Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Who would have thought Despair could be so much fun?


Dangan Ronpa is one of those games I feel like I shouldn’t necessarily like. A rather interesting, if sometimes polarizing art style, a plot that starts off almost too simply, and a cast of characters that ranges from the widest variety of rather bizarre tropes. However, despite its flaws, Dangan Ronpa is definitely something that should be experienced, I feel.

My original experience with Dangan Ronpa was not with the English release of the game, but instead the Let’s Play from Something Awful’s own Orenronen. While I can’t exactly remember where I first heard of Dangan Ronpa, I decided to spend a couple of my days of summer vacation in 2013 reading through the game, and while I wasn’t necessarily experiencing it for myself, I found myself absolutely engrossed in the narrative and wanting more and more of it.

Dangan Ronpa is a murder mystery adventure game with two different parts to the gameplay: One of them being the interactions with characters and the free time events, and the other being the investigations and class trials. While, overall, both of them definitely are solid, there are, without a doubt, issues in both parts that are a bit unpolished and bring the gameplay aspects of the game down as a whole.

Free time, as would probably be expected, are the bits of time in between trials where you get to spend time with your different classmates, learn more about their lives, backstories, and talents, and ultimately end up having to get them gifts to make them like you more and to ultimately get skills that will be used in the class trials. In most of the free time events I saw, a lot of the free time events are a bit simple, but still good overall. For example, Aoi Asahina’s free time events start off simply, with her talking about swimming and food, before eventually turning to her worries about how she’s seen as a woman. 

The main problem with the free time events end up lying with the gifts you need to give your classmates for them to like you more. Getting gifts require Monocoins, which you get from searching items in the environment and from completing class trials. The good part is that, in most cases, you’ll never exactly be starving for Monocoins to get new items, but the main problem is the lack of knowledge of what items are best for what people. While it is obvious that someone like Celeste would appreciate some form of gothic Lolita clothing, or Yasuhiro, who likes all manner of strange Eastern religious objects, but those types of items for each person do tend to be rather far and few in between. Instead, you’re stuck with handbras, wondering who exactly you can give them to without any types of negative consequences with your relationships.

The investigations and trials, however, are where the game definitely shines the most, being the parts where most of the narrative tends to occur. The investigations occur quite similarly to the ones from the Ace Attorney games. When you end up finding one of your murdered classmates, you and other students end up exploring places around the school and finding evidence to aid you in the class trial to make sure you and your friends aren’t killed. It follows the point and click style of the Ace Attorney investigations and going between areas to find evidence, examine locations, talk to people to get their thoughts, and formulate what you think happened to the murdered.

The class trials, however, are vastly different from the rather slow-paced courtroom sequences of the Ace Attorney games. The trials are generally split into four gameplay sequences: Nonstop Debate, Hangman’s Gambit, Bullet Time Battles, and Climax Inference. Considering the type of game Dangan Ronpa is, in most cases, these segments are serviceable. That doesn’t, however, stop some parts- the Hangman’s Gambit in particular- from being boring breaks from the narrative. Even Bullet Time Battles doesn’t have much in the way of any logic, instead serving as a rhythm game used to break down your opponent being stubborn and unrelenting, but, unlike the Hangman’s Gambit, Bullet Time Battles are entertaining from a gameplay perspective. In all, the class trials are generally good. Each has its fair share of twists and turns, and the mechanics of them are generally engaging enough to be enjoyable—but the best part about them are how everyone is fully voiced and how focused on the story they are.

Of course, seeing as Dangan Ronpa is primarily story-based, it’s important to talk about that. Overall, the story is incredibly solid. It does not linger on anything too long, moves from story beat to story beat well, and the dark humor they go with works fantastically. The setup of fifteen high school students being told by a stuffed bear to kill each other to escape the private high school they’re stuck in sounds rather ridiculous and, well, it is. Despite how absolutely insane the premise is, it works incredibly well. As soon as the first death happens, and even more so, the first execution, you get a feeling for the atmosphere they’re going with for the game, and it works absolutely amazingly.
I honestly have very few, if no complaints with the story. It’s just super solid and works very well. Twists and turns, both in the cases and across the whole thing, and none of them feel forced by any stretch. By the end of the game I was left wanting even more from the series.

However, for as much as I enjoyed it, there was one problem that is rather major in the grand scheme of things. And sadly, that’s the localization. While the translations to English itself was good, there definitely were the spots that, at least with the translated version I read courtesy of Orenronen, felt rather clunky and handled poorly, with major details being hinted at or revealed before they should have, and some things outright not making sense in the scheme of things. Adding to that the nicknames that the characters give themselves, things just feel odd and inconsistent.

Alongside that, the English voice actors vary in their roles. Among the best are Yasuhiro (whose voice completely fit with how I imagined it would be), Yamada, Celeste, Togami, and Monokuma himself. Asides from those few, the rest of the voices feel rather bland and lifeless. Especially one of the major antagonists, a voice that is absolutely stellar in the Japanese version, is completely dull in most cases in English. It’s a big disappointment, with how good the Japanese voices are, that the English cast is so average at best.

In the end, Dangan Ronpa is an absolutely fantastic experience. While not perfect, it’s definitely one I think that everyone should go through—with Japanese voices. It’s a game I’m glad was able to make it to America, and I can’t wait to see the sequel come to the US this Fall.



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