In an unsurprising twist, I’m having slight anxiety playing Danganronpa 2.
As the person who thought playing Resident Evil: Revelations on the 3DS’ smaller screen would somehow reduce the level the scariness, there’s no hope for me. It may be argued that Revelations wasn’t even really that scary, but the fact remains that I don’t do well with the horror genre. To make matters worse, I recognize that Danganronpa isn’t exactly horror either. But what it does is build up suspense and anticipation to its expected horribleness—a trait horror games and movies share.
And I just can’t handle how great it excels at doing so.
I’ve been playing 2014’s Danganronpa 2: Goodbye Despair lately, forcing myself to click through scene after scene to consume its excellent story. It’s not that the gameplay is terrible—it’s a visual novel with logic puzzle elements mixed in, along with a little bit of Ace Attorney attributes and some status link building as with Persona—but I haven’t quite been in the mood to play. It’s also that I’m playing it with mental hesitation. It’s the equivalent to watching something awful through the slits of my hands while covering my face. Even though I know tragedy is coming, I can’t look away.
Danganronpa 2 is a game about putting teens in a confined area—in this case, a seemingly picturesque tropical island destination—and then instructing them that their only chance at escape is to murder each other without getting caught. They also take these orders from a homicidal but charming two-toned teddy bear named Monokuma. His voice is adorably irritating, and his devious scheming mannerisms are precious. If you haven’t already guessed: the game is ridiculous.
It’s as grotesquely serious as it is insanely hilarious. Victims’ blood spatter in neon pink. The characters are clichéd (and at times, offensive), with personality extremes to highlight their designations of being “The Ultimates”. Without going into spoilers, each in the cast of 16 possesses a title to represent the cream of the crop for their respective abilities. For example, one’s the Ultimate Princess. Another the Ultimate Mechanic. There’s even an Ultimate Breeder—a teen called Gundham whose four hamsters, if we are to believe his stories, are Devas of Destruction. Uh, What?
All of the characters act a certain way. They’re loud. They’re mean. They’re unsure. They’re sweet. They’re also unpredictable—because without much knowledge of their true motives, they’re either victims or killers. And that’s where my anxiety comes in.
The Persona-like bonding involved in Danganronpa 2 allows your character to engage in conversations with these various people. With each interaction, you get to know their thoughtful and often tragic personal histories beyond the played up caricatures. And then, they can die. It’s seldom obvious who may be next, and befriending these folk can sometimes feel an exercise in futility.
I’ve agonized over decisions on who I should spend this valuable free time with, knowing it could be my last with them. And in my first playthrough, I’ll never know each well enough before they are killed. One of the things Danganronpa 2 does is that perpetrators—through your detective skills and rightly discovering the accused in a mandatory class trial—will be punished by death (in comical, weird, deserving or disgusting ways) for their crimes.
There were some characters who were so awful that I never felt the need to bond with them. However, the longer they stayed, I had no choice but to talk to them and in doing so, sometimes found more interesting qualities or personal shame under their façades. Thus far, some favourites of mine have been killed, or found guilty to my dismay. While playing Danganronpa 2, there’s always this general sense of creeping uncertainty—that no matter what I do, there’s that weight of “who’s next?” hanging. One of the game’s main themes summarizes this dread in one word: despair.
My despair is two-fold. Killers have their reasons for doing the deed, and sometimes, they’re just as sympathetic as those killed (sometimes, they’re just cold-blooded but hide that well until their final moments of reveal). This makes Danganronpa 2, much like its predecessor Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc, a very tricky game as it skillfully toys with emotions. As I said, there are definitely characters I don’t care for as much (they’re just too unlikable to be saved by any sad sap backstory the game fabricates) but their experiences as a unit amplifies their desperate situation, and it’s difficult to not feel some level of sadness for some of them.
But don’t get me wrong—Danganronpa 2 is a hell of a lot of fun, too. It balances its deranged sense of humour with its macabre. Even at its worst, it’s stylish and sickeningly thrilling. It’s incredible how well-woven certain cases can be, and how far the game goes to mask the truth of how killers execute their plans, and escape routes. But it’s those brief, reflective instances right before a murder that leave my head spinning.
It happened for me in Chapter 2, and again in Chapter 3. The game usually takes the time to form a carefree, pleasant fantasy during the day. On these normal days, and within these moments, calm songs play to facilitate exploration. It starts eerily though to signify a situation’s that far from the norm, and then lulls you into a dreamy, false sense of security:
As with any good horror, the mood often changes when darkness falls and hides the unknown. It’s at night in these quiet hours when we often feel we’re at our most vulnerable. One night during Chapter 2 my character was pondering his predicament, as he often does, and that’s when my fear joined his. Danganronpa 2’s soundtrack preys on that knowledge and feeling of defenselessness when you’re left alone, allowing your imagination to run wild:
That’s uneasiness settling in, right there.
In Chapter 3, a couple of days lingered too peacefully, leaving me wondering when the next murder would occur, and on heightened alert. Even when this chapter’s particular murder was finally happening, the game knew how to drag out an intense, hopeless feeling. I was never quite sure if what I was seeing was actually the truth. Many of the cases in the Danganronpa series are full of underhanded tricks, and rarely clear cut. Again, the unpredictability of the characters and scenarios—even the outrageous ways in which the cast members meet death—sometimes require a suspension of disbelief. But the cases always sit on this line of fearing the worst, before discovering the almost absurd nature of the murders.
Due to this, these moments of stressful anticipation quickly dissipate because once a murder happens, it’s off to investigate to figure out who’s responsible. Danganronpa 2’s writing is really sharp, and engaging enough to mix all of these emotions—fear, disbelief, and joy—and lay clever plots that aren’t so easily deciphered. So for every tense moment, the game throws so many wacky curveballs that I’m never despairing for too long.
It’s a constant push and pull expecting the worst, experiencing it, then using wits to determine who the killer is in individual cases, regaining hope and returning to despair. With an honestly intriguing overarching plot with its own larger mysteries tied to the first game, I desperately want to uncover what’s going on. And it’s all presented with nonsensical sight gags and over-the-top reactions and expressions from its cast.
Danganronpa 2 is stylistically vibrant, its characters aren’t all great but the game still manages to keep me on edge when their fates are revealed, even for the ones I don’t like. I’m almost finished with my playthrough, I think, and it keeps getting crazier. I suspect the game has one more major creepy moment with that slight anxiety to deliver before I unravel the hope and despair of Hope’s Peak Academy’s Killing School Trip.
I’d say I’m not really looking forward to it but truthfully, I really am.
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