For nothing is secret, that shall not be made manifest; neither any thing hid, that shall not be known and come abroad.
Had this game not been released on the PSP, but rather on a console and given a greater budget, the whole industry would have stood up and took notice. I’m thrilled to see Spike Chunsoft’s ambition already leading them closer in this direction (see: Zettai Zetsubou Shoujo: Danganronpa Another Episode and Cyber Danganronpa VR), but even in its current form, it’s still definitely worth checking out.
The first time I started it up, I ended up playing for over three hours straight. That’s really saying something, since I could barely even stand 10 minutes of Persona 3 Portable at a time. Much less any game since Shenmue with such a heavy narrative focus. I won’t say any more about its story, since the less you know about it beforehand, the better. Danganronpa is far more than just an engrossing story though. The heart of the game can be found in its incredible trial sequences, which feature real-time debates that require you to master the facts of the case and keep up with a steady stream of new information while under a realistic constraint to speak up at just the right moment to uncover the truth. This isn’t a mystery novel or like most adventure games where you can take your time and sit back and ponder and ponder at your own leisure. No! This is Danganronpa. And it’s not something you’re going to want to miss.
Seriously, I couldn’t get enough of the trials. From the very first time you set foot in the courtroom (with its brilliant introduction), up until its final conclusion, it’s like nothing you’ve ever played before. Now of course there are similarities to Gyakuten Saiban, but the greatest difference is the real-time trial debates. They make all the difference in the world. You’re given a number of “truth bullets” to keep “loaded” prior to a debate, and as the debate races on, you select a bullet, take aim, and fire at any spoken dialog that conflicts with the truth that the bullet represents. But you’ve only got a limited amount of time before the conversation moves on, and you miss your chance to shoot. In order to play most effectively, it almost demands a certain level of memorization of the case file beforehand, and not only that, but a careful consideration of just about every word being said during the debate. The mind races while playing this game, and it’s absolutely thrilling. I love it.
It’s not quite as extreme as it sounds though, since only certain highlighted phrases can be shot at like this, and the game is rather forgiving with both its rank system (screw up too much and all it affects is your score) and its unnatural repetition of the debate if you fail to notice a contradiction the first time through. But even still, despite all its abstractions, it feels as close as ever to an intense, real-world debate. Would that more developers would follow the brilliant example here and dare to push these ideas even further. There’s still so much further they can go.
And with these trials come the requisite murders. It shouldn’t be too much of a spoiler to reveal that there are going to be murders, given that you already knew there were trials. What else would they be trying them for? There’s just one thing I want to briefly mention about them.
They are disturbing. This comes about from the fantastic character design. Every member of the cast is likable, and not a one of them strikes you as more of a murderer than the rest. You may have your suspicions about some of them at first glance, but these tend to be unfounded prejudices. It quickly gets to the point though where you begin to enjoy the company of these people with all their various quirks, and this community becomes important to you. And so when it shatters, it can hit you hard.
There is a great horror in picking away at the details of a murder and finding out the extreme and deliberate lengths to which a person will go in order to secretly murder one of his peers. This isn’t just a case of someone walking into a room and bashing in someone’s head with an axe. There is some really devious plotting going on behind the scenes, and from the kind of people you would never expect. I must say that I found it chilling.
But despite the cruel environment of the game, the protagonist maintains an unshakable faith and hope in the future. This is the theme of the game: hope vs. despair. And Danganronpa uses its medium to deliver a stirring message about what it means to believe in hope, even if the the situation at hand lends itself only to total despair. Every protagonist (or more accurately, every player) believes that no matter how dire the situation may be, the game’s creators will have provided them a way out. From this faith, hope cannot be extinguished, and every videogame player at some point in time has played the role of the Ultimate Hope. It’s practically fundamental to gaming. To keep going. No matter what. Because of a faith in a creator who’s provided the means to overcome. And what is this but the Christian doctrine of predestination and providence? This is that doctrine which gives us the strength to charge boldly forward and meet any challenge head-on, full of hope.
But remove that creator, remove that faith, and see how that gamer reverts to despair.