Review: Danganronpa V3: Killing Harmony

Dude, Not Funny

The envelope of comedy can cover a massive range of themes and styles. In everything from satire to screwball, the end goal is to present a topic in a way that makes an audience laugh. Of course, what people find funny is subjective – I love stand-up comedy, while my roommate finds that style of presentation deeply unfunny (for some reason).

Many believe anything can be comedic, even subjects such as death and violence. Bringing those topics into the fold is where we enter the genre of black comedy: using more taboo topics for humor.

Black comedy can be extremely polarizing, as some believe there are topics that absolutely should not be made light of. Others may see it from a different view: injecting humor into a dark topic makes it easier to acknowledge and discuss, rather than ignoring it altogether.

This style of comedy, contentious as it may be, is still quite common in most entertainment media, including video games. The title we are looking at today is the latest in a franchise that revels in dark humor, contrasting wacky stylized slapstick against horrific deaths and torture.

Developed by Spike Chunsoft and published in the west by NIS America, Danganronpa V3: Killing Harmony is set for release on September 26th, 2017, for PS4, Vita, and PC via Steam. The PS4 version was played for this review.

A Course in Murder

Danganronpa V3 begins with high school student Kaede Akamatsu waking up inside of a locker. She stumbles out to find another student, Shuichi Saihara, along with 14 other people…none of whom know where they are or how they got there. They do remember, though, their identities as “Ultimate” students – people that possess a certain talent above and beyond world-class level (e.g. Kaede is the Ultimate Pianist).

Gathering in the school’s gym, these students are then introduced to a robotic bear named Monokuma, along with his five “children” referred to as Monokubs. Monokuma informs them that they are now trapped in a school, the “Ultimate Academy for Gifted Juveniles,” and in order to escape, they must participate in a killing game. Kill someone and get away with it in a trial, and you “graduate,” leaving everyone else to die. Commit a murder but get discovered, and you are executed and the killing game continues.

The basic premise here should be instantly recognizable to anyone familiar with the Danganronpa series, but this game does turn a few expectations on their heads. Much of the stark black and white morality of previous titles is muddled here. Aside from the blatantly evil Monokuma, most of the characters here are painted in shades of grey, with none (not even the protagonist) that I would call obviously good or evil. Even the most blatantly-presented “evil” student, Kokichi Oma, the Ultimate Supreme Leader, develops more in the morally grey territory behind his facade of constant lies.

Speaking of characters, Danganronpa V3 gives us, in my opinion, the best cast in the series. There’s still an issue with a couple characters relying entirely on one trait (Angie Yonaga, who will NOT SHUT UP about the island god she worships), but the vast majority are multifaceted people with strong development, even the ones who end up…leaving the game early. Many still that begin with the single trait shtick manage to break out of their molds and form a more fleshed out personality as the story progresses.

The strong writing behind these students is greatly important, as games of this ilk live and die on their character interactions. Most of the drama and intrigue in the plot stems from how these characters form bonds with each other in their attempt to survive the killing game…and how Monokuma works to destroy said bonds.

If there’s one thing Danganronpa might be considered famous for, it would be its completely schizophrenic tone. Monokuma and the Monokubs rely heavily on slapstick comedy, and character interactions are often humorous, even as students are being brutally murdered.

As such, if you’re a newcomer to this series, don’t let the bright colors and cute mascots fool you. Danganronpa V3 is a violent and often deeply disturbing game, filled with blunt depictions of dead bodies, sadistic and graphically detailed executions, and other taboo topics such as inferred incest and suicidal themes. The game definitely wears its ‘M’ rating on its sleeve.

Lastly, I would like to mention that this game is definitely not a great entry point for those new to the series. While the previous games’ arc officially wrapped up with a pair of anime series aired last year, Danganronpa V3 still relies on references to and knowledge of the previous titles, especially in the back half of the game. The places the plot goes here can be genuinely shocking, but they will lose their punch without having experienced at least the first two main series entries.

Shooting Down Ideas

Danganronpa V3 is one of those visual novels with a strong gameplay component, with some aspects of point-and-click adventure and (of all things) first-person shooter. The game itself is generally broken up in to three phases for each chapter: daily school life, murder investigation, and class trials.

The daily life part plays like a standard visual novel, with some interactivity in letting you move about the school campus on your own. Alongside the main plot, you also have the option to hang out with the other students around campus, learning more about said characters and their lives. While I do appreciate the opportunities for deeper characterization, these portions start to drag a bit as the game continues on, creating some annoying lulls in the main plotline.

