Review: Danganronpa V3: Killing Harmony

“Third time’s the charm” went the tagline for Danganronpa V3: Killing Harmony, the latest entry in Spike Chunsoft’s acclaimed graphic adventure/visual novel series. It seems a bit silly, given that the previous two games quickly turned Danganronpa into a full-on phenomenon in the West over the past three years, and that the second game set the bar high, not only providing an amazing and colorful set of murder mysteries, but also acting as a surprising deconstruction of several elements from the first game. So a tagline like that of Killing Harmony seems to be a bit boastful, claiming that it somehow gets it right this time, when there was nothing wrong with its predecessors. Or maybe it just exists for the pun and I’m reading too hard into things. Anyhow, our demented black-and-white ursine friend Monokuma is back with fresh blood to try and survive a new set of slaughters, but is his latest game a charm indeed, or is it just pure harm on the player’s senses?

Danganronpa V3 — named as such to differentiate itself from Danganronpa 3, the anime, which is apparently the actual third entry for the franchise as a whole — starts you out as Kaede Akamatsu, a high school student having found themselves abducted and now trapped in the Ultimate Academy for Gifted Juveniles, an abandoned school with fifteen other kids in it, all of them being Ultimate students that excel in one specific area each. Headmaster/robotic bear Monokuma assembles them and tells them he has once again started up the killing game, meaning if any of the students actually want to escape, they’ll have to murder one of the others and make it through a trial held by the class, dooming the rest if they’re innocent and getting a karmic execution if they’re guilty. Kaede naturally wants to find a way for all of them to escape, but as the murder mysteries begin, it turns out that everyone may need to focus more on just exactly what’s going on in the grander scheme, and that Kaede’s goal of saving herself and everyone else may actually be impossible…then again, it may be best to live without a few of these students.

Yes, we may as well go straight to what I consider to be Danganronpa V3’s biggest flaw, one that basically doomed it to have a lesser reputation than its predecessors. Namely, the fact that it has the weakest cast among all of the games so far. Some have praised the Japanese version for its strong characterization, but if that is one of its beast features, then maybe it was lost in translation. A lot of the students come across as abrasive, annoying, one-note or bland at first, and while they do receive character development and improve as things progress, it never got to the point where most of them truly impressed. Well, except for the insane chessmaster Kokichi Oma and gung-ho optimist Kaito Momota, both who serve as the highlights of the game (with Kaito basically being the new Gundham Tanaka, who gets in a particularly memorable crowning moment of awesome by the end). But it says a lot that they were the two characters I was the most interested in at the beginning of the game and that status never changed throughout the entire 35-plus-hour playthrough.

Maybe their status improves when you take the time during the Daily Life segments to bond with them, give them gifts, and hear their various stories, but I was focusing on the two or three I had already picked out in order to max out my bond with them to earn special abilities for the trials, and the others weren’t exactly acting inviting enough for me to try courting them. And in a series where you tend to rely on emotional connections in order to get you to care whenever one of the students gets bumped off or is found guilty, that is a notable flaw indeed. The Monokubs don’t exactly help either. As the name suggests, they’re Monokuma’s cubs, his little robo-kids with varying personalities and quirks designed to assist him. It sounds like a crazy idea…and not one crazy enough to work, largely because the Monokubs barely contribute anything as a whole to the plot (something even Monokuma himself seems to lampshade in at least one point). Heck, if anything, having six characters around to basically carry out observations and tasks that Monokuma could do on his own feels like it drags things out longer. And like the students, the Monokubs don’t exactly have winning personalities as well.

We haven’t even gotten to Danganronpa V3’s gameplay yet, but if you’ve played the previous two games, you should be familiar with how things work. And indeed, when it comes to the non-trial parts, things are pretty much one hundred percent the same. When each chapter begins with the Daily Life, there’s a story bit that unlocks some new parts of the academy, having you and the rest of the characters check it out, traveling around a first-person view. After the motive is introduced, you have about two in-game days to do what you’d like, typically making friends with classmates in order to earn Bond Fragments that are used to purchase special abilities for the Class Trial. Once a murder has occurred, Deadly Life begins, and thus the focus is now on a point-and-click investigation in order to gather evidence needed.

In sharp contrast, the Class Trials have added a slew of new touches and revamps. The standard debate where you shoot down highlighted contradictory statements with elements in the form of Truth Bullets is still present, and it’s still just as fun. but now there are also Mass Panic Debates, there three suspects present their own statements simultaneously in a panic, and not only do you have to try and pay attention to each debate for the correct statements, but you also have to silence any debates that get too loud, blocking the others. Other new mini-games include the Debate Scrum, where groups of class members have a split decision and the two groups face off, with you having to match words in the opposing statements to come up with a proper rebuttal, and the Mind Mine, where you have to break away blocks in a sort of Minesweeper variant in order to select the right piece of evidence. The former two are welcome additions, and the latter…well, Mind Mine is a pointless dud, sadly.

