Danganronpa 2: Goodbye Despair is a game that understands what it means to be a good sequel. It effectively keeps what made the first Danganronpa great while making an active attempt to correct its predecessor’s mistakes, it is unapologetically tied to the first game without ever feeling so obtuse that new players can’t enjoy it, and most importantly Goodbye Despair feels essential because it leaves you feeling like it was a necessary addition to a seemingly complete story.
I’ve said it before, Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc is my favorite game of 2014 so far. While its sequel has its alienating moments, Goodbye Despair is everything I could have ever hoped for from a follow-up as it builds on already excellent framework.
Goodbye Despair casts the player as Hajime Hinata. Hajime is a student at Hope’s Peak Academy, a high school meant for the most prestigious and elite students in the world. To attend Hope’s Peak one must be the best in their respective field. In other words, everyone in Hope’s Peak is the “Ultimate” at something. But as Hajime is ready to begin his new school life he suddenly wakes up on a tropical island with 15 other Ultimate students. Greeted by an animatronic rabbit named Usami, the students are told they are on a Hope’s Peak field trip, but have no memory of how they got there.
Just as the class is getting used to their island life, the island is overtaken by another animatronic animal, a bear named Monokuma. Usami loses a battle against the bear who then informs the cast that if they want to get off the island and back home, they must murder one of their classmates and get away with it.
After a murder occurs, the remaining kids must investigate the crime scene and find out who among them has taken the life of their friend. If the survivors can correctly identify the killer, only the culprit in question will be punished. Should they guess incorrectly, the murderer will be allowed to leave the island and the rest of the class will be executed.
Despite the premise’s incredibly dark nature, Goodbye Despair feels markedly more light-hearted than its predecessor. Whether it’s the less enclosed setting or the wacky cast, the suspense and drama that would be expected in such a situation is often dissipated by the game’s crazy group of high school kids and its larger-than-life backdrop. Danganronpa 2 has a tendency to be tonally jarring, and considering how bleak the first game often became and how relatively grounded it was, it’s a huge disappointment to see Goodbye Despair’s more meaningful moments get cut off by someone or something coming completely out of left-field.
That’s not to say that the game’s characters, story and setting are all entirely crazy and not at all intriguing. On the contrary, Danganronpa 2’s students are just as interesting as the murder mysteries they take part in. Because the situation on the island is so tense, characters are always suspicious of one another, and that suspicion brings out each of their true colors. Despite the confidence you would expect from someone who is the Ultimate in their field, every character has a back story that is usually rife with some sort of drama, whether it’s personal tragedy, guilt over their past, or self-hatred despite their apparent prestige.
Getting to know Goodbye Despair’s cast just for them to be the victim of a murder or even a culprit is what makes the game more than a murder mystery, it makes it gut-wrenching. Even when a character has taken the life of another, their motive is never simple blood lust or just a desire to get off the island. Danganronpa 2 consistently goes the extra mile and makes you even sympathize with an unmasked killer as they’re whisked off to their death.
What makes taking the death of any character so difficult is that as long as a murder hasn’t occurred, you’re free to walk around the island and get to know your classmates. Whether it’s the consistently culture-shocking but poised and confident Ultimate Princess or the adorable but ditsy Ultimate Gamer, all of Hope’s Peak’s students are captivating and endearing in their own way. Hanging out with other characters takes up your free time, but as there’s only an allotted amount of time before a murder inevitably happens, choosing to learn more about a character carries with it a great deal of risk, as you never know if you will find that classmate’s corpse the following day.
When you ultimately find a slain classmate, it’s then that Goodbye Despair turns from a social sim to a murder mystery. You’ll investigate the body, the surrounding area and collect alibis of your other classmates. You can spend these investigations trying to pin down the culprit if you want, but it’s far more effective to try and nail down what exactly it was that happened first, and the murderer’s identity will eventually follow.
After you’ve found all the clues you’re required to, you and your remaining classmates will begin a Class Trial. It’s within these trials, which can last for hours, that the survivors will debate what they think happened until they eventually pin down who it was that killed their friend. Typically, trials start out with the majority of the class coming in with an idea of who the murderer is in mind, and they’ll start pointing fingers. While everyone else is being accusatory, it’s up to you to keep a level head and use evidence to cut through their arguments until the true killer remains the only viable option. Danganronpa is less about looking for suspicious individuals than it is about filling the gaps between you and other character’s knowledge until the group is able to see the full picture of events.
How this works is characters will make their arguments, and Hajime must look for contradictions and lies that are broken by pieces of evidence found within the investigation. There’s variation depending on just what direction the argument’s going, but the most important addition to Danganronpa 2 is the ability to actively “consent” to other character’s statements. Goodbye Despair makes a point to ensure your other classmates don’t always come off as obstacles, and instead as valuable and helpful to the investigation. Now that you can agree with what your classmates are saying, you’ll find characters don’t bring up as many asinine arguments because the story is not restricted by the game’s mechanics.
Between arguments, there are a handful of mini-games that break up the monotony of long conversations. These include a Hangman game that lets you bring together words that spell out an argument or piece of evidence, a downhill snowboarding game that asks you questions that ultimately string together to explain a sequence of events to the class, and sudden arguments that require you to rapidly strike down an opponent with a rebuttal. Each is a nice palate cleanser to give you a break from having to analyze every word that everyone else says, but that’s not to say they’re easy, in fact they can be pretty challenging. They require quick wit and fast fingers, and if you screw up too often you’ll lose control of the room and have to start over.
Even with all the work to create elaborate schemes and the trials that unravel them, Danganronpa 2 does have a really difficult time articulating its logic. There are a few occurrences where the evidence you’re supposed to bring forth seems obscured by vague dialogue and evidence descriptions, and it becomes incredibly frustrating when you hit a wall hours into a trial. When a resolution is finally found out, it often isn’t even always satisfyingly resolved or explained.
But despite the incredibly diverse cast and compelling murder mysteries, what proves to be Danganronpa 2’s greatest strength is how expertly it ties together each and every last loose end of its narrative in its final hours. While the spectacle of the game’s over-the-top setting and tone had me scratching my head throughout the game, that all went out the window as I stared slack-jawed at my Vita as the game drew to a close.
Danganronpa 2: Goodbye Despair is one of the most enthralling games I’ve played in the past year, and it is certainly half of one of the best series to come to Vita. Its narrative is gripping, its characters keep you invested, and it brings new depth to the trials that make them more challenging and satisfying.
Even after I’ve finished the game, my mind is constantly going back to my time spent on the island where I watched my friends end each other’s lives, and I can tell that the hold this game has on me isn’t going to let up anytime soon.
Goodbye Despair may fall into some ridiculous scenarios and dialogue that clash with the game's otherwise dark atmosphere, but when Danganronpa 2 is at its best, there's little else that hits harder.