Reviews

“Hope keeps on going” – Danganronpa 3: The End of Hope’s Peak Academy review

The following contains spoilers for Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc and Danganronpa 2: Goodbye Despair, as well as marked spoilers for Danganronpa 3: The End of Hope’s Peak Academy. Reader discretion is advised

Danganronpa 3: The End of Hope’s Peak Academy’s ambition cannot be understated. Aiming to wrap up all loose ends of the Hope’s Peak arc, not as a video game, but as two animated series, airing in tandem over twelve weeks. This alternating story, which switches between this elaborate tale’s past and present, while sometimes caving under the weight of its ambition, leaves the story Danganronpa has been telling for the past six years on a thoughtful and decisive note, one that knows when to give fans a peek behind the curtain of its many mysteries and when to hold back.

Not every revelation is going to satisfy every viewer, but Danganronpa 3 does bring closure that manages to feel in-line with the series’ philosophy on the ongoing battle between hope and despair, even when it forgoes ambiguity to ultimately take a decisive side in its final moments.

While the shift in medium brings both strengths and weaknesses associated with switching from a 20-hour visual novel into a 10-hour animated show, using the medium of television allows Danganronpa 3 to tell a different kind of story with new ideological conflicts, one not beholden to a gameplay mold.

Danganronpa 3 is separated into two arcs: Future and Despair. Future takes place not long after the events of Danganronpa 2, while Despair acts as the precursor to all the games that came before. Both sides of the story take up roughly half the show’s 24-episode story, respectively, but Despair manages to feel like more of a complementary add-on to not only Future, but the series as a whole, filling in the gaps between events that were referenced throughout the series while also expanding upon characters met in Future. It’s a good thing that those characters are seen in Despair too, as they drop like flies in Future’s more dire setting.

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Future sees members of the Future Foundation, a peacekeeping group in Danganronpa’s anarchy-driven world, all gathered in an off-the-record base to hold a trial for series protagonist Makoto Naegi after the events of Danganronpa 2 brought his allegiance into question. As the discussion of Makoto’s fate just begins to ramp up, the group finds themselves knocked out and sealed within the walls of its base. Upon waking the 15 members of the Future Foundation are greeted by series antagonist Monokuma, who reveals to the group that among them is a traitor who has not only trapped them in the base, but will kill a member of the group periodically as they’re all knocked out by a drug administered through a bracelet they’ve each been equipped with.

If the traitor is found and dealt with before the sleeping drug is injected after a preset time, the survivors “win” the game and are free to go without fear of being killed in their sleep. However, until that happens, the attacker hiding within the group will kill one person at the end of each time limit.

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Danganronpa 3 does away with the class trial murder mystery set up of the games, veering more on the side of a straight-up death match. The show has a methodical pace, but when the action that does take place is over-the-top and entertaining but grounded enough to be believable and tense. But the show doesn’t let up when it comes to intriguing mysteries and suspense, despite its action set pieces, and viewers are given plenty to speculate on throughout. The mystery isn’t all spelled out in Future, however, as the reality of their situation begins to unravel more clearly as events unfold in the Despair arc.

These dueling stories reveal truths and context about each other, making them both intimately intertwined rather than two isolated stories. Watching both arcs is critical to understanding all of Danganronpa 3’s characters, and Despair is a pretty solid prequel in its own right for those looking for a glimpse, however brief, at what life was like for these characters before the world fell into despair. What starts out as a charming and legitimately funny “slice of life” story about the main cast of Danganronpa 2 slowly grows more dark as it leads into the events of the games.

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While being marketed as about the cast members of Danganronpa 2, Despair does end up sidelining the majority of the cast in favor of a set few of them and the characters introduced in Future. This may be disappointing to some, but it does give Despair a great deal more time to focus on new information, characters, and context. A few returning characters do get a fair bit of screen time, however, with series mastermind Junko Enoshima usurping the role of main character in the second half. Hajime Hinata, Danganronpa 2’s protagonist, also plays a major role in the series, with his relationship with Junko and a real-life version of Chiaki Nanami representing his struggle with both hope and despair, ultimately revealing why he became the mastermind of Danganronpa 2.

While Hajime, Chiaki, and the new Future Foundation members all play key roles in Despair, Junko takes up the spotlight after her debut, and seeing the charismatic mastermind behind this series in her prime is fascinating to watch. Despite her general appearance as a force of despair-inducing nature before, Despair manages to give her brief humanizing moments that explain why she is the way she is, all without giving her some sort of tragic backstory that could diminish her intimidating nature.

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Despair’s strength as a prequel shines through in its restraint, opting to focus almost solely on events that are relevant to Future rather than going over moments that were hinted at in the Danganronpa games, letting specifics of those events be left up to interpretation. For example, Twilight Syndrome Murder Case, a two-part murder within Hope’s Peak Academy that served as a major plot point in Danganronpa 2, has an episode dedicated to it. Rather than rehash the information we already know, this episode of Despair chronicles how the killings affected a character that we would have originally thought hadn’t been involved in the first place, while also humanizing those involved in a way that subverts the seemingly black-and-white sequence of events by undercutting how it was originally presented in the games.

However, despite some great character moments, the restraints of the TV format do begin to show their face in Despair more so than Future, with some events, like how the Danganronpa 2 cast became Ultimate Despair, seeming rushed and less personal than it was ever presented in the games.

