Danganronpa 2: Goodbye Despair Review: Magically malicious

A game with new ideas, even bizarre ones, can be a refreshing palate cleanser after playing so many shooters, platformers, and RPGs, and Vita exclusive Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc certainly had new ideas. Combining brain-tickling courtroom drama with finger-breaking twitch mechanics, it was an odd game whose story ultimately won out over its discordant mechanics. Its sequel, Danganronpa 2: Goodbye Despair, doesn't stray terribly far from the original, except to add more weird mechanics apparently just for the sake of being weirder. Its well-crafted story still makes it worth pursuing all the way to the end, but it tries its hardest to annoy you with aggravating game styles before you get there.

Danganronpa 2 has the same basic premise as its predecessor: A group of high school students has their memories wiped, are isolated from the rest of the world, and are told that in order to be returned to freedom, they must kill one of their classmates. It's not as simple as bashing your neighbor in the head however, because after a corpse is found, the remaining students have the opportunity to investigate the crime and interrogate each other during a class trial. Fool them and they get the chop while you head home, but if they figure out whodunnit, you're the one facing execution.

It's a dark setup, but Goodbye Despair is too goofy to be grim. The ringmaster of this bloody circus is a mechanical stuffed bear, his "little sister" is a stuffed rabbit wearing a diaper, and the characters are presented as paper dolls in dioramas. Everything is so utterly over the top that it's difficult to find any of it too disturbing, despite the fact that people are being shot with bazookas, roasted alive and slicing open their own stomachs.

The exaggerated design provides a comforting counterbalance to the murders themselves, which are plentiful, creative, and relatively plausible. Besides each individual murder, there's also an underlying mystery to Goodbye Despair that gradually unspools as you spend more time with your increasingly murderous colleagues. It's a strong connective tissue that keeps you moving forward, eager to discover the truth and ferret out the next part of the secret. The story takes some time to get going (the prologue will take you about a year and a half to get through – I may be exaggerating slightly), but once it does, it's delightfully intriguing.

Danganronpa 2 has a healthy dash of visual novel in its bloodstream, so expect to do plenty of reading as you get to know your fellow students and investigate their untimely demises. The writing is, for the most part, excellent, with each student having a distinct, if not always pleasant, personality. In fact, it's a pretty safe bet that at least one of the characters will annoy you to the point of hoping they're the next one to set off the corpse alarm. Maybe it'll be the over-apologetic nurse, the bitchy traditional dancer, the pervy chef or the coach who's obsessed with bowel movements. Obnoxious though some of them might be, the characters of Goodbye Despair don't feel like the same old characters you've seen a thousand times, and given that there are 16 of them (to start with, anyway), the bold personalities helped me tell them apart.

Unfortunately, what should be one of the most pleasurable aspects of your sleuthing – putting the pieces of your detective work together during the class trial – is often a tedious slog. The trials are a disjointed grab-bag of gaming styles that feel like they come from another game entirely. Once you've collected all the necessary evidence, you're automatically told it's time to move on to the trial, where you will have to literally contradict testimony by shooting down lies with "truth bullets;" suss out facts by playing hangman; perform a "logic dive" into your own memory by snowboarding your way through colorful neon tubes; slash at someone's objections, samurai-style; play a rhythm game to smash another student's defenses; and assemble a manga-style comic to review the crime.

You'll almost certainly enjoy at least one of those mini-games, but probably not all of them, especially if the reason you enjoy mysteries is the workout they give your brain as opposed to your fingers. Touch controls are available for many of these minigames, but I could never get them to work with any of the consistency or speed necessary for success. Fortunately, the thumbstick and buttons get the job done, by and large. The trials also suffer from the condition so common to adventure games: knowing what the game wants but not how it wants it. You may know exactly how everything went down and still fail a round because you can't figure out how the game wants you to present your evidence.

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It's possible to lower the difficulty of the separate parts of Goodbye Despair, and doing so makes the trials much less aggravating, but also robs you of a hefty portion of the Monokuma coins that you can earn for your efforts. The coins aren't strictly necessary, but the presents you can buy with them, like slap bracelets, mangas and snacks, can be a fun resource. Giving the right present to the right person can help improve your relationship with them (free hint: Akane loves food and isn't overly picky), unlocking skills that you can take into court, or even triggering specific optional story events. Presents are also used to increase the happiness meter of the tamagotchi-like pet you're given at the start of the game. Raising the little critter is, again, totally unnecessary, but a fun diversion. (Mine grew up to be a bright pink piggie, which then spat out an egg before bidding me adios. The egg eventually turned into a snake, who is adorable.)

One final note: It's not strictly necessary to have played the previous Danganronpa, Trigger Happy Havoc, before diving into Goodbye Despair, but I do strongly recommend it. Being familiar with the backstory, as well as the game's unusual style of play, helps smooth over Goodbye Despair's rougher edges. Goodbye Despair pretty clearly assumes you've played its predecessor and has no qualms about flat out spoiling much of that game's secrets.

Danganronpa 2 is wildly uneven, with an engaging story and disjointed action elements, but solving its mysteries provides more than enough satisfaction to make putting up with the bad bits worth your while. It's weird, aggravating and gruesome, but it's also undeniably charming.

This review is based on Vita copy of Danganronpa 2: Goodbye Despair, provided by NIS.

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