Game Review

by Dave Riley,

Dangan Ronpa 2: Goodbye Despair

PS Vita

Dangan Ronpa 2: Goodbye Despair
Dangan Ronpa 2 takes headmaster/sociopathic teddy bear Monokuma's School Life of Mutual Killing on a beach vacation.

Goodbye Despair, the second Dangan Ronpa, is exactly what you'd expect from the sequel to Trigger Happy Havoc, a madcap series of murder mysteries constructed with the same pastel-spattered palette of goofy anime caricatures that belie its dark tone. A fresh crop of super geniuses arrives at Hope's Peak Academy, another group of so-called “Ultimates" who represent the pinnacle of humanity. Whether their skillsets are practical (Ultimate Cook), strange (Ultimate Team Manager), or absurd (Ultimate Princess), these students attend Hope's Peak to master their trades and will go on to lead wealthy and fulfilling lives, inspiring the nation's populace through display of their almost super human abilities.

Even if you hadn't played the previous game you'd be immediately skeptical of Usami, the tutu-wearing stuffed rabbit who slinks out from behind a desk after the students wake up, apparently having been gassed and abducted on their first day of school. Usami claims to be their teacher and reveals she's spirited everyone away to an island paradise for fun in the sun on a relaxing school trip. It'd be alarming even if you hadn't already played a whole game about a robot bear forcing teenagers to murder each other. Still, after a day of relaxing in the summer breeze, even Hajime (the standard unremarkable amnesiac protagonist) is ready to shuck his school duds and go for a dip in the ocean. Maybe this won't turn out so bad!

Of course it will. Moments before the idyllic high school hijinks officially begin, violent teddy bear/nominal school headmaster Monokuma bursts onto the scene and locks everyone off from the outside world with only one path to freedom: kill someone else and get away with it. Once again, everyone's stuck in an Agatha Christie mystery. It's And Then There Were None, only with no prior motives. With a lush, tropical island to sprawl out on, why should any of them kill each other?

The first game's incitements to violence almost made sense: escape, and later a cash prize, for a successful murder. This time around they delve deep into the genre-reflective, like when Monokuma asks you to play a crudely rendered adventure game about a group of students solving a murder mystery, swearing there's something worth killing for hidden inside this game within a game. Dangan Ronpa doesn't reject tropes, it revels in them. This game is as brazen as its antagonist. Where others in the genre might try to insist they're better than their hackneyed predecessors, Dangan Ronpa wants to roll around in the mud.

Every chapter hinges on a murder. Once a body is discovered the music amps up its tempo and you gather evidence by clicking around first person scenes until you've register all the relevant information. Then it's off to the class trial, a two hour-long affair, fully voiced in English and Japanese, where the guilty party is discovered through persuasive argument, hail mary deductions and, towards the end, a rhythm game.

Most “Ah ha!” moments come through minigames. In Nonstop Debate you contradict weak spots in testimony by aiming a cursor and firing a “truth bullet.” Statements come and go in a blink, so you have to be quick on the draw. Sometimes they're obscured by white noise, purple-colored crosstalk that blocks your shots. Sometimes you may not even have the evidence on hand, you have to snatch another person's statement and use it as impromptu contradiction. Nonstop Debate remains a great abstraction of a fast moving, free-flowing argument, but most of the other games were weak the last time and remain so here. In Logic Dive you answer questions by cyberspace snowboarding down a Sonic 2 half pipe. In Hangman's Gambit you spell out a clue by combining letters before they crash into each other and explode. Compared to Nonstop Debate they're all speed bumps: not long or difficult enough to aggravate, but always there, little interrupts meant to keep you waiting when all you want to do is see the next big thing.

Most of the time all you can do is wait. Trigger Happy Havoc was a little better at managing momentum during the down parts, especially outside of the trials. Between the killings the students usually had some objective or place to explore unknown to Monokuma. Here, the plot flows straighter, takes longer to rev up to the big reveals. In the interim you'll spend a lot of time just hanging out with the cast. The social links that make up Free Time reveal character traits and backstory, which may inform how harshly you judge your classmates' eventual crimes, but they don't give much beyond that.

If you're impatient you can skip Free Time and not suffer much. You may find yourself rushing to do so in the later chapters especially, when the plot is really hitting its stride and buttoning through page after page of side story could kill the momentum. But, although the little friendship vignettes aren't even on par with Persona's hammy sob stories, there is something oddly compelling about taking the time between gruesome deaths to sit down and jaw with your classmates. The first game plied its trade by presenting you with cardboard cutout stereotypes (idol singer, mega nerd, ditzy girl) and slowly injecting them with actual, honest-to-goodness characterization. Never enough to break the mold—starting with the milquetoast leads, few characters in Dangan Ronpa are really fully fleshed out—but enough for you to recognize them as human beings instead of vehicles for exacting quantities of various tropes. Goodbye Despair doesn't pull the same trick twice. Its characters are flatter, on the whole, but some make time to shine. Standouts like Gundham Tanaka, Ultimate [Hamster] Breeder and would-be evil sorcerer buttress the cast, but the most interesting are the ones you can't get a bead on. Wheezy-voiced, sad sack Usami appears to be an ally, but you know there's a traitor in your midst. Then again, one of the cast is pretty obviously crazy, so maybe it's them.

