When I first discovered Danganronpa a few years ago, it was kind of like Homestuck to me; I had no idea what it was, but I saw its mascot all over the damn place. When the anime came out, flawed though it was, I finally got a chance to get on board the bandwagon, and I’m glad I did. Unfortunately, due to my lack of a PSVita, I was never able to actually play the game, even when it finally got its English port. This was remedied, however, when Spike Chunsoft decided to port the original Danganronpa to Steam. After the success of that port, Spike Chunsoft kept the hits coming, and only a couple of months later, Danganronpa 2: Goodbye Despair has joined its older sibling on Steam.
Instead of the survivors of the killing school life, this time we follow a new group of 16 students bound for the prestigious Hope’s Peak Academy, each one possessing an ultimate-level talent. Our protagonist is Hajime Hinata, an average-looking lad with an almost fanboy level of admiration for Hope’s Peak, fulfilling his greatest dream by attending the school. Upon entering the school, however, he passes out, waking up in a classroom alongside his classmates. The class is greeted by a talking stuffed animal, Usami, who disassembles the classroom like a cardboard box, revealing a beautiful tropical island. Usami, unlike other talking stuffed animals I could name, is a friendly (if mildly annoying) creature who wants the students to forget about Hope’s Peak and live in peace with each other, promising to send them all home safely once they’ve become friends. Though they are understandably wary at first (Hinata more so than the others, due to paranoia from having amnesia regarding his ultimate talent), the students decide the island is benign and start having fun. This lasts about 30 minutes. Faster than you can say “cyanide cookies”, everyone’s favorite bear-o-despair Monokuma appears, pummels Usami and remodels her into his little sister Monomi, and usurps control of the island, instating the usual rules: you want off the island? All you gotta do is murder one of your classmates and get away with it.
Being a visual novel, Danganronpa 2 lives and dies by its story. Thankfully, the game has one of the most impressive uses of sequel-based story telling I’ve seen in a game. The situation itself is much grander and stranger, the Jabberwock Islands are far larger than Hope’s Peak Academy, and Monokuma himself has become twice as devious, tipping his hand in all the right ways to give you hints to his motivation, but never outright telling you. What I find most fascinating is the way each individual murder case reflects the cases from the first game. Without going into too much detail, each case shares one or two key factors with its chronological companion from Danganronpa. Instead of just copying them wholesale, however, those key factors are used to facilitate bigger and better twists that you would more than likely never see coming. As for the cast, the class is full of delightfully flawed characters, each one with a quirky personality hiding some decidedly messed up home situations (strong talent is frequently bred by strong adversity, after all). We’ve got characters to cover all our bases: the serious ones, the assholes, the mysterious ones, and the comic relief, all of whom I enjoyed the antics of, save for one whom shall not be named because the last time I publically denounced this character, a bunch of people got mad at me.
The design has received an upgrade as well. While the game still maintains a paper and cardboard aesthetic, the set pieces are much more colorful and detailed, with sun effects on some of the outdoor areas, all fitting the tropical setting, which is even more noticeable during the ever-so-stylish execution cutscenes. Since they aren’t all taking place in the same empty gray room like the first game, the animation can flex its muscles a bit for some really wacky deaths. The UI has been given a sleek redesign with a built in music equalizer that tells you the names of all the tracks, as well as a level progress bar. Levels for what, you ask? Good question.
In the previous game, you gained skills and skill points by engaging in free time chats with your classmates. Free time is still here, but your rewards are Hope Fragments, points that you can spend to unlock skills from the previous game, as well as a unique skill for each character whose Hope Fragments you max out. Skill points, on the other hand, correspond to Hinata’s level, and this is a clever system. Everything you do earns you little bits of EXP; looking at stuff, talking to people, and even just walking around. The more levels you have, the more skills you can equip at class trial time. In this way, the game encourages you to be thorough and explore the set pieces, because you’ll benefit from it down the line. My only complaint about the Hope Fragment is system is that every character has the same amount of free time events, unlike in the first game where characters that wouldn’t be around as long had less. This means unless you have knowledge of who’s going to eat it and when, as well as how many free time segments there will be, anyone you try to make friends with will more than likely die before you get a chance to max them out. Plus, even if you do max them out, you do it at the cost of time with other students.
Speaking of dying, the class trial system, while basically the same overall, has received lots of little changes and additions to its minigames, as well as two brand new minigames. The trial system’s signature minigame, Nonstop Debate, now has agreement points in addition to the usual yellow weakspots. Where you shoot weakspots with evidence that contradicts, you shoot agreement points with evidence that supports, moving the argument forward a different way. The Hangman’s Gambit, in which you shoot letters to form a word or phrase, now has letters that scroll across the screen. You must first combine the letters before you can add them to the solutions, which requires some good reflexes.
Panic Talk Action, in which you have to talk down a panicking suspect by shooting down their statements along with a rhythm, is mostly unchanged, save for the need to press and hold the button and release in time instead of just tapping over and over. Lastly, the Closing Argument, in which you piece together the events of a murder using a comic book, now gives you sets of panels to put in, as opposed to the whole comic’s worth at the start. It’ll also tell you right away if you place a panel incorrectly instead of making you watch the whole scene first, which is appreciated for convenience’s sake.
The two new minigames are Logic Dive and Rebuttal Showdown. In Logic Dive, a mental representation of Hinata snowboards down a virtual ramp, answering questions along the way, in order to arrive at a conclusion. It’s a bit of a bizarre addition, and I have to wonder what it looks like to the other students while Hinata is standing there zoning out, but it controls nice and smooth, so it’s not an unwelcome addition. Rebuttal Showdowns are fun because of the way they’re initiated. Hinata makes a point in an argument, and it seems like everyone is in agreement, when all of a sudden…
BAM! A taste of your own shout-y medicine. Your Truth Bullets become swords, and you must cut through the opponent’s statements to weaken their argument, followed by a decisive, evidence-backed slash at the weakpoint, similar to Nonstop Debate.
When it comes to Danganronpa 2, the phrase of the day is “bigger and better”. Bigger and better story, bigger and better design, and bigger and better gameplay. As a game, it’s pretty great, but as a sequel, I’d say it’s only a few hairs shy of perfect. The ideal goal of a sequel, in my humble opinion, is to utilize the first game as a stepping stool, adding in new and clever elements while maintaining what made the first great. Danganronpa 2 does that and then some; it’s a game so good, it’ll drive you to despair. Now if we could just get the last game to join the others on Steam.
Hint hint, Spike Chunsoft.