Danganronpa 1-2 Reload PS4 Review

When Phoenix Wright first debut on handhelds, it brought a fresh new take to the investigative mechanic often associated with text adventure games: in addition to examining background items and interacting with NPCs for clues, the game’s mysteries would culminate with a courtroom battle to present the correct facts (or rather, the correct order of facts until the story decides to toss in a Deus Ex Machina or two) to succeed. It was a unique and quirky concept that helped popularize the series and bring out several imitators.

Danganronpa is one such series that takes inspiration from Phoenix Wright’s courtroom clue solving while also incorporating another of the most popular tropes associated with Visual Novels/Text Adventures: the Death Game. A popular story hook with Japanese media, Death Games are self-explanatory: a group of unwilling characters are forced to take part in a sadistic battle for survival, where each character is picked off one-by-one until there’s only one standing (i.e. the victor). Typically, these scenarios require characters killing one another and/or forced to cooperate to avoid a grisly fate. This concept was also given more mainstream attention with the release of the Nonary Games trilogy (which began with 999 on the Nintendo DS).

Danganronpa 1-2 Reload brings the first two games in the series (some fans will argue these are the only two games worth experiencing, given the overall negative reception with the spin-off games and anime sequel) over to the PS4. This is actually the third iteration of these games, with the first two hitting the PSP originally in Japan while the Vita re-releases also graced the West. Reload does not bring any new additional features, but does offer the sharpest picture as well as the fastest load times. The former, which tends to feature static character portraits and backgrounds, translates rather well from its portable counterpart, though there are instances of muddy background objects that tend to plague most portable-to-console ports.

Fortunately, the story for both games remains fully intact, and remains as compelling as it is insane: the first Danganronpa (subtitled “Trigger Happy Havoc“) kicks off the saga with the introduction of Hope’s Peak Academy, an elite high-school that is so prestigious that the only way to enroll is to receive a personal invitation. These invitations are usually reserved for what the school board deems as the “Ultimate” students, individuals that excel at their specific fields (the Ultimate Baseball player, the Ultimate Idol, the Ultimate Author, to name a few). Despite possessing no such criteria, mild mannered student Makoto Naegi was chosen from the school’s lottery, which selects one random student that designates them to have “Ultimate Luck”.

That title quickly becomes an ironic moniker, as Makoto and the other students soon realize that they have been locked inside Hope’s Peak and forced to take part in a sadistic death game run by the school’s headmaster, Monokuma: a bizarre, two-toned talking stuffed bear, Monokuma is a seemingly cartoonish and carefree creature who claims that the trapped students can leave their high school prison if they kill one another. Any time another student is murdered, a trial commences where the surviving students must figure out who the murderer is. If they guess correctly, then the murderer will be punished while the rest continue to remain as prisoners (but still alive). If they guess incorrectly, then the murderer will get off scott-free while the remaining classmates are executed.

Much like Phoenix Wright, Danganronpa’s story requires players to progress the plot by talking to the right people, inspecting the most suspicious clues and taking what’s been documented to figure out each murder case that transpires. During the investigative portions, players move around freely in first person across the school, visiting classrooms, talking with the other students and inspecting objects (and occasionally corpses) until the story progresses. It is during the courtroom segments where the mechanics take a more unorthodox approach: during the hearing, characters will convey their theories through highlighted text, in which players must select the phrase that they feel sounds contradictory and “shoot” them with a Truth Bullet (hence the subtitle “Trigger Happy Havoc“). This will eventually lead to a picture puzzle-inspired mini-game where the goal is to arrange pictures of the murder scene in correct order to spell out the events. The last, and most annoying mechanic, is a rhythm-type mini-game where players must wrestle a confession from the accused culprit by firing off their deflected dialog as well as tap to the beat.

If all this sounds confusing, it becomes easier to grasp when playing the game. Nevertheless, tacking in a bunch of unique and conceptually insane mechanics does not actually make Danganronpa’s murder mystery more interesting: in truth, it becomes pointless busywork than anything else. The real draw of the game is the story, which features plenty of good twists and turns, particularly in discovering the truth behind Hope’s Peak and the mastermind of the Death Game. The characters feature all sorts of uniquely bizarre designs and personalities, from an overweight fanfiction writer to a ridiculously muscular female martial artist. Even the more traditional Anime-style characters, such as the prim and proper pop idol and the awkwardly shy book nerd, can surprise when their deep dark secrets come forth in sudden (and occasionally violent) ways. That said, few characters develop past their quirky characteristics and tend to be one-note punchlines for as long as they are alive. The real star of the series is Monokuma, who torments the characters throughout the story with his unpredictable antics and merciless behavior, making him one of the most effective and memorable villains ever seen in a videogame.

Danganronpa 2: Goodbye Despair is a direct sequel to the original, somehow featuring an even more ludicrous premise than its predecessor. This time, a new batch of students gather together to attend Hope’s Peak Academy, only to find themselves suddenly whisked away to a massive (and seemingly deserted) tropical island. Whereas the first game urged its victims to kill one another to escape, the students in Danganronpa 2 are instead told that they can leave once they have learned to accept one another as friends. This is further perpetuated by their newest animal companion, a pink rabbit in a Magical Girl attire named Usami. Despite being whisked away against their will, the newest group of Ultimate students seem less resistant in their predicament, considering the gorgeous beaches and lodgings that await them. Of course, one need only count how long until that premise gets thrown out the window in favor of another despair-ridden battle for survival. Despite a few minor additions to the mechanics (including a handy fast travel system), the sequel remains largely unchanged, while the story introduces some new revelations about Hope’s Peak as well as bring back some returning survivors from the original.

For those who already owned both Danganronpa games in handheld or PC, this PS4 collection offers little-to-no additions, and becomes a case-by-case basis of whether it’s worth dipping in again. For newcomers, this is a bargain price for two of the most memorable adventure games in years, featuring all sorts of stylized artwork and utterly insane twists and turns. It may be more of an extracurricular than a mandatory course, but this collection tour of despair is still worth enrolling in.

7 out of 10