Spoilers for Danganronpa 3: The End of Hope’s Peak Academy’s Despair Arc follow:

Danganronpa 3 doesn’t outright subvert much of the speculation that has surrounded this particular event over the years, but how it begins, with Junko utilizing brainwashing and subliminal messaging rather than attacking the personal despair of each character, is undoubtedly going to disappoint some viewers.

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Brainwashing and altering the minds of others has been a recurring theme in the Danganronpa series, but Danganronpa 3’s reliance on it to force conflict straddles the line between undoing the profound thematic weight of the series previous entries and merely being another piece of the despair this universe has fallen into. Junko’s using it to recruit the original members of Ultimate Despair is going to rub some viewers the wrong way, as its implications about what it means to “fall into despair” bring much of the gravitas the story of Danganronpa has presented into question.

Ultimately whether you choose to insert your own interpretation of how Danganronpa’s brainwashing works will likely color your opinion on this development, and the mastermind who utilized it, but the ambiguity of it will at least make it a discussion point, rather than something that undermines Junko’s status as a compelling villain absolutely. Junko’s role as the charismatic Ultimate Despair, capable of manipulating even the most strong-willed of people, is still very much apparent thanks to characters like Hajime and new characters like the Ultimate Boxer Juzo Sakakura and Ultimate Animator Ryota Mitarai, but her use of brainwashing instead of her words in some case does add a new layer to the character that may not leave every fan satisfied.

Spoilers end here

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While Junko acts as the driving force of Despair, her absence, as well as Monokuma’s significantly downgraded appearance in Future means that the participants of the Final Killing Game are pretty much left to act upon their own motives. In a sense, that makes Danganronpa 3’s exploration of hope and despair some of the most pure the series has to offer.

Makoto Naegi, having been able to instill hope in his comrades through words, finds himself at odds with his new rival: Kyosuke Munakata, the vice president of the Future Foundation. Kyosuke’s relationship with Makoto is one of animosity that permeates through both character’s stories throughout Future, as they both represent two different ideas of how to combat despair. Makoto believes that banding together and working to overcome despair is the way to create hope for the world, while Kyosuke is colder, saying that eliminating despair by killing members of Ultimate Despair is the only way for hope to flourish. Kyosuke is often accusatory toward Makoto, saying that his words are hollow as he has yet to truly feel the despair of this world.

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Kyosuke’s point, while somewhat misguided and downplays Makoto’s own struggles, is what makes the cast of Danganronpa 3 different from and sometimes more captivating than its predecessors, as they don’t need to be broken by Monokuma and forced to kill each other, they’ve each experienced their own forms of despair in this world. That idea runs through the every episode of the show, and ultimately becomes its underlying theme. We can seek out means to destroy or eliminate our own despair, but we must never forget it or pretend we can completely eliminate it, for it defines who we are just as much as how we overcome it.

Monokuma’s being mostly absent in Danganronpa 3 gives the show a chance to explore different types of despair beyond killing a friend to escape, and it makes the cast’s dynamics some of the most compelling they’ve been. Grudges and promises seen in Despair come up in a new light in Future, and it gives even the earliest victims of the Future Foundation’s Killing Game a chance to be more fleshed out in Danganronpa 3’s relatively short run time.

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While this intermingling status of hope and despair paves the way for the show’s finale, Danganronpa 3’s final episode manages to subvert much of what the series has been saying by offering something with finality. Danganronpa 3’s finale, Episode: Hope, makes a firm stance as it closes out this battle of hope and despair. The show as a whole may be about how these two intertwined concepts are what make a person who they are, and that both are valuable, but in its final episode Danganronpa 3, and ultimately Danganronpa as a whole makes a definitive statement on the side of hope.

Episode: Hope is not without its problems, including a lack of grand exposition all the Danganronpa games have served up in their final chapters, which is only exacerbated by its need to wrap up several loose ends in its short 24-minute run time. The episode suffers from a rapid fire pacing its length can’t quite compensate for, but after three games and now an animated finale, Episode: Hope feels like a final word on all the questions Danganronpa has been raising since it began.

Danganronpa 3 ends with some ambiguity, specifically toward the new characters who manage to survive the Final Killing Game, but for characters like Makoto and the other returning characters from the first game, Danganronpa 3 ends with a decidedly hopeful leap forward, one that underlines what the series has always been about: while the future may carry both hope and despair with equal weight, a hopeful future is only possible if you move forward.

A definitive ending, one that ends on hope, feels earned after the dark tale Danganronpa has been spinning, even if it does feel somewhat out of character for the series after all this time.

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Danganronpa 3: The End of Hope’s Peak Academy’s greatest strengths and weaknesses both come from its status as a video game story wrapping up as an animated show. It uses the medium to its advantage, allowing it to tell a more genuinely crafted story without the ties of mechanics to adhere to, but its pacing issues sometimes squander the impact of some of its more decisive events. However, what is here is a profound look at Danganronpa’s themes in a new light, with characters who manage to make the most of the screen time they get. While its ending will be divisive, it feels like Danganronpa acting upon three games worth of platitudes rather than just touting them out for one last Killing Game.

While it may not be the end of Danganronpa the franchise, Danganronpa 3’s goodbye to this story feels heartfelt, thought-provoking, and ultimately sincere to the themes it has been tackling since it began.

80

Great

Danganronpa 3: The End of Hope's Peak Academy

Review Guidelines

Danganronpa 3: The End of Hope’s Peak Academy’s shift from video game to television show helps it tell a new kind of story as it wraps up loose ends, for better or worse. This final battle of hope and despair puts a new twist on the themes Danganronpa has been tackling, all while still feeling in-line with the message the series has been driving home: Hope keeps on going.

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