1000 laughing in the face of liquid nitrogen or that guy at the end of Die Hard with the maniacal gleam and the big gun, you’ve got to expect the unexpected. In fact, it should be pretty clear that virtually nothing can keep a good baddie down, especially ones with mangled accents. It’s obvious then that after his utterly fantastic turn in Danganronpa that Monokuma needed – nay, demanded - another vehicle for his talents, another showcase to demonstrate his particular brand of malice. Thankfully we’ve not had to wait long, with Spike Chunsoft’s sequel ported over to the Vita and translated into English for the first time in speedy fashion.
This time around our cast of Ultimate students from Hope’s Peak Academy find themselves plonked on the tropical Jabberwock Island chain, ostensibly there to take part in what looks like the best school trip ever. And who else could possibly look after a group of talented individuals from an elite institution whose very lives are meant to embody the concept of ‘hope’ but a robotic rabbit, huh? Clearly that was the most sensible option. But before any of our students have had the chance to even begin to enjoy their enforced break properly Monokuma pops up in traditional fashion and begins the killing game afresh. Threatened with imprisonment forever in their empty paradise the students are given one escape option – murder one of their classmates and get away with the foul deed. This outlandish proposition becomes ever more likely as the stress of incarceration is augmented by additional motives thrown in by our cuddly bear, and our cast of hopeful youth slips evermore into despair - oh, Monokuma, how we’ve missed you.
As with the first game, much of the action on offer here takes the form of a visual novel – under Monokuma’s ever-watchful eye you’ll go about your day to day activities, meeting with friends, exploring the islands looking for escape opportunities and so on. Talking heads dominate the proceedings, anime cutouts helping visualise the changing moods and delivery of the story. There’s also the chance to engage in a little social simming by taking out available friends on on visits and figuring out what kind of gifts they would enjoy - getting it right will progress your relationship with them and award a hope fragment, which you can then use to buy skills to use in the class trials later on. Once again there’s the option to play with either the original Japanese voice track or with the new English dub; while purists will always gravitate towards the Japanese track, the English cast do a cracking job with the material and are well worth a listen. This exploration phase can’t last forever though, and it’s not long at all before someone breaks under all the tension and decides to go and off someone in a dreadfully dastardly way.
This starts the second part of the visual novel phase, the so called ‘Deadly Life’. Here you and the rest of the remaining cast will investigate whatever horrific crime has just taken place, finding clues by both exploring the murder scene and associated locations and by taking testimonies from the other Ultimates. You’re still deep in narrative territory here as you can’t physically progress past this stage without having picked up each and every clue available to find, but the insinuated risk of investigative failure begins to ramp up the tension as you attempt to deal with this act of betrayal. The clues and character reactions you gather here will be invaluable in the later trial, but perhaps the strongest aspect of Danganronpa 2 is that nothing is a foregone conclusion. Twists and turns of epic proportions await, and Danganronpa 2 is happy to play with your presumptions as you move through your investigation.
And what do you get when that’s all done and dusted? A trial, of course. Presided over by Monokuma you and your colleagues will point fingers at one another and argue back and forth in attempts to identify to culprit of whatever heinous crime has occurred. It’s during the trial that the real ‘gameplay’ elements of Danganronpa come out, with the main action seeing you use pieces of evidence gathered in the previous phase as ‘truth bullets’ to shoot down weak points in statements made by the other students. Additional mini-games are littered throughout the trial, and old friends return. Hangman’s Gambit, for instance, has been updated and made harder; while it may split opinion among fans the changes are a welcome addition, and only punish those who haven’t been paying attention, or don’t know when and where to use their concentration skill. Throw in the Logic Dive snowboarding-style challenge and other tweaks and additions and you have a Trial mode full of new gamey things to complement the storytelling sections of the game; in the main these changes support the trial process, although expect to feel a disjointed break in the proceedings if you find yourself overly stuck in one of them.
