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Danganronpa V3: Killing Harmony Review - A Classy End?

With seven titles already (including the one released for iOS/Android and another for Playstation VR), it's safe to say Danganronpa has been around for a while. It's gained enough popularity to be worthy of an Animé, has its own Manga series, several Novels and even a Japanese Stage Play. So with the recent release of Danganronpa V3: Killing Harmony, we take a look to see whether it's truly worthy of the praise fans have given the series.

Though I've played countless titles over the years and even more so since writing for We Know Gamers, Danganronpa is one of the few series I've simply never had the chance to play. So, when our friends at Koch Media provided us with a code for the latest entry into the Danganronpa series, I jumped at the chance to see what all the fuss was about, having previously watched the animation of 2013.

So what is Danganronpa anyway? If you've ever watched Kinji Fukasaku's Battle Royale (one of the greatest films of all time), The Hunger Games or Animé series such as Gantz, Mirai Nikki and Sword Art Online, you'll have some knowledge of the "Death Game" genre. Though most are different, the core concept usually remains - There are a series of rules and gimmicks preventing your escape, with space for only one winner/survivor. Adding to the pressure, there's usually a time limit to the game and so the only real way you can ensure survival is by fighting your way to the top, killing all who would stand in your way. Of course, there are exceptions to this in that some choose to work together, but would it not be foolish to trust another in such a sick and twisted game? Well, that all depends on the integrity of those involved. Ignoring the sheer levels of trauma this would induce, almost every Death Game ends tragically and the watertight rules only help to ensure this.

Danganronpa V3 is no different in that it pits sixteen students against one another, forcing them to abide by the "School Rules", with failure to do so resulting in punishment (death). This makes for some interesting outcomes, especially when some of the students start working together.

If you looked at the spoiler above, you'd have noticed the familiar voice actors/actresses behind each character. Not only have they all voiced a character in previous Danganronpa titles, but many of them are particularly well known within the Animé community, with Kyle Herbert (the voice of Kaito) being the prime example here, most commonly recognised as the voice of Kamina from Studio Gainax' Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann. This is something I very much enjoyed, as the talent made each and every character feel believable, even if their quirky personalities fell into the extreme.

Before I get into the real meat of this review, I'll start by saying that when I first began playing, this barely felt like a game to me, instead, feeling more like an interactive story. The overwhelming mass of voiceless dialogue only cemented these thoughts, as my concerns grew at the possibility Danganronpa V3 would feel more like a chore than anything else.

After several hours of play, I realised this wasn't going to change and began working my way through the dialogue, comparable to that of a Novel. You see, this is a murder mystery title and though you'll find yourself investigating each and every crime scene for clues, you'll also need to use your brain to memorise the minute details of character alibis and the sequence of each event taking place. This will massively help with your deductions later down the line, making it easier to identify the culprit behind each murder.

Thankfully, if there's one thing I love in a successful story, it's character development and with the level of text featured within this game, it's not something you'll ever find yourself short of. The more I played, the more I found myself falling in love with the characters, which consequently lead me to a change of heart. This was no longer a slog, but one of the most immersive titles I have ever played, so powerful in fact, that I felt genuine sadness for the first character to die - Something I've not felt since the very first time I witnessed Aeris death in Final Fantasy 7, some twenty years ago.

As time went on, I found myself rallying behind characters, siding with them and empathising with them as I grew to understand their drive, motivation and way of thinking. The game is clever in that it uses this against you, very rarely making the obvious culprit the right one. I didn't always feel the characters had the right motivation to do what they did, but when cornered and forced to finally speak up about their misdeeds, the reasoning became more apparent, while some of the plans were nothing short of genius. In fact, one particular case later on was so perfect at cheating the killing game system, it had me laughing out loud. If only that one character didn't ruin it for themselves, giving the game away by confirming what The Ultimate Detective had already worked out.

