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Sep 02 2014

Review of Danganronpa 2: Goodbye Despair

DANGANRONPA2_logo_CLEAN5 Stars

One of my favourite games this year was the surprisingly engaging Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc. It was a suspenseful, wonderfully written, maniacal fever dream of an adventure game/visual novel that completely sucked me in. Given all that praise and considering the way that first game was written, I was somewhat leery of the idea of sequel. Simply recreating the events of the first game but bigger would’ve lacked the punch that made Danganronpa what it was, but those same specific events also defined that experience in a way that would make a sequel in any other mold hard to accept. I’m still not sure Danganronpa makes sense as a “franchise“, but with Danganronpa 2: Goodbye Despair they’ve somehow managed to put together a perfect sequel to Trigger Happy Havoc. It surpasses the original and is shocking and surprising its own right, while still managing to stay true to the ideas of the first game.

So the basic premise here isn’t really all that different from that of Trigger Happy Havoc, though it definitely changes things up in some important ways. You are a high school student enrolled at the illustrious Hope’s Peak Academy but upon walking in on your first day you immediately black out and awaken in a room full of other Hope’s Peak students, all of which are the “ultimate” at some sort of activity because those are the only kind of people who are allowed to attend Hope’s Peak. However instead of that room being in Hope’s Peak Academy proper, it unfolds its walls and reveals that you and your classmates are actually on a beautiful (albeit empty) tropical island. According to your somewhat suspicious magic toy rabbit teacher, Usami, this is a field trip with the primary goal being for you and your classmates to get to know each other and strengthen your bonds of hope and friendship. Those who’ve played the first game know such a thing is too good to be true though and at pretty much the exact moment when the game convinces both the player character and yourself that maybe things are totally fine, the delightfully evil ursine villain Monokuma shows up and turns things on their ear. He beats up Usami and refashions her into Monomi, his self-proclaimed little sister, as well as changes the rules of the trip to exactly what you want/expect, enacting the same kill-secretly-to-escape-or-be-stuck-here-forever scheme that he did at Hope Peak’s Academy with the last game’s alumnus.

And such is the crux of the game.

And such is the crux of the game.

Right off the bat you can tell the game is highlighting and playing with the dichotomy of hope and despair, which was a major theme of Trigger Happy Havoc but is significantly more pronounced here. Both sides of the coin, represented by Monomi and Monokuma respectively, tug at each other throughout and show the uses and pitfalls of falling too deep into either emotion. Also while I can’t say much about the majority of this game’s story (both due to embargoes and because I genuinely don’t want to spoil it for you all) I promise you that it is in no way purely derivative of the first game’s story. If you enjoyed the twists and turns that Trigger Happy Havoc’s narrative took, then you will love the way Goodbye Despair does its absolute level best to fuck with your mind and your expectations.

The reason it’s able to tinker with your thought patterns so expertly is because it is as much a meta-commentary on the first game as it is a sequel; Goodbye Despair gets that you probably already know the steps to this dance and uses that knowledge to subvert you at every turn. All of the characters feel like composites of the ones from the first game and all the events follow a subtly similar path to those from Trigger Happy Havoc, but that’s only so the game can lure you into a false sense of security; it knows you’ll assume things will fall a certain way and it uses that to its advantage to create some deliciously suspenseful scenarios. That’s not to say the new characters are purely a mixed tape retread of the last game’s cast though; the new group is just as dysfunctional and broken as the last one and unfolding their back stories remains a fascinating experience. They’re perhaps slightly less entertaining overall than the group from Trigger Happy Havoc was, but that’s made up for by all the bat-shit crazy twists and turns the plot ends up taking. As I said, this game is as much meta-commentary as it is sequel, and as such there is a clear intent to go bigger and badder here which leads them to go to some insane, goofy, dark, but endlessly entertaining places with it all.

THINKING IS RADICAL!

THINKING IS RADICAL!

Moving onto the gameplay, the basic flow of things is the same; you’ll alternate between relationship building, investigations, and class trials as you proceed through the story. That said they have streamlined and expanded upon some stuff to help mix things up. One of the first things you’ll notice is the fact that the game is no longer entirely first person wandering, due to the size of the island they’ve replaced a lot of the more tedious walking around with a larger overworld map for you to navigate and there’s even a way to fast travel alongside of that. The biggest additions though are in the class trials, they’ve changed up all the mini-games but have also added some more depth to the conversations. In addition to now being able to actually agree with people, there’s also a new deeper one-on-one arguing mechanic where you have to battle for control of the flow of the conversation long enough to find a contradiction in your opponent’s logic and point it out. Going back to the new mini-games, they’re a little hit and miss. For the most part they’re slight iterations of the segments from the last game and the phoenix wright style stuff and the comic strip closing statement mechanic return essentially unchanged. The most unusual new bit of gameplay you’ll see is the logic dive, a weird cyber snowboarding segment, somewhat reminiscent of Sonic 2’s bonus stages, where you must avoid obstacles while answering a string of questions by boarding down a specific path. It acts as a fun visual metaphor for connecting a string of logic together but it feels perhaps slightly out-of-place, that said it’s much better than the redesigned hangman segments which are a little ungainly at times. Overall the gameplay is just more of the same and that’s completely fine by me, I was there for the story twists and clever dialogue based puzzles and those parts are fully intact and fun as ever.