As we previously pointed out in our review of the first Danganronpa, assessing a visual novel feels very much like a book report at times; the gameplay that exists for much of the game is light, and if you’re the type of gamer that button mashes through text you’re going to find very little here. Reams and reams of text will jump out at you, and relatively little of it is backed up by voice acting (key lines and the entirety of the trials are voiced, however). But, none of that matters – the quality of the writing, story and the characterisations are all fantastic, drawing you in and keeping your attention exactly as any good piece of written work should. More than that, the writers have gained confidence since Danganronpa and you can see the fun they’re are having with their work; it comes out whenever the fourth wall is broken, it appears all over the outlandish Jabberwock Island and it even dad-dances in front of your face whenever the realisation of the truth behind certain events hits you between the eyes.
Not everything’s quite the same as last time though. Gone from the first game is the long slog through the same old first-person corridors over and over again – this time around you have a 2D walk around each circular island, and it’s rare for any locations you enter to have first-person elements. There are fast travel options, but each step you take helps to increase your level (thus allowing you to take more skills along to a class trial) as well as helps to grow a virtual pet in your ejournal; think of it like a merge between a pedometer and a tamagotchi, but one that can provide you with rare skills, items and coins. Speaking of Monokuma coins, these aren’t hidden behind seemingly random environment pieces anymore – Monokuma has instead hidden plushies of himself around every island, and offers a prize for those observant enough to find them all.
Virtually everything is improved from the first release, but the niche nature of the title comes through as not every mechanic manages to seamlessly merge. Levelling up and growing your pet by simply walking around sounds simple, but in reality you’ll be driven by the story and you’ll want to continue to develop it as fast as you can. With that in mind, the walking mechanic conflicts with, rather than complements, story development – it’s a simple time grind, and holding a direction on an analogue stick to slowly ramp up steps is not fun. Thankfully it’s pretty much an element you can ignore, but completionists had better get ready for some lengthy walking sections in their future. There’s one more disconnect present, and this one’s a little more unfortunate. The setting of Jabberwock Island is clearly meant to act as a physical juxtaposition to the despair felt by the students as the killing game progresses - think of it as a Japanese Death in Paradise, if you will. The problem is that this juxtaposition never really takes off – the cast of Danganronpa 2 feel even larger than life than the cast of the first game, and while the writing team does a fantastic job to demonstrate character development under emotional stress the proceedings often have more of a ‘fun romp’ feel than perhaps intended.
One returning element that may be of particular concern to some gamers is the increase in the amount of fan service seen in Danganronpa 2 over the first game. There’s still nothing too horrific here, and virtually every instance is linked to a piece of text-based satirical humour, a lampooning targeting both those errant fans of the strange as well as a self-depreciating nod to the rest of the players who know that this material exists in their niche. Even with that in mind, however, that fan service is still there, and presents itself as event stills, text and even character design. Take Akane, for instance – the Ultimate Athlete, obsessed with physical activity and eating food. In many ways she is a variant of Hina from the first game, and both play on various stereotypes in their depictions. However, one major difference stands out between the two – bust size. If you thought Hina’s character design was developed to be a bit of pushed-up eye candy for the otaku crowd then make sure you’ve prepared yourself before undertaking long conversations with the shirt-straining Akane. Like all the other characters in Danganronpa 2 Akane is written well, and elements of her personality make it clear that the intention isn’t for the more obsessive fans to declare her an uncontested waifu, but her depiction certainly makes it harder to explain the game to any interested bystanders. As well as probably making little body sense for her ultimate talent.
And once you’ve finished the game? Been dragged through the emotional mill and dumped out the other side, all puffy and flour-like? Three additional modes await you, giving you a visual novel ‘what if’ scenario set during the first Danganronpa, a Monokuma-less Island mode where you can social sim to your heart’s content while you run around building things for Usami and finally a small action-ish RPG-ish game with additional sections unlocked as you complete chapters. For a game so story driven that a traditional NG+ mode would have made little sense these are nice additions that keep you locked in just that little bit longer.
In many ways Danganronpa 2 provides more of the same – but what wonderful same it is. The central tenets of the game return again, and the quality inherent there remains. It’s a great story from start to finish, and between the two games Danganronpa has moved on from its roots and the PSP and established itself as an impressive Vita franchise. The fact that some of the newer mechanics don’t quite gel take a little of the shine off, but the moves are all generally positive. If Spike Chunsoft keep this up then perhaps Monokuma may find himself adopted as a most unlikely PlayStation mascot...