While to most people, pulling a gaming all-nighter means staying up until the small hours of the morning blasting peons on Destiny 2, to us, it usually involves a Danganronpa game instead. Like a digital tube of Pringles, once we've popped, there's no way we're stopping, because we just have to see where the story goes next. Like the very best of books, Danganronpa has that innate ability to suck you into its vortex, and never let go, as it unleashes a maelstrom of murders, betrayals, and revelations that'll keep you up so late, it should come with a health warning.
Like the games that came before it then, Danganronpa V3 is a visual novel - essentially a choose your own adventure book in game form - only with a lot more to do than most similar games. Waking up in a dilapidated school, you come to to find yourself trapped in a building with bars over the windows, grass growing through the floors, and with absolutely no way to escape. Stuck alongside you are your new classmates, each of whom is what's known as an "Ultimate" - someone who's the very best in the country at a particular talent, whatever that talent may be - from the ultimate robot, to the ultimate anthropologist. The only problem is, you've each been inflicted with a very similar case of amnesia, and none of you can remember anything about how you got there. You also don't know how much of your memories you've lost.
Just when you think things couldn't get any worse, up pops a deceptively cuddly looking duotone bear named Monokuