Class is back in session.
The Danganronpa series is not easy to explain to the unacquainted. In a sentence: a robotic, sadistic teddy bear traps sixteen high-school students and tells them that the only way to escape is to kill someone and not get caught. It’s weird and quirky and thoroughly Japanese but consistently engaging and thrilling at the same time. The third game in the series that (spin-offs and anime included) now pans over 100 hours of content is no different—delivering another polished and enjoyable narrative-focused game.
Danganronpa V3: Killing Harmony is the third Danganronpa main-series game from Japanese developer Spike Chunsoft. Released in Japan in January of this year, Killing Harmony sees the killing game arrive on PS4 for the first time (the previous two games, initially released for the PlayStation Vita, were also re-released on the PS4 earlier this year). The rules of the killing game are simple: when a murder occurs, a class trial will be held. If, at the end of the trial, the majority of students vote for the true culprit as the killer, then the guilty party will be executed. If the votes are for the wrong character, the killer gets to go free, and everyone else is executed. It’s important to note that the story is linear, which means that additional playthroughs won’t generate different killers.
Each of the sixteen student wakes up in what they are told is “The Ultimate Academy for Gifted Juveniles” with no memory of how they got there. Players take control of Kaede Akamatsu, AKA the Ultimate Pianist. She is an almost insufferable optimist and as the deadly details of the killing game emerge, she encourages her fellow classmates to come together and face the tragedy of their situation together.
Throughout its first few hours, Killing Harmony does a lot to narratively distinguish itself from the previous installments. The basic framework is the same, especially in the very beginning, but none of the tricks or reveals from previous games are recycled. Killing Harmony deceives the player in new and interesting ways, yet it never once feels like the writers have run out of new and interesting ideas. There are, of course, familiar aspects. Monokuma is back and so are his hilarious “Monokuma Theater” interludes. Our ursine ringleader is now joined by five of his “children,” the Monokubs, each with their own unique color and twisted personality. The cubs and Monokuma constantly drop not-so-subtle-hints about the greater, overarching story of the outside world as the game goes on, and it develops alongside the events inside the school just as in the previous games.
The new cast of students is just as lovable, odd and annoying as the previous two main-line games. Phenomenally characterized and uniquely designed, each one of the sixteen characters feels like their own person. Even if you’re unable to list off the names of everyone until a few chapters in, within the first hour of gameplay it’s easy to see a character design and, at the very least, immediately know their basic personality and Ultimate ability.
Gameplay in Danganronpa is divided into two parts. The School Life portion sees Kaede walking around the Academy, talking to her fellow students and investigating in the style of a visual novel. There is lots of reading in Killing Harmony, sometimes with very little gameplay in between, but this has always been a facet of the Danganronpa games. A new feature streamlines the investigation process even further; a simple press of a button reveals everything of interest, removing the frustration of moving the cursor across every inch of the screen. The gameplay following a murder remains largely the same, as Kaede continues to investigate, collecting evidence and alibis in preparation for the class trial.
The second gameplay style is the class trial, which features a series of mini-games and puzzles. In truth, some of the new trial mechanics feel a little bit contrived, while most of the new mini-games feel as if they were added only for novelty’s sake. For example, the “Split Opinion Debate Scrums,” which sees the students split down the middle on an issue and battling it out, are moderately interesting from a narrative perspective—but the feature itself is an overly simplistic word association game that always devolves into a button-mash. The “Brain Drive” sections, meanwhile, reveal pertinent information by revealing important trial questions and then making the player pick one of two answers—but it feels like information that could’ve been introduced in an easier way.
The returning features of the class trials work well as always, however, and they make up the bulk of player interaction during the trials. Nonstop Debates and Hangman’s Gambit are back with little to no changes. Nonstop Debates, where you use your collected “truth bullets” to contradict or agree with other students’ statements, are just as tense and confusing as always. The ability to use your evidence to lie is a fantastic new feature as well, subtly raiseing the question of when it’s okay to not tell the truth.
The series has always had a mastery over how much information they give to the player, and the success of the class trials has always depended on how much you think you know going in. Killing Harmony is no different. The game makes you think you’re one step ahead as the trial starts only to quickly reveal that you were actually two steps behind. Red herring after red herring appear and even if you have a grasp on the manner of the killing, finding the culprit is another story.
What Killing Harmony does better than any Danganronpa game before it is making the player empathize with the killers. The previous games have done this as well of course, there was always a motive to the crime deeper than just the need to escape, but Killing Harmony almost makes you feel bad for catching the killer each time. It’s another testament to the game’s fantastic characterization, and going into most of the class trials I truly didn’t want any of the remaining students to have actually done it.
Another important aspect where the game shines is in its localization. Amidst jokes about President Donald Trump and the New York Jets, the characters’ dialogue reads, for the most part, very naturally. This is helped largely by the voice cast who, like in the previous games, only voice certain important portions of the game. Each time they do however, the voice work truly helps solidify the personalities of these characters.
There’s not much to comment on regarding the music in Killing Harmony. Some familiar themes reappear and some new, appropriately off-kilter ones emerge (the Monokubs theme in particular) but beyond that, the music is the same ambient, electronic background noise from earlier games. The music isn’t exactly poor, it just plays second fiddle to the narrative, as it probably should in a game like this. The music ramps up and builds the tension during the trials and adequately underscores the relative peacefulness of free time.
Danganronpa V3: Killing Harmony is, for the most part, more of the same, and that’s a good thing. In fact, the only things that don’t quite work in Killing Harmony are the new classes trial features. The narrative is just as interesting as the previous games, and, in many ways better. It’s not the best starting point for someone new to the series, but fans of the first two games should enjoy this culmination of the series one just as much.