Danganronpa V3: Killing Harmony review
When the original Danganronpa game, Trigger Happy Havoc, hit the U.S. in 2014, it surprised the hell out of me. The mixed art, murder mystery visual novel with elements of Phoenix Wright and Persona was, as a whole, unlike anything I'd ever seen. As a result, I devoured the 20-some-hour visual novel, its follow-ups, and fell down the rabbit hole of similar games — like the Zero Escape trilogy.
Since that time, we’ve seen a spin-off and some sequels (including an anime finale for the series' first trilogy). It's a lot harder for Danganronpa's intentionally tawdry tone to get the same rise out of me that it once did. Which is exactly the key problem throughout Danganronpa V3: Killing Harmony. The series' usual tricks (that, make no mistake, I still adore) are all here. They just don't have quite the same bite.
The premise will sound familiar to anyone who has played the past games. We have a cast of "ultimate" high school students: the Ultimate Tennis Player, Ultimate Inventor, Ultimate Detective, etc. Each quirky wunderkind is the best in their respective extracurricular activity, but otherwise has no memory of how they came to be trapped together in what looks like an abandoned school. An anthropomorphic bear appears (in this case five of them, the Monokubs) to announce the students are participants in the “Killing Game.” The teens are trapped indefinitely inside the school, the Monokubs explain, unless they can kill one of their fellow students and get away with the crime without being found guilty at a "class trial."
The Monokubs are a perfect distillation of Danganronpa itself — funny, neon color-coded, violent, and profane. As such, they're a pretty good gatekeeper for new players. If you can't stomach the Monokubs and their antics, then Danganronpa probably isn't for you. The teenage murder that follows is all equally bananapants.
The series' usual formula picks up there. Chapters are split between chatting up schoolmates, investigating crime scenes whenever they inevitably appear, and a Phoenix Wright-esque game of matching evidence to contradicting testimony.
And, for most of the game, that's about it. A murder occurs and you solve it. The kids discuss their various reasons for killing or wanting to live. At times, the Monokubs introduce some new motive or incentive for murder to break down the students' attempts at cooperation.
Not that they usually need to. Danganronpa casts are full of optimistic hopefuls and total shitheels to throw you off the trail of the murderer. This time, the blend seems a little more inclined towards jerks.
There's Kokichi, the Ultimate Supreme Leader, who claims to lead an Illuminati-like secret society and constantly stirs up distrust for fun. Miu, the Ultimate Inventor, is like a parody of your classic bully. She puts down the rest of the class, especially the other girls, but breaks into tears the moment anyone stands up to her. Angie, the Ultimate Artist, seems like an archetypical airhead at first, but her religious zealotry quickly takes on cultish tones.
Nobody is safe from a senseless scripted death, by the end. That much is set up in a stellar first-chapter twist that I won't spoil here. But along the way it becomes clear that the meanest, least mysterious among the Ultimates last the longest — or turn out to be secretly even more mysterious than you could have reasonably guessed in a late-act twist.
This formula worked well in the first couple games, but the developers still haven't veered from their own trope-breaking tricks. It's become a trope unto itself for the series and sucks up a lot of suspense in the process. Not to mention, it interferes with the Persona-like diet dating sim interludes. Your mileage may vary, but my three personal favorite characters were already dead by the end of the second class trial. So I never had enough in-game days to tease out their back stories.
That said, most of the rest of the class does get more interesting. Through a mix of conversations and mandatory revelations, even the most vile or boring Ultimates usually wind up being pretty fascinating. It helps that Killing Harmony also moves the series away from some more common tropes — like lusty nerds and naive jocks. The physically strongest character is also the Ultimate Entomologist, rather than an obsessive athlete. He desperately wants to be a classical "gentleman," and was literally raised by wolves. Even as the Ultimates have shifted towards ever more ludicrously specific, Robot Master-like occupations, they haven't lost their entertaining layers.
What have gotten a lot less complex (mercifully so) are Danganronpa's class trial mini-games. Danganronpa 2, especially, was full to bursting with terrible non-sequitur challenges during trials — from timed whack-a-mole-meets-hangman to metaphorical snowboarding.
That's not to say Killing Harmony has dropped the filler completely. "Hangman's Gambit" is back, but without the unnecessary skill challenge of removing junk letters before they damage you. Snowboarding, meanwhile, has been replaced with a driving mini-game that's functionally very similar, but much less difficult. The gist is that V3's class trial padding is just boring this time, instead of being boring and frustrating like it was in previous games.
Even that can't slow down the game's hyper-kinetic style, though. Masafumi Takada's soundtrack still sounds like a Queen stadium anthem tugged through a taffy puller, and it's just as eerie and energizing as ever. Corpses beg to be investigated with hot pink blood. And while nothing will ever top Phoenix Wright’s shouted "Objection!," shattering through your classmates’ contradictions with evidence (which the series blessedly still refers to as "Truth Bullets") is tremendously satisfying.
Danganronpa is simply a victim of its own success. The original game's anime-fueled antics were just so good at defying players’ expectations for visual novels that fans have picked the series to pieces. Even if I can't predict a particular twist, or beat the cast in determining who a particular case's killer is, I know what kind of unexpected things to expect.
That won't be a problem for newcomers, of course. And, hey, Killing Harmony is the first main game originally developed for the PS4 and PC — opening it up to many more potential fans than the PSP and Vita originals.
I envy those people who will get to be surprised and drawn in for the very first time. I wish I could join them. In the meantime, I'm still happy take yet another deadly trip with good, untrustworthy, fascinating friends.