Danganronpa V3: Killing Harmony Review – Killing School Is Back in Session
Danganronpa has always been an out of control roller coaster ride of screwball, craziness, but the latest entry, V3: Killing Harmony, takes the series to new a height of delicious absurdity.
For those that haven’t heard of Danganronpa before, just try to imagine an adventure visual novel that is essential a mixture of the various intellectual properties I’m about to name; Koushun Takami’s Battle Royale (or Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games for those who aren’t familiar with the Japanese novel that may or may not have inspired the popular young adult series), Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, along with video games franchises Phoenix Wright and Zero Escape, and even the reality competition show Survivor. On top of all that, these games make strong use of the various storytelling clichés and character architypes found in your typical anime or JRPG experience, all the while poking fun at these same tropes or subverting your expectations by turning them on their head.
If this seems to be something right up your alley, and you don’t want to take the time to go back to play the previous Danganronpa games, you will be perfectly fine jumping right into this latest entry. The game itself follows its own storyline that separates it from its predecessors, so apart from a handful of references (some direct and some not), you won’t be missing any crucial information that will ruin your playthrough, though there are still major spoilers pertaining to past games.
Even if it doesn’t continue the overarching plot, the setup for V3: Killing Harmony remains the same; featuring yet another brand-new cast of high school students who have been trapped inside a seemingly abandoned school by the walking, talking mechanical teddy bear, Monkuma, so that they can take part the latest iteration of his infamous killing game. This “game” has several rules, but the objective is essentially to kill another student and not get voted guilty at the ensuing trial that occurs after every death. If the culprit succeeds, they are free to leave the school. If they are caught, however, they are punished. And these “punishments” take the form of elaborate set-piece executions that are difficult to watch yet impossible to look away due to how artistic and visually cinematic they are.
The gameplay remains remotely unchanged. Easily broken down into three distinctive gameplay periods, it continues to be an addicting cycle. Firstly, you have School Life, which occurs when there is no murder to investigate, where you can freely explore the school and hang and bond with your fellow students. Now, the presence of a relationship building system may sound strange on paper, especially since it leads to the characters being utterly horrified at seeing one of their fellow classmates murdered in front of them to the next day be back to hanging out and being buddies with each other like nothing happened. But the writers manage to find a sweet spot in their writing where things typically do go from being fun and lighthearted to dark and somber in a blink of an eye without it feeling jarring.
Once a murder does occur, the game transitions into Deadly Life; here you must investigate said murder to find evidence that can be used in the game’s third period, the Class Trial, which is the only portion of the game that sees substance enhancements.
Trials still proceed the same way, with the characters discussing the murder while their dialogue flashes across the screen. Meanwhile your job remains to watch and listen for discrepancies in their statements and take advantage of them by countering or consenting by providing evidence in the form of Truth Bullets. You also occasionally must answer multiple choice questions and play mini games (some brand new, some updated versions from past iterations). One new addition to the game is Lie Bullets that can be used when you see no honest way to dispute a clearly misleading argument, but the process of doing so is almost identical to using Truth Bullets, so it doesn’t affect the flow in meaningful way. The one new gameplay element that I do think adds onto the experience are Debate Scrums, which occur when the students find themselves deadlocked in an argument. When a scrum starts, the floor will literally separate the students into two teams and have them face-off by matching statements to counter each other until one side breaks.
It is worth noting that each of the murders you must investigate are more elaborate and complex (and not to mention demand a greater suspension of belief) than ever before, essentially making the murders of the original Danganronpa look like child’s play in compassion. That’s not to say the culprits and methods behind these crimes are all that shocking. No, the opposite in fact. A lot of the trials break down in predictable, and sometimes blatantly straightforward fashion. Danganronpa has commonly struggled when it comes to disguising what characters are cannon fodder and who is protected by plot armor. These struggles are less prominent in V3, but are still a problem where certain chapters are concerned. It also can become quite frustrating when the answer to how someone was killed is distinguishable from the start, but you still must spend time debunking several poorly thought-out theories, or if the culprit is obvious yet the suspicion remains isolated on a clearly innocent character and you have no way of changing it. Even so, the trials are never boring and I not once did I came into one confidently knowing all the answers.
Although it does include more gameplay elements than most visual novels, Danganronpa success lives and dies on the strength of its characters and story.
As usual, each of the students are “Ultimates” meaning they are highly skilled in some field or profession and are hence labeled as such. Some titles are seemingly pedestrian, such as the Ultimate Pianist and Ultimate Tennis Pro, while others are a bit more bizarre, Ultimate Robot and Ultimate Supreme Leader, but altogether they make up the most colorful cast to date that kept me grinning with their hilarious banter. Even characters I wasn’t quite so sold on coming in ended up surprising me by how likeable they became the more I interacted with them. Spike Chunsoft continues to show they are the masters of making you care for characters right before causing you dismay by killing them off.
I will say there are a few one-note characters who began to overstay their welcome, along with some whose time were cut woefully too short. Though the only aggressively weak points in the cast for me were the Ultimate Magician, who frustrated me with their lackadaisical personality and constant assertions that their magic is real, and the Ultimate Inventor, whose vulgarity often ends up going too far for even a Danganronpa game.
But, of course, you can’t talk about Danganronpa characters without mentioning the twisted host of the killing game himself, Monokuma; he is still a great source of humor with his endless stream of pop culture references and ability to spout sarcasm like no other. Although Monokuma does spend more time out of the spotlight this time around due to the inclusion of his children, the Monokubs, five miniaturized versions of himself. This isn’t a bad thing, because A) it helps Monokuma’s shtick avoid becoming old. And B) the Monokubs all have fun, easily distinguishable personalities that play off each well. The only downside is that the Monkubs’ story arc goes nowhere.
The story itself is chalk full of the shocking twists and turns you expect, although most are isolated to the beginning or end of the game. I did find a lot of the storytelling beats reminiscent of the original Danganronpa, though it’s difficult to explain exactly what I mean without getting into spoilers. There are still plenty of original storyline developments as well. For example, the students at one point split in two factions with different ideologies on how to handle their situation.
Have I mentioned how killer the soundtrack is yet? Because it’s killer. Some tracks are just ridiculous while others are more despair-inducing, which perfectly sums up the game’s tone.
The one place that Danganronpa has always lost me is at the end when the murders stop and you must try to crack the case behind why the killing game is happening. In the past these explanations have come off convoluted and goofy, and figuring it was just not as fun as trying to catch a murderer. V3’s ending, however, hooked me in a way past games did not. Nonetheless, it still ended up taking things a little too far for my taste and completely lost my favor by time the credits rolled with how divisive and tongue-in-cheek it truly becomes. It’s not terrible, but I feel like they overstepped themselves in what could have been an awesome ending.
Danganronpa V3: Killing Harmony isn’t an inventive game. The premise and gameplay are virtually identical to its predecessors in almost every way. But if you are anything like me, you are playing for the eccentric characters, crazy twists, and the chance to unravel some outrageous mysteries, and if that’s the case – this game is well worth your time.