These parts only last for about an hour at a time, until an inevitable murder occurs and the game shifts into investigation mode. This part plays out more like a point-and-click adventure game, requiring you to explore the crime scene and related areas to find clues and hints as to the culprit’s identity and murder methods. I did get stuck in a few investigations trying to find clues – even with an option that highlights everything you can interact with in a room, some items are very small or are hidden in other items. Most of the time, though, this part is fairly easy to get through.

Finally, the third portion is the real meat of the game: the class trials. Often multiple hours long, these parts have you debating against classmates and playing various minigames to deduce who is the culprit. The main game you play here is the “Non-Stop Debate,” where debates and arguments appear as physical words on screen, and you use the clues you have as ammunition literally shoot down others’ words.

The new twist here in the third game is the ability to purposely lie during these segments. The lead-up dialogue to a debate where you need to lie usually makes it obvious that it’s required, taking some strategy out of it. However, finding a lie to use in debates that usually require the use of other clues can unlock a “Back Door” path and change up the trial. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to find any of these in my playthrough.

The other mini-games you play can be very hit-or-miss. “Argument Armament,” where you play a rhythm game to break down a refuting classmate’s defenses, was easily one of my favorites (then again, I’m a sucker for rhythm games). On the opposite end is “Psyche Taxi,” where you try and figure out the connections between clues via the metaphor of driving a car down a road. This mini-game is a bit too simple, with easy to figure out answers, and moves much too slowly, taking multiple minutes where most other mini-games can take seconds. Another notable one is the “Debate Scrum,” which occurs when everyone’s opinions are split in two, and you have to refute every statement the opposing side says. While a great setpiece, the game mostly amounts to word matching, making it a bit disappointing.

Pop-Up Horror

One of my favorite things about the Danganronpa series has always been the highly stylized graphics and character designs, and finally seeing them on the big screen with a home console (where most previous entries have been handheld exclusive until recently) makes them even more stunning.

Danganronpa V3 easily has the best visual presentation out of the entire series. Effective use of color, the paper doll presentation of the characters, the shifting art style to reinforce plot moments, all blended with an occasional touch of psychedelia make this one of the most unique games you’ll play.

Really, it’s the graphical style that allows this game to get away with so much of the cruelty in the plot. I truly doubt many of the scenes in this game would allow it to make it to market if done in a more realistic, or even a standard anime, style. Hell, I can remember, back with the first game, people theorizing that the now series-staple neon pink blood was chosen to get around possible censorship in Japan.

A Funky Crime Spree

The music of the series is just as defining as the graphical style, and once again, Danganronpa V3 one-ups past entries with its soundtrack. Half horror, half funk, it’s a crazy blend that fits the aesthetic of the game amazingly, with most of the songs perfectly matched to the tone of what’s currently happening on screen. The game also makes effective use of sudden pauses and silence to guide emotion while reading. The only track I really take issue with is the Monokubs’ theme, featuring spoken English sentences that actually managed to distract me from reading when it played.

This game also features semi-full voice acting and dual audio, of which I (as usual) chose to play in English. While only certain segments are voice in the daily life and investigation segments, the class trials are voiced in full. Aside from a couple of performances, I have nothing but good things to say about the English dub actors. Performances and vocal inflection fit the characters perfectly, and most are able to convey the extreme emotions experiences in parts of the story surprisingly well. There does seem to be some balancing issues, though – soft spoken characters tended to be mixed too low, getting masked by the background music.

Finding Joy in Despair

Overall, Danganronpa V3: Killing Harmony is a game that sucked me in and didn’t let me go until the final credits rolled. The characters are impressively well-written, and the story is insanely gripping, managing to play against many of my expectations. There’s so much more I wish I could discuss with the plot, but it’s near impossible to dodge through the minefield of potential spoilers to do so.

Needless to say, though, if you’ve even passingly enjoyed previous series entries, this is a game that absolutely must be played through. Lulls in the plot and some dull mini-games aside, I’d easily rank this as the best entry in the Danganronpa franchise thus far. I do wish it was a bit more accommodating to newcomers though. Playing the first two games in the series is pretty much necessary to fully appreciate the story told here.

If you’re a series fan, and still have a strong stomach, Danganronpa V3 can’t come any more highly recommended. If you haven’t experienced the franchise yet, now’s the time to jump in…but start with the first game.

~ Final Score: 9/10 ~

Review copy provided by NIS America for PS4. Screenshots taken by reviewer.