The following is a (mostly) spoiler free review of Danganronpa V3: Killing Harmony, spoilers will be marked.
For those unfamiliar with it, Danganronpa is a Japanese game series made by Spike Chunsoft that plunges the player into a hell-school run by a talking plush bear. 16 students are forced to try to kill their way out, and the way they do it is by committing elaborate murders. Once a body is discovered the class must go to trial, and if they fail to uncover the culprit, the entire class dies, excluding the killer, who gets to walk away a free man/woman/robot.
The appeal is in the trials, Danganronpa is at it's strongest when the main character and classmates are thrown into a deadly investigation. The trials go on for hours, twisting one way and another until you ultimately come to the (usually stomach churning) truth. Then the class votes, and, ideally, the survivors watch the gruesome execution of the killer, one of their friends. Honestly, it's a messed up series, but for those who enjoy murder mysteries, they are worth the price of admission. But with the mind-teasing trials comes something else, something that the series has never handled with much grace, but has gradually become a Titanic-sized anchor dragging the fun and curiosity of the series into the icy depths of 'who-cares?'
That anchor is the series mythology. In the first game the characters spent most of the time solving mysteries, only at the end did the truth come out, and this was to great effect. But the law of diminishing returns has not overlooked the series, which now boasts four games, some manga, and two animes. With each outing the war between hope and despair smacks the player in the head a bit harder. The animes released last year were meant to explain and tie up the character's storylines and end despair for good, but instead devolved into a mess. One anime went nowhere (Despair Arc), spiraling into torture porn and boob shots to justify it's 11 episode run, and the other (Future Arc) had to scramble to justify it by dumbing down not just our heroes, but humanity entirely. Danganronpa V3 starts off promisingly enough, veering away from the lazy twists that could have toppled the adventure from the get-go, but it can't shake it's own history.
The characters are fun and interesting, with one major exception, the foul-mouthed, needlessly obnoxious Miu, and players will love spending time with them. Until they die, anyway. As usual you must choose wisely who you spend time with, because you only have time to max out around 4 characters in one playthrough and each character offers the player a perk in trials. There are some surprising twists and turns and the murders are interesting, the killers are compelling, the executions are....well...what they always are; violent and difficult to watch, especially since this game works hard, and succeeds, to make you feel for the murderers, all of whom have arguably good reasons for their crime.
Where V3 wobbles is in it's overall mythology, the global plotline of the war between hope and despair that will have veteran players yawning instead of gasping. Opportunities are introduced and tossed aside, never to be mentioned again, and by the time to big reveal rolls around you've been exposed to so much minutia that it doesn't land even the lightest of punches. The final trial is a slog of exposition from a character who spends most of the time thumbing through Danganronpa's greatest hits without really telling the player anything interesting. By the time they shut up and the smoke clears it is numbing to realize you don't really know what happened or why, nor do you particularly care. The words "hope", "despair" and (minor spoiler) "fiction" are repeated so often in the final hour that they lose all meaning.
Not to mention name-dropping the title every other second, it's a relief when the credits finally roll.
Once the main story is complete players can jump back in and round out their friendships in a relaxing, non-murderous, setting, a Danganronpa mainstay. But V3 does one better and offers even more after-game rewards that certainly help get your moneys worth out of it. There are two new modes that let you hang out with a multitude of Danganronpa characters, mixing and matching teams from every game.
Some players no doubt enjoy the mythology storyline that links each entry of the series together, but as the story goes on a question arises; would Danganronpa do better to lighten up on the heavy-handed "despair"? When a fascinating murder game resorts to lobbing literal meteors as a plot-point, it might be time to dial it down a notch, or put the series to bed, permanently. It remains to be seen if V3 will be our last semester of the killing game, but from the ending, smart money is on a continuation, and with it, great characters, complex mysteries, and eye-rolling ultimate reveals. Let's hope the next game finds a smooth balance between its murders and mythology. After all, hope is what it's all about, riiight?
Danganronpa V3: Killing Harmony is available on the PS4, Playstation Vita, Steam, and PC.