Spike Chunsoft’s Danganronpa series has experienced quite a rise in popularity, even in the West. Word-of-mouth among adventure and visual novel enthusiasts, particularly the crowd waiting for their next Phoenix Wright fix, has brought the Japanese killing game series to the forefront of mainstream industry attention. Each successive installment in the franchise has done a good job pulling players into its bizarre high school murder premise, featuring eclectic, memorable casts of characters that stick with you long after the credits have rolled. Danganronpa V3: Killing Harmony stands out as my favorite entry in the series to date, offering some of the best writing and characterizations seen so far while managing to stave off staleness that could have so easily set in by now.
Let’s get this out of the way right up front: Killing Harmony is not designed for newcomers. While the setting, cast, and majority of events work to some degree as a standalone experience, the game fully expects players to be familiar with both previous titles to get the most out of its story. Once again, it follows the same basic plot outline and narrative structure as its predecessors: Sixteen high school students with unique “ultimate” talents find themselves imprisoned without their memories, and are told that in order to leave they have to win a killing game. What follows is a highly entertaining series of promises, plots, betrayals, and grisly murders and trials in which survival doesn’t come cheap.
V3 does nothing to change up this tried-and-true formula, but puts its own unique spin on the finer points. The killing game this time takes place in the Ultimate Academy for Gifted Juveniles and the grounds around it, all surrounded by an impenetrable glass dome. Monokuma, the evil robot teddy bear/school headmaster is back, and he’s brought his offspring, the Monokubs, with him. These five equally twisted mechanical bears pilot the hulking Exisals (bipedal battle tanks), forcing the students to march to the beat of Monokuma’s drum through six intricate and tense chapters. With sixteen protagonists and six villains, the stage is overflowing with strong personalities competing for their turn in conversations. But as warped as the villains – and even some of the students – are, there is plenty of wicked fun and dark humor to go around as well.
Anybody who knows the first thing about Danganronpa knows that even a superficial conversation about plot will result in spoilers. It’s not the kind of narrative that slowly builds up to a climax; keeping players on the thin razor’s edge between unexpected twists and surprising reveals is the game’s bread and butter. So I won’t reveal much in the way of specific details, but I can say it’s invigorating to see that, even in this third outing, the writers have managed to come up with fresh scenarios that keep one-upping each other in wow factor. The story offers many water cooler moments, and just begs to be discussed and debated after completing it.
The quality of the writing, the creativity put into the murder cases, and the spectacular cast of characters make V3 easily my favorite of the series so far. Some elements have been designed specifically to complement one another. Miu Iruma, the Ultimate Inventor, is not only vital to the plot with her ability to create useful gadgets, but makes for a good comedic pairing with K1-B0 (pronounced Keebo), the Ultimate Robot, whose mechanical subtleties fascinate her to no end. Gonta Gokuhara, a hulking simpleton raised by wolves, is a gentle giant, but is easily taken advantage of by a criminal mastermind like Kokichi Oma, the Ultimate Supreme Leader. Bonds between characters evolve in believable ways based on their personalities; some are loners, others are leaders, and there’s an almost palpable feeling of connections disintegrating when someone who was the glue holding them together is lost.
Unfortunately, even with all that, the game’s ending is my least favorite to date. Considering how much disbelief players are asked to suspend over the course of a Danganronpa game, it takes a finale of epic proportions to qualify as “hard to swallow.” Sadly, this is precisely how V3’s ending came across to me, and it tinged the overall experience, if only ever-so-slightly.
Each of the game’s chapters, as before, is split into Daily Life and Deadly Life segments. During the former, the story moves forward peacefully, with characters interacting with each other and players exploring the school grounds. A few new areas and rooms are made accessible at the beginning of each new chapter. Once the inevitable happens and a body is discovered, the Deadly Life investigation section begins, in which players must scour rooms for clues used during the upcoming trial.Continued on the next page...