It goes without saying, Danganronpa V3 is full to the brim with twists and turns. You'll find yourself trusting characters you shouldn't, not trusting characters you should and trying to understand some characters that are so vague they blend the line between. Kaito's spirit and positive attitude made him my favourite character, with Kaede and Shuichi being my tied second favourites. Heck, even through Miu's incredibly vulgar front, I grew to really like her too. There was only one character I really didn't like and that was Korekiyo. Even Gonta, who was so infuriatingly stupid to the point of being one-dimensional became more likeable, which is ironic as Korekiyo really isn't a one-dimensional character (you'll understand the humour of this once you play it).

By now, you're most likely wondering what the gameplay is like. Well, as you probably guessed from the list of students above, you primarily play one of sixteen students within the academy. Exploration takes place from a first person perspective and in true retro style, the 2D images of each other character turn with you, just like they did in the days of the original Doom and Blake Stone (back when floppy disk games were a thing). You'll want to familiarise yourself with the layout of the academy, because this will be your playground for the duration of your journey.

Around campus, you'll find other characters to interact and spend your free time with, deepening bonds and unlocking skills that'll prove to be useful in the Class Trials, which I'll explain a little later on. In addition to this, you can find Monocoins, which can be used to purchase gifts for other classmates and hidden Monokuma collectibles within each chapter. Monokuma is a sadistic little death bear and the one who'll be forcing you all to participate in this abhorrent game. He's the lead antagonist (for the most part) and unlike previous titles, now has help in the form of his not bear-y nice children (see what I did there?). These are the Monokubs and though they may look cute, it's all very deceptive of their actual nature. Monokid is the most vile of them all, feeling the need to share that he has a "rock hard rager" at any given, suitably inappropriate moment. It really does mean what you think it means and no, this isn't for kids.

When three people discover a body, Monokuma makes his announcements and instructs you all to meet at the scene of the crime. From here, you'll need to inspect everything as you're thrown into "Investigation Mode". This is where you'll acquire your clues for use in the Class Trial. During the Class Trial and after you've gathered all evidence, you must separate fact from opinion as you present your evidence and strategically argue your way to victory, making crucial deductions along the way, as you attempt to pin down who the real culprit may be. The rules of the Class Trial are simple - Vote for the Blackened (the culprit). If the majority choose the correct person, they all get to live while the Blackened receives a punishment. Choose wrong however and the Blackened walks free, turning the tables as the whole class are punished (killed) instead.

The default way to fight during a Class Trial is with "Truth Bullets". In this mode (Nonstop Debate), words are constantly appearing on screen as each character fights for their cause. Here, you'll have to blast away the wrong words in order to reveal certain keywords to fire your Truth Bullets (evidence) at. Holding Triangle will instead turn your Truth Bullet into a Lie Bullet, which becomes necessary later in the game. If you've used the correct evidence on the correct keyword, it'll shatter their argument (literally) and progress you onto the next stage. Each mistake damages your Leadership (health), so later on you'll really want to make use of an unlock-able skill that allows you to use your Focus to gradually heal yourself. Your Focus primarily slows down time, making things considerably easier when faced with the most dire of circumstances. This can be especially difficult when multiple characters speak at once during a "Mass Panic Debate".

The Class Trials are comprised of a number of mini-games and will be your sole way to revealing who the culprit is. Each one plays out differently and I've given a small description of how they function below:

Psyche Taxi - In some kind of 80's inspired Outrun/Mario Kart hybrid, you'll find yourself driving down a neon highway, avoiding taxis as you collect what can only be described as question "marked" pearlescent cubes. The point to this is that each cube will give you a letter, eventually revealing your next clue to present as evidence within the Class Trial. Once you've collected enough cubes to form the question, you're then presented with multiple answers, where you must choose to hit the woman standing in one of several answer lanes. Upon running her down, she'll fly up into the air, landing safely on one of your back seats (miraculously without injury).

Mind Mine - This has you destroying connected coloured blocks to reveal hidden images beneath. Uncovering and selecting the correct image will progress you.

