It might seem odd to compare a quirky visual novel to Metal Gear Solid, but it’s far more accurate than one would imagine. The original Metal Gear Solid is a bona fide classic, as it established the mechanics and insane story fans of the series have grown to love. Metal Gear Solid 2 takes the original title and turns it on its head before shaking it sideways, dosing it with experimental psychedelics, and leaving it to cry in the rain. Oh, and let’s not forget the marked improvement of the aforementioned, and much ballyhooed, stealth mechanics. Like Metal Gear Solid 2, Danganronpa 2: Goodbye Despair improves upon its predecessor in a number of tangible ways, all while cranking up the insanity level to eight-hundred and ninety-two.
Originally released as a Japanese PSP title in 2012, Danganronpa 2: Goodbye Despair casts players in the role of Hajime Hinata, one of sixteen Hope’s Peak Academy students sent to Jabberwock Island, a remote tropical paradise. Those who spent more than a few minutes with Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc will immediately recognize this setting as polar opposite of that title’s atmospheric Hope’s Peak Academy setting. There’s a blatant feeling of unease at every second during this opening sequence, peaking during every line of dialogue uttered by Unami/Monomi, a pink robotic rabbit claiming to be a friendly classroom teacher. Understanding this new character is rather simple: take everything you know about Monokuma, the black-and-white fountain of evil in bear form, and flip it around. Although everything is pleasant initially, it’s a Danganronpa game; things are bound to go absolutely haywire. What initially appears to be a happy, but overwhelmingly strange, school trip quickly turns into Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc‘s evil, back-yard dwelling twin.
Within minutes, Monokuma arrives to ruin absolutely everything. By forcing this new group of students to play a version of the Killing School Life game that the first title’s plot revolved around, hope quickly turns into despair. The basic premise of this killing game is exactly the same: kill someone without being found out in the Class Trial in order to return home. Conversely, if a killer’s evil plan is discovered during the Class Trial phase, he or she will be executed on the spot. At first, introducing this killing game into the equation makes Danganronpa 2: Goodbye Despair feel like a blatant retread of its predecessor; after all, this story repeats the exact same premise. However, it only takes a bit of time before players realize that the tropical island setting allows Danganronpa 2: Goodbye Despair to do literally whatever it pleases, whenever it wants.
Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc was confined to a school setting, for better and for worse. Even though an abandoned multi-tiered school building added a distinct level of oddity to the proceedings, each area still had to feel somewhat realistic. Sure, random dojos and super-fun break rooms could be present, but in the end these areas didn’t require a complete suspension of disbelief. A massive amusement park or inappropriately-named music venue simply couldn’t exist inside Hope’s Peak Academy, it would make less than zero sense. Because the sequel is set on Jabberwock Island, a location without a blatant tie to reality, anything and everything goes. Each of the five islands surrounding Jabberwock’s Central Island has a distinctive theme, and each one of these themes is impossible to guess. Every area is more quirky than the last, allowing Danganronpa 2: Goodbye Despair to feel more aligned with its inherently ridiculous premise. By cranking up the insanity level, Danganronpa 2 is able to get rid of those unfortunate occurrences of predictability that plagued the previous title. Although its predecessor is a thrilling, twist-heavy ride, this iteration feels like the title that Danganronpa‘s creators dreamed of making in the first place.
Like Trigger Happy Havoc, Danganronpa 2: Goodbye Despair‘s cast is made up of students with highly specific “Ultimate” abilities. However, these talents are far quirkier than the vast majority of those seen before (with the exception of Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc‘s always hilarious Ultimate Fanfic creator). From the Ultimate Breeder, whose Four Dark Devas of Destruction (read: hamsters) randomly emerge from his scarf, to the insanely endearing Ultimate Gamer, these characters are as quirky as it gets. Every character inspires some sort of feeling within the player, an absolute must for a story-heavy experience. Players will love certain characters just as much as they hate others, meaning that the level of emotional investment is extremely high. Danganronpa 2 would already be an immediately better experience if it was simply a retread of its predecessor with better characters, as they make the overall narrative far more engaging.
