Whenever I would have my first day at a new school, a million different worries would race through my brain. Do I know where my classes are? Will I make any friends? Did I remember my lunch? Will a psychotic bear entrap my entire class and force us to kill each other?
Well, maybe not the last part, but if I had played DanganRonpa, the thought might have crossed my mind.
DanganRonpa is a visual novel game that revolves around solving murder mysteries among a group of high school students. I’ve been given the opportunity to do some undercover investigating behind the secretive walls of DanganRonpa’s upcoming localization, and I’m ready to report my findings on life in a school filled with hope, despair, and death.
The story begins with Makoto Naegi standing outside the imposing Hope’s Peak Academy, an elite school that only accepts the best and brightest students. That’s not just hyperbole either, every student attending the school is considered to be at the highest level of their specialty, complete with titles like the Ultimate Baseball Star or Ultimate Fanfic Creator (a prestigious title, to be sure).
It’s strange then, that Makoto introduces himself as the most average human being in existence. However, rather than being the Ultimate Average Guy, it seems he was accepted as the Ultimate Lucky Student. Immediately, I couldn’t help but think there was more to that situation, and quickly found that it would be just one of many mysteries that awaited.
Makoto is so nervous that he arrives an hour early, much sooner than anyone else. Just as he manages to collect his thoughts, the world begins to swirl around him and he loses consciousness. When Makoto wakes up, he finds himself in an eerie classroom, alone and confused.
Here, I got to take control and investigate the classroom. Navigating the school is done from a first person perspective, and works similar to games like Ace Attorney, where you move a cursor around the screen and click on interesting objects. The most noticeable thing in the room was a suspicious note left on the desk, with the words “this school will be your entire world,” written in childish scribbles. A bold threat to be sure, but I never thought school was that bad. Upon further investigation of the room, however, I realized my own school also didn’t have giant surveillance cameras and bolted-shut windows.
One thing that immediately jumped out at me is that DanganRonpa really nails atmosphere. The music is threateningly ominous, and I could feel the mysteries piling up in my brain. After leaving the classroom, I was greeted by some strangely-lit purple hallways that further enhanced the uneasy tension in the air. If it weren’t for cutesy graphics on the in-game map, the academy could almost pass for a horror locale.
I warily made my way towards the main hall, and it was there I finally made human contact. Fourteen other students were there waiting, all seemingly as confused as Makoto. That said, while things might have been getting a little weird, it seemed like a good idea to get acquainted with my classmates.
DanganRonpa features a fairly sizable cast of Ultimates, so it makes sense that they would give very distinct first impressions. The Ultimate Moral Compass, for example, is an overly strict do-gooder with a loud voice and fiery eyes to match, while the Ultimate Martial Artist is gruff and looks like she came straight out of Dragon Ball Z. Every character feels like they were exaggerated to the extreme and as a result they ride a strange line between interesting and obnoxious. While I wasn’t a fan of all my classmates, putting so many strong personalities in one place promised to keep things exciting.
After the introductions, everyone convened to assess their situation. All the windows were bolted, the entrance blocked, and any communication with the outside world was cut. In other words: there was no escape. To make things worse, an odd shadowy figure appeared in a monitor, beckoning the students to the gymnasium for an opening ceremony.
Once, inside the gym, the class is assaulted by an oddly cheery voice. The greeting came from Monokuma, an insidious looking bear who leapt out from behind a podium. He introduced himself as the headmaster, and confirmed the reality of the situation: the students were indeed trapped, and they all had to live in the school until they died.
Things were already looking bad, but Monokuma nudged in one last detail to drive it all to a breaking point: the way only way to escape was to kill a fellow classmate.
Suddenly, Makoto finds himself in a crowd of potential murderers, wondering who will make the first move. The stage is set for the killing game to begin, and I was hooked on finding out what would happen next.
Food for Thought:
1. Every character has voice acting in the form of preset catchphrases based on the mood of the text. Unfortunately, DanganRonpa doesn’t handle these voice bits as well as it could. I can handle grunts or maybe a single word, but full phrases are used frequently, which not only gets repetitive but also distracts from the real dialogue.
2. That said, I’m no connoisseur of dubbing, but I think the English voices hold up pretty well in general.