Anyone who played and enjoyed Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc is likely to mention one of its greatest strengths when praising the game: its ability to make you think about and consider the title's events, even when you're not playing. Its narrative structure and cast of interesting personalities meant that you'd end up pondering which teenager would be murdered next, even as you gobbled up your morning breakfast; once the 20-or-so-hour tale sunk its talons into you, it'd become increasingly difficult to step away from the engrossing story – especially when you started to jump ahead and guess what sinister business was yet to unfold on your handheld's display.
There's no doubt that the first game was a fantastic success, then, and thankfully, Danganronpa 2: Goodbye Despair is every bit as intriguing and downright addictive as its predecessor – if not more so. The only problem here is that you'll probably want to play and finish Trigger Happy Havoc before travelling to Jabberwock Island – the disturbingly tranquil setting where this sequel takes place. Make no mistake, you can still enjoy what's on offer here without spending a minute with the first title, but many of the release's twists and turns will have a lot less impact, and because the series is so focused on its narrative, there's little doubt that its exclusion will drag the overall experience down a peg.
If you've experienced the maniacal Monokuma's trials and tribulations before, however, you'll have no trouble jumping into this all new game of death. As alluded, 16 high school students suddenly find themselves trapped on a tropical island, surrounded by nothing but the ocean. It's a stark contrast to the last title's dingy school halls, but it's just the kind of aesthetic change that keeps everything feeling fresh, which is an important design choice, given that the release plays much the same as its predecessor.
Danganronpa fits quite nicely into the visual novel genre because of its solid writing and captivating plot, but if you're eager for some interaction, there's plenty of that to go around, too. The series sets itself apart from many of its peers by featuring genuinely frantic gameplay elements that force you to combine a variety of skills. Much of the action occurs during the infamous class trials, where you'll attempt to force the killer into the open, and save the lives of both yourself and your makeshift allies.
During the first game, these pulse-pounding scenarios served as the climax to each chapter, and that's no different here. With the mechanical teddy bear Monokuma back to rain despair on another group of stranded students, the cast is forced into situations where murder almost becomes a logical conclusion, as a successful killer is promised freedom. On the other hand, if the criminal is identified during an aforementioned class trial, they're brutally executed, while the remaining survivors get to continue with their seemingly hopeless existence.
This time around, you play as Hajime – a somewhat regular student who can't seem to remember what his actual talent is. Right from the off, this uncertainty puts a suspicious twist on the tale, particularly when you're constantly reminded of the other students' skills. Indeed, each character is an 'ultimate' – a teen who's managed to excel in a specific field. There's Peko, the ultimate swordswoman, for example, and Teruteru, the ultimate cook. Again, much like the previous title, each personality is memorable and endearing despite any initial clichés, and it helps that the dialogue is both well acted and well written. Of course, that only makes it harder to swallow when you find out that one of them has been gutted like a fish.
As mentioned, the lengthy class trials provide peaks of excitement during what is otherwise a slow paced affair. Things play out much the same as they did in the first game, where you'll use the evidence that you've gathered during investigation periods as truth bullets, to literally shoot holes in another student's argument. The process gradually becomes harder the further that you get into the story, which only adds to the sense of pressure, particularly as each action that you have to perform is constantly timed, and any failings will chip away at your health bar.
Along with these verbal shootouts, the sequel throws a few more mechanics into the mix that weren't present previously. There are now sections where you'll have to slice your way through an opponent's argument with a figurative sword by swiping the Vita's touchscreen, or by hammering the directional buttons. There's also a system that sees you diving into your own mind in order to uncover hidden truths, which plays a little bit like a WipEout game, where you'll have to surf down the correct psychedelic path to answer questions about the murder, and it's easily one of the most enjoyable additions to be found in the sequel.
Even with these new and rather substantial inclusions, the developer has also seen fit to expand upon returning mechanics. The hangman's gambit, for example, is more complex this time around, as you pick and mix letters that fly across the screen, combining them into words relevant to the investigation, all while simultaneously making sure that different letters don't crash into each other. The rhythm-based argument that occurs when the suspect is close to being found guilty makes a comeback as well, but this time around, you'll need to connect a few key words at the end that form one last damning piece of evidence, which turns out to be quite a fitting way to finish off an exhausting class trial.
And it really is exhausting. Like we've hinted, trials can last over an hour when all's said and done, so you'd best prepare your brain for a lengthy workout. Thankfully, you can save the game at any time and take a break, which is something that you'll be glad of when things get hectic. However, there are times – especially near the beginning of the release – where it all gets a bit too much as you're bombarded by complex, text-only tutorials. Trying to take in all of this information is difficult to begin with, but trying to absorb it during an already desperate class trial can almost seem impossible.
Fortunately, you can always lower the difficulty if you're having trouble, or if you're playing primarily for the plot. You'll still have to blast your way through the frantic gameplay elements, but on the 'gentle' setting, you're given extra time to work with, and some more advanced mechanics don't bleed into gameplay quite as often. Meanwhile, on the harder setting, you'll need to utilise every single brain cell if you're going to avoid the wrath of Monokuma. That said, there are still instances where the answer to a specific question will be slightly poorly worded, or an objective simply won't be detailed as clearly as it should be. In these rare occurrences, trial and error can lead to bouts of frustration, but it's never quite enough to sully your time with the release to any large extent.
Some things have changed outside of the courtroom, as well. Jabberwock Island certainly isn't a maze of corridors like Hope's Peak Academy from the first title, and as such, you'll be spending a lot of time simply taking a walk around the location. It's unlocked bit by bit as the story progresses, and you can just fast travel to a point of interest if you're not up for a jog, but a couple of new systems may make the exercise worth your while.
For starters, Hajime can level up not only by finding evidence and talking to people, but by simply walking around. Levelling up increases his health and his focus – a gauge that determines how much slowdown you can apply when firing off truth bullets – while also granting him access to more skill slots. Here, you can equip skills that'll boost your effectiveness in class trials, which are bought using crystals that are gained from spending quality time with your classmates. And secondly, you're given a Tamagotchi-like digital pet near the beginning of the game, which matures as you take steps. You'll have to clean up its, er, mess on a regular basis, of course, but you'll be rewarded with large amounts of precious Monokuma coins for your efforts, which you'll be using to buy gifts for your favourite fellow students.
Although they're small, these light RPG mechanics only add to an already captivating release, and they, along with some hilariously funny dialogue, offer a bit of respite from gruesome murders and the consistently gripping narrative. Needless to say, this is a title that's incredibly hard to put down, but at the same time, it can be a very tiring and relentless experience. Fortunately, the game's charming art style, entertaining character designs, and catchy soundtrack prevent your stay on Jabberwock Island from becoming overbearing.
Danganronpa 2: Goodbye Despair is a superb sequel that successfully builds upon its predecessor's already addictive formula. By introducing a totally different setting and a host of new systems, it's able to keep proceedings feeling both fresh and familiarly engaging. If you haven't dipped into the first game, you're better off starting there, but play both titles in sequence, and you'll experience what is possibly the most gripping tale to grace Sony's portable device.