To make up for it, though, some of the other segments and mini-games in the class trial have certainly had some more polish. The Logic Dive where where you try to figure out a string of questions has been replace with the Psyche Taxi, behaving more like a small game of Outrun, with collecting letters and answering questions being more simplified and enjoyable this time. And the Hangman’s Gambit where you have to spell out the answer to a question thankfully no longer makes me curse loudly every time it comes up, again simplifying things for the better while still adding a memory-based challenge that works. And the Closing Arguments where you fill in a manga recreation of the crime now has certain scenes for you to choose locked until you complete a certain amount, adding just the right level of additional challenge.

Basically, the Class Trials have had just the right amount of new additions and retools to create a perfect difficulty balance, allowing things to remain fresh and fun while still putting up a fight (that said, given that some of the later trials can last a few hours, would it kill the devs to include more than one save point in them?). So as whole, the gameplay is as incredible as always, but it just seems odd that the Class Trials get all of the new bells and whistles, while Daily Life and investigations remain untouched. A few proper tweaks to them would indeed be quite the welcome addition to keep things from getting stale, but nonetheless, everything still comes together fine.

There is one new addition to the Class Trials that I left out until now, though. See, while you still have Truth Bullets, you also have the ability to turn them into Lie Bullets by holding down the fire button, introducing perjury to the mix by allowing you to shoot down claims with false contradictory evidence in into to steer things towards another topic that you know will lead towards the actual truth. It’s particularly notable because instead of hope and despair as the themes that the series traditionally focused on, now it’s all about the relationship between truth and lies. Mainly that while the search for the truth is obviously important, the actual truth isn’t necessarily just what you believe, and that it may even indeed be quite harsh, but you will have to face it. And yes, as seen with Lie Bullets, maybe there are situations where an absence of truth is for the better. It’s a theme that’s explored quite well, especially since it’s one that makes for more compelling mysteries and trials.

In fact, as expected, the overall writing in Danganronpa V3 is still top-notch for the most part, save for a few missteps (such as a recurring plot device that may as well be delivered with giant dashes and dots given how obvious it’s telegraphing a twist). But the murder mysteries themselves are still as expertly designed as always, giving you just enough info to figure out most of the puzzle for yourself before you use everything you have to uncover the final pieces during the Class Trial. the end result are some incredible dilemmas (especially Chapter 5, per tradition) that are a blast to figure out. Even the character issues can mostly melt away at times during a particularly good group scene, at least for the moment, and the twists can still deliver emotional impacts and min-blowing revelations, even from the beginning (without spoilers, the first Class Trial will make your jaw drop). The Academy itself also looks impressive, with the “Psycho-Cool” visuals and scenery combined with the yet-again memorable and awesome music creating something you’ll definitely want to explore every inch of.

With all of the above said, however, if you happen to know anything about Danganronpa V3 ever since its initial launch this year in Japan, you’ll also know that we have to discuss the final chapter and the ending in some way or another. Oh sweet lord, the final chapter.

What happens during the game’s final chapter has, is and will be… say the very least. Actually, that may be an understatement. Obviously, I yet again can’t spoil anything, but if Dangranropa 2’s final act drove the crazy train full speed ahead, Danganropa V3 drives the crazy train, makes it jump the tracks, then has it fly off into the air with the assistance of hoverjets powered by magic moonbeams and leprechaun tears so it can travel to the Hanging Gardens of Babylon for a concert performed by the ghost of Michael Jackson. And unlike the second game, which made its bonkers finale work, the endgame here teeters between brilliance and the kind of insanity that could act as a form of career suicide in an extremely polarizing act. But it’s not just that it affects this game, since what it delivers is something that casts a shadow over the entire franchise, something that future games are going to have a hard, hard time getting around. It’s like one of the writers was getting fired, so they wrote something completely ludicrous as a revenge scheme to screw over their replacement for the next game. As I suggested, I wouldn’t say parts of it don’t work, and are even kind of clever, particularly in the message they aim to deliver, but…damn, that was crazy. Just…damn.

Closing Comments:

Overall, Danganronpa V3: Killing Harmony is yet another excellent installment in the franchise, delivering up another set of grisly murders and the well-crafted conundrums and kangaroo courts that result from them while still keeping a focus on black humor and twisted school life. While it does suffer from a few bad apples in the cast and one of the most “WTF” finales in recent video game history, the gameplay has received enough of the right changes that it needs to make things more balanced and allow for some intense count sessions while still keeping you hooked on where all of this insanity is going yet again. One has to wonder where the series will possibly go from this, but for now, Monokuma has indeed gifted us with one more killing game that’s worth checking out.