This is, without a shadow of a doubt, the most acutely self-aware game of 2014. Danganronpa 2: Goodbye Despair firmly understands what it is; from mocking Final Fantasy to frequently acknowledging that players are simply playing a game, this is a title that never takes itself too seriously. The fourth wall is constantly broken, making for an experience unlike anything else on the PlayStation Vita (other than Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc, of course). When a blatant fanservice moment occurs, characters will acknowledge these occurrences of hypersexuality. If obnoxious video game tropes are being used, someone is bound to let the player know exactly what’s going on. This quirky use of dialogue, combined with the phenomenal overall narrative arc, erases some of the dull points that the original title fell pray to.
Danganronpa 2: Goodbye Despair is very much a visual novel, so its narrative is clearly what’s most important, but one can’t discount the marked improvements made to its gameplay. First-person wandering is largely removed (though not entirely) in favor of a side-scrolling traversal method. Not only does this make general movement much less cumbersome, but it allows the player to view the wonderful surrounding environment without having to constantly bring up a translucent mini-map. It’s far easier to know where to go at any given point, meaning that players will find themselves more immersed in the moment-to-moment storytelling. While a sprint-based fast travel option is present, the constant warping that undermined the exploration opportunities in Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc is cleverly removed. Rather than simply taking fast travel out entirely, players are motivated to walk to each location, as a level meter takes into account each step taken. One’s level directly coincides with the number of skill points he or she is able to utilize during a given class trial, so it makes far less sense to warp around the islands. A Chao-like mini-game in which players train a small pet also utilizes a step counter, as one’s pet won’t grow (or give presents) unless the player actually walks. Training and evolving one’s pet is definitely shallow, but as a small bonus on top of the long story and numerous extra modes, it’s a welcome addition.
Class Trials are noticeably longer in Danganronpa 2: Goodbye Despair, but improved gameplay mechanics and more narrative twists make these sequences consistently exciting. The previously convoluted Hangman’s Gambit mini-game has been vastly improved, making it far more engaging than frustrating. Letters will scroll across the screen in various directions, forcing players to match like letters before either destroying them (in order to prevent unlike letters from colliding) or shooting them into the keyword box. There are times where keywords will be blatantly obvious, and others where it a bit of clever reasoning is necessary. Danganronpa 2 adds a new blade-based mini-game, in which players have to cut through the words of a stubborn classmate. By using the directional buttons, players are able to use a limited number of cuts to remove words from the screen before using a blade (much like the bullets in the standard argument sections) to cut through a weak point. This can be a bit convoluted at first, as it takes a bit of time to get used to the poorly-explained mechanics, but after a few tries it becomes much less cumbersome. Logic Dive, a new snowboarding mini-game, takes place whenever Hajime has to delve into the inner recesses of his mind in order to understand a given situation. A strange combination of TxK and Snowboard Kids, this mini-game forces the player to avoid obstacles and gaps while answering questions via branching paths. Easily the best pure gameplay found in Danganronpa 2: Goodbye Despair, Logic Dive shows a commitment to improved mechanics on the part of the developers.
In addition to a few minor tweaks, including the rhythm-based Panic Talk Action (formerly known as Bullet Time Action), a subtle improvement to the logic system has been made. Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc had a few moments where “A=B therefore B=A” logic seemed to fall by the wayside, leaving players confused as to which statements they should actually shoot through. These moments feel nonexistent in Danganronpa 2: Goodbye Despair, as it always feels clear which statements should be shot. This isn’t to say that every answer is blatantly obvious (in fact, the contrary is quite true), but the logic patterns are far easier to follow once players are able to discern a given answer. It’s a subtle improvement that should lead to fewer retry screens, thereby allowing the Class Trials to flow more smoothly.
Danganronpa 2: Goodbye Despair is the definitive Danganronpa experience. Though players absolutely have to play its predecessor to fully grasp the overall narrative, it is everything one would hope a sequel should be. This is a title that takes a proven formula and improves upon it in numerous ways, from the gameplay to the vastly superior narrative. You’ll constantly scratch your head, drop your jaw, laugh out loud, and feel noticeably sad. You’ll connect with each character in a notable way, allowing each death to have far more weight than those in Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc. It instantly catapults itself into the Vita’s elite, as its narrative is simply that great. If you’re a fan of heavily story-driven titles, you’d be doing yourself a grave injustice not giving this one a shot.