Hangman's Gambit Ver 3.0 - This is essentially Hangman. The number of squares at the top left of the screen will indicate how many letters the word you're looking for has, while the bulk of the screen has circled letters moving from side to side. The letters are invisible until a light pulses to temporarily reveal them. You can also do this yourself manually, but it uses Focus. Choose the letters in the correct order to progress.

Debate Scrum - This is for when your argument is split down the middle. You'll face off in two teams and the objective here is to pick the evidence that corresponds with the keywords to the argument your opposition uses against you.

Argument Armament - This is a music rhythm game in which the player must hit the correct buttons in sync with a beat, in order to destroy parts of a statement. Each successfully timed prompt will deplete your opponents health, destroying their clothes, piece by piece in the process. When you're ready to deal the finishing blow, a sequence of words will appear on the screen on all four sides. If you successfully choose them in the correct order, you'll form a rebuttal to the opponent's argument. If you're too slow, you'll be forced to redo the button prompt section for the sequence of words to show themselves once more.

On the difficulty front, I had my Class Trials set to "Mean". This is the hardest setting for the trials and considering how fast the final Argument Armament became, it certainly put my my muscle memory to good use (I never expected my Gitaroo Man Master's Play completion skills would once again come in handy). It's no lie that Danganronpa V3 has some very strange ideas where gameplay mechanics are concerned, yet it can't be faulted, because it's all so oddly satisfying.

The visuals in Danganronpa V3 are incredibly slick due to the overly stylised graphical interface. If you've played Persona 5, the animations are in the same vein. The contrast, boldness and colours chosen mean that the visuals really pop. The menu can be customised with the colour schemes of other characters (once unlocked), while the deaths of each character are somewhat abstract, twisted opposites of the individuals own dreams and Ultimate abilities. To top it all off, there's even a digital 16-bit computer-generated world within one of the Danganronpa chapters, complete with character sprites and an 8-bit version of the games main theme song. It's pretty catchy.

Like most modern games, the music is great and really sets the tone for the overall feel of the game. There's a somewhat dark and eerie atmosphere during the night time segments of the story and without the music, the tone wouldn't feel half as ominous. If you allow yourself to be fully immersed within this title, you'll definitely feel on edge at times. The music can be quite unsettling. Monokuma and the Monokubs theme, though? Pass. It's about as cringe-worthy as it gets.

The last point I'd like to touch upon is that the game is very aware of itself. It knows when it's dragging on and uses Monokuma to express this with lines to the effect of "I know what you're thinking. When's the next person going to die? You're so bad, I love it! Still, I do hope the killing continues soon. We've had a lot of dialogue lately...". Though it quite often breaks the fourth wall, you can't quite say it doesn't take itself seriously, because a more accurate description would be that it takes itself seriously when it needs to.

If you invest the 60+ hours of time it took to finish this, you're in for one crazy ride and though it's almost always possible to think of a reason for a sequel, I'd say that considering this has been rumoured to be the last entry of the Danganronpa series, Spike Chunsoft have capped things off nicely here.

Though I don't see anyone replaying this in a hurry, the option is there for those who wish to collect everything and once you've finished the main story, several separate mini-games unlock, accessed from the main menu. The Ultimate Talent Development Plan for example, is a cross between Monopoly and Pokémon. It'll have you working your way around a game board as you level up (gaining separate abilities from the main story) and bumping into characters from across the series. There's a lot of charm here and if like me, you're new to Danganronpa, provided you can adjust to the unusual style of gameplay presented here, there's a lot to look forward to.

Overall, Danganronpa V3: Killing Harmony is a unique experience and one that I feel every gamer should try at least once. There are so many nods to films like Jaws, A Clockwork Orange, Back to the Future, Animé (Gurren Lagann) and a mixture of Western and Eastern culture that it's practically guaranteed to put a smile on your face from start to finish. That is of course, when it's not trying to torment you with hope and despair as you're forced to guess who'll die and who'll survive with each new chapter. Nobody is safe, no matter how much you want them to be and that's what makes Danganronpa V3 one of the craziest, most thrilling roller-coaster rides out there. You may even catch yourself laughing at the odd bear pun or two, no matter how hard you may want to resist.

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