That's always been the series' strong suit. It's great because it's guileless. Where its contemporaries are some of the most supercilious games around, so impressed with their construction and their writing they hurl details at you until the mystery solves itself—“Did you get that philosophical reference? Here's an encyclopedia entry if you didn't.” Dangan Ronpa would rather yuck it up than act conceited. “Ooops, did I leave that there?” It asks, as it spreads out evidence like live bait. The twists are barely twists, they're telegraphed so far in advance—but they telegraph so many things in so many different directions that it's not about second guessing things that appear correct, it's about figuring out which insane lie is actually true.

This is the game's kitchen sink design: it tells you everything, gives you everything. Like colorful games? Here's every color they can throw at you. Want to level up? Here you get experience for everything you do: talking to people, examining things, even pushing the button that tells you what things you can examine. Want some pixel art? Want a tamagotchi? Everything in excess. So if you think you know whodunit, they'll tell you it was someone else, and then they'll tell you it was someone else, until half the cast has been indicted for the same crime. It never stops. Some might find these sorts of double backs, red herrings, and hapless, precocious “I dunnos” irritating, but Dangan Ronpa's exhilaration and dopey self-satisfaction keep you engaged. Where Virtue's Last Reward seems impressed with its ability to cite Schrodinger's Cat, Dangan Ronpa knows exactly how outrageous and arbitrary it's being. That's the whole point. After all: it's just a game, isn't it?

Goodbye Despair sets you up for your own falls by turning your preconceptions against you, and it keeps you off balance by showing you things you recognize from the first game—themes, character archetypes, motives, and crime scenes. You keep pressing forward, even knowing the game is baiting you, to see if your predictions and deductions are correct. Sometimes they are, most of the time they aren't, and even when you're able to guess the “how” you may not be able to guess the “whys."

The “why” is for after the trial. Chapters don't end when the culprit is uncovered, or even when they confess. Once the exhilaration of the trial is over, the player has to sit and read the guilty party's final speech. Some equivocate, some don't. Some have their reasons, some don't. It's a somber wave that carries through to the start of the next chapter, even past Monokuma's gleeful punishments, whose pink blood splatters and hyperbolic executions come off more ridiculous than disturbing. This isn't Phoenix Wright. Cases don't end with the team going out for a well-earned meal. The remaining cast slims by two or three in every chapter. Every win is less a victory. The murderers are still murderers, but their reasons become more complex, and not always evil. As a chapter comes to a close, and the silhouettes of the newly-dead classmates dim, it's hard to make the distinction between killer and victim; the truth is, they both were. The loss of a character—any character, even the ones you didn't like—is profound. Monokuma's capriciousness pervades the atmosphere such that it doesn't matter who you think is kind, who you think is cruel, and who you think is annoying. Everyone is equally vulnerable.

It's probably absurd to say that a game can evoke true despair from its player, as is Dangan Ronpa's stated intent. It's fair to say, though, the game's key talent is tricking you into believing there are no rules, and if video games are anything, they are bound by rules. Abandon your preconceptions from last time, because what happened in Trigger Happy Havoc has no relevance here. Or is it completely relevant? Well, who can say? The suspension of disbelief, that anything could happen in this plot, that this game can do anything it wants—it can kill your best friend, it can spit out a pair of headphones from a vending machine, it can hide a magical girl arena battler in the Extras menu—instills the player with a subtle unease, and unease is where mysteries thrive: the fear of what's around the corner quashed by the overwhelming need to know. Dangan Ronpa has a way of making you believe that literally anything could happen next. You could be on Venus. You could be part of a vast experiment. Monokuma could be one of your classmates. This whole thing could be just a joke.

But it's not, even though it squeezes in a few laughs here and there: a bancho punk obsessed with proper bowel movements and those surreal dream interludes where Monokuma does standup or muses philosophically about taiyaki or lost love. Everything Dangan Ronpa does feels real, even when it's cracking wise. During an interlude Monokuma offers ten billion dollars if you can guess the killer du jour. Guess wrong, though, and he says he'll delete your save. Would he really? Probably not. Almost certainly not. But if any game would, it's this one.

Dangan Ronpa is constantly at odds it with itself. No amount of sunny beach cutscenes and goofy non sequitur dream sequences can make you forget that you're trapped on an island where your friends are killing each other. That's sort of the point. It's what you paid for. They know you came here to solve horrible crime after horrible crime and they give them to you.

However, for all its dark themes and grisly overtones, Dangan Ronpa isn't a dour game. It doesn't chastise you for playing. There's not much hand wringing about the morality of enjoying something where cutesy anime teenagers stab one another, and the gore is closer to Phoenix Wright than Corpse Party. The writing can be long winded, and the characters a little too lightweight, sure, but that's almost baked into the visual novel format. What's always made Dangan Ronpa interesting isn't how it shatters the conventions of its genre, but the ways it cleaves to them.

What makes Dangan Ronpa interesting is that, even with its cast left glassy-eyed and hopeless, even with its always-capitalized references to Despair, it's not a game about nihilism. Though Goodbye Despair has many ways to surprise series veterans, it never deviates from its predecessor's core, which was, ultimately, about perseverance and hope. The game likes putting you on edge, it likes making you uneasy, but it won't leave you in the dark forever. Monokuma may be sadistic, but this game is not. Dangan Ronpa's objective is not to see how much its characters (or its player) can suffer, it's to see how much they can overcome.

Overall : A-
Graphics : B+
Sound/Music : A-
Gameplay : B+
Presentation : A-

+ More convoluted murder mysteries to solve
New twists on old minigames rarely for the better

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