Platform: PS Vita
Developer: Spike Chunsoft
Once more with feeling: Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc is magnificent.
Seriously, I'll keep banging on about it until you buy it or show me a letter from your GP proving that you're allergic to visual novels. Halfway between Corpse Party, Cluedo, Battle Royale and Ace Attorney, this grim and frequently disturbing tour de force managed to be both an engrossing page-turner and a gripping videogame. Great characters, fantastic story, despair and hope in equal measure. It's still my GOTY thus far.
The reason I'm telling you this now is that you absolutely mustn't play Danganronpa 2 without fully enjoying the original. Partly because the sequel builds on the revelations of its predecessor, but also because it's worse.
Not bad, mind you. It's actually rather good. But stacked up next to Trigger Happy Havoc, Danganronpa 2 lacks the subtlety, pacing and restraint to be a truly effective mystery, and often feels like a fan-service holiday special instead.
Danganrompa 2 sees another group of high school students with bizarre abilities and tragic backstories awake on a tropical island, bereft of memory and at the mercy of an inexplicable robotic rabbit called Monomi. Thankfully, it turns out that the point of the exercise is to... enjoy a relaxing holiday. Result.
Unfortunately, as you'll doubtlessly expect if you played the original Danganronpa, our favourite two-tone teddy bear shows up and everything swiftly goes downhill. The killing game begins and the bodycount starts to rise. Only you, in the role of amnesiac student Hajime Hinata, can solve the murders, identify the killer and convince everyone to vote for them in a deadly sham trial, else everybody dies.
Once again, you'll settle into a routine of free time spent chatting to fellow castaways, then discover a murder and conduct an investigation crowned by a tense class trial. Free Time is as rewarding as ever, as the new cast of characters contain some real highlights. A complex heir to a Yakuza clan, narcoleptic gaming fanatic, volatile gymnast, deeply unsettling 'lucky' student and a maddeningly familiar face all reveal new backstory details as you get to know them, rewarding you with new skills to bring into class trials and experience to funnel into a functional yet fairly unnecessary levelling system.
Alas, the characters aren't quite as well established this time around, nor written, voiced or translated as competently. With the notable exceptions above, they tend subscribe to anime clichés rather than being well-rounded individuals, often bringing up unnecessary sexual references and jokes (even entire fanservice panels designed to titillate with no story reasons whatsoever) that feel forced and immersion-breaking when we're dealing with terrified kids murdering each other.
Voice acting is inconsistent (especially Monomi, who's hateful in either dub), scripting lacks grace and often feels awkwardly constructed ("allow me to cut through those words," shouts Hajime when "no" would have sufficed), while the businesslike translation retains some of the awkward quirks of Japanese syntax and sentence structure. Expect an embarrassing amount of localisation artefacts like "certain item"and "that person" to creep into the dialogue.
Don't get me wrong, it's still a cut above any number of localised games and building character relationships is still deeply rewarding. Or heartbreaking, if you've befriended a murderer or victim. But when one of the characters is an animal breeder who believes himself to be a devil-spawn and carries four hamsters around, while the nurse loves falling over in ecchi upskirt poses, it's hard not to feel like the cast are just a tad gimmicky.
That 'gimmicky' feeling extends to the all-important murders, too. As always they're intricately constructed and demand some serious logical deduction to fully solve, indeed I only managed to work out the correct killer before the trial twice. Even then, there are twists and traps carefully built into each killing, alongside interesting and believable motives.
The class trials have received a significant upgrade. A host of new and improved mingames add extra variety and even a functional snowboarding-style braindive, making for a more varied and interesting experience. The focus is still on the brilliant 'nonstop debates,' which require you to literally shoot down lies, contradictions and broken logic, but now they feel more substantial and unpredictable as a result.
And yet many of the murders are also hinged around, well, gimmicks. All too often the killer uses a unfeasibly unrealistic McGuffin that exists solely as a murder weapon or plot device, or take advantage of a contrived environmental feature that the game laboriously over-explains for far too long. "MAKE NOTE OF THIS," the game effectively shouts. "I'M GOING TO BE TOTALLY IMPORTANT LATER." The original Danganronpa worked so well because its murders were committed by cleverly using common household items, but here, it's often completely impossible to suspend disbelief as some of the sillier solutions coalesce. Thankfully the quality of the storytelling is still top-notch.
"Suspend disbelief." "Silly." This brings us to the main issue with Danganronpa 2, in that its tone is all over the shop. The original game stars a psychopathic remote-controlled teddy bear drone, sure, but its high school setting was grounded and plausible enough to make the game and characters resonate with us. This all goes to pot as ridiculous event after profoundly stupid event occurs in Danganronpa 2, not limited to massive mechs, robot transplants, entire theme parks, fourth-wall asides... did I mention the hamsters? It's actually rather fun and compelling to read in a bizarre sort of way, but hard to take seriously, and as a result your emotional connection to the cast and setting is difficult to maintain. Notably more cartoony character portraits compound this problem.
Then the final chapter arrives, ties everything together, drops several massive twists, makes you look at the entire preceding game differently and leaves you literally applauding. It's one of the best videogame endings I've ever experienced; satisfying, nostalgic deeply clever and revelatory. I can't explain why without deploying massive spoilers, but suffice to say that the last sixth of the game is masterful and that every 'silly' happenstance was put there for a reason - even if they should have been handled in a more subtle fashion.
It's a shame that so much of the supporting backstory and exposition was backloaded into this final act, though, rather than being disseminated through the preceding five sixths of the experience. Fans of the first game will spend much of the campaign marking time and waiting for things to really kick off. Which they eventually do, followed by a host of extra content, translated novel and even some addictive post-completion minigames.
Fans should pick up Danganronpa 2 without delay, but as a full package, it feels like a 10/10 short game bolted onto the end of twenty hours of enjoyable if ultimately unnecessary padding.
- BEST. FINAL ACT. EVER.
- Intricately constructed storyline and some great characters
- Improved class trial minigames
- Loads of extra post-game content
- Gimmicky murders with increasingly contrived solutions
- Critical story and exposition back-loaded into the last chapter
- Silly/OTT tone is intentional, but makes it difficult to suspend disbelief during play
- Strong yet notably inferior dialogue, dub and translation versus the original
The Short Version: Danganronpa 2 is an essential purchase for series fans thanks to its truly magnificent final act, but much of the game comes off as gimmicky, pandering and tactless compared to the original. The utterly brilliant ending makes the first five chapters feel like marking time, though it's ultimately a gripping and worthwhile experience despite its flaws.
Then again, I suppose that the superlative original spoiled us rotten. There's no shame in simply being 'good.'