It’s also worth noting just how much gameplay there actually is here because Goodbye Despair is absolutely packed to the gills with content, especially for an adventure game. The main story alone takes a good 25-30 hours to finish, which is absurdly long for the genre. Obviously the worry is that things will start to drag when spread out over that much time but as I’ve said, the writing is stellar, and with the exception of the fourth chapter which is a little dull compared to the rest of the game, it manages to keep you gripped for the entirety of its run. Things aren’t done when you beat the game though, Goodbye Despair is a big fan of parallel universes and elseworlds storytelling and as such it packs in two what if scenarios for you to ponder. The first is Island Mode, which lets you play a version of the main campaign in which Usami managed to defeat Monokuma and the murders are replaced with, I shit you not, arts and crafts. It’s obviously not nearly as suspenseful as the main campaign but it does allow you to finish establishing relationships with all the characters (the progress of which carries over from the main campaign) and squeeze out all that back story and dialogue which makes this series so good. The core gameplay of this mode involves you assigning all the students to either gather materials, clean the island, or rest from doing either of the former with the goal being to collect enough materials to makes whatever item Usami has asked you to create. It’s got a good fun light management sim thing going on and after all the heavy shit the main campaign puts you through, especially near the end, it makes for a good change of pace. The other parallel timeline you get to think about comes from an unlockable novella, called Danganronpa IF, that tells the story of the first game if things had gone a very different way right from the start. It’s a very short story but I found it to be quite interesting and it deepened a character from the first game that had previously more or less gone undefined. There’s also a little mini-game you can unlock featuring Monomi/Usami defeating monsters but frankly it’s just not very fun and doesn’t really bear any further mention, that said it can be happily ignored without missing a thing and the game is already laden with other content.

Pooping, angst, parties, awkward fat guys; this game has everything!

Pooping, angst, parties, awkward fat guys; this game has everything!

Lastly let’s talk about the presentation, which carries forward the first game’s attitude of rebellious punk anarchism. Visually it’s all more or less in the same vein of the first game, mainly because it’s all done by the same artist, Rui Komatsuzaki, whose dark and over sketched style permeates the whole of the production. That said though his dark and almost unnerving style is somewhat undermined at times by the occasional fan bait moments that Goodbye Despair decides to slip in, but thankfully even those lewder dalliances are usually justified by the game’s self-aware tone; it knows it’s being kind of creepy and it’s just as ashamed as you are. It’s also worth noting that the series’ trademark pink blood returns, which I still think is a great touch, but sadly the game shies away from really being all that gory. The kills are certainly brutal and the game still has no problem lingering on them, but in terms of actual gore it’s still pretty tame and that does somewhat undercut the intended naked inhumanity of it all. The real stand out in the presentation for me though was the music. Just like the art, it’s done by same guy as last time, Masafumi Takada, who also did the music for the No More Heroes series. It has very much that same blend of styles, changing up from lower key J-Ska and J-Hip-Hop to more fast paced crazy anime guitar, but a real effort has been made here to fit the music to the subject material. Large chunks of the soundtrack feature a distorted island rhythm that is both soothing and yet ominous. It goes for a typical ukulele and steel guitar sort of vibe but there is a distinct discordance to it all that lies just underneath and perfectly reflects the story’s theme of murder in paradise. It really enhances the mood of the game and hammers home exactly what the player should be feeling in a very strong way.

In the end I’m still not sure whether or not I think Danganronpa works as a franchise, but Danganronpa 2: Goodbye Despair is definitely a worthwhile sequel. It’s an incredibly clever game and instead of just listlessly continuing the events of the first game, it uses them as a springboard to tell its own interesting story, which is exactly what a good sequel should do. As such I’m giving Danganronpa 2: Goodbye Despair a 5 out of 5 stars, while you certainly won’t get as much enjoyment out of it if you haven’t played Trigger Happy Havoc, it’s still a great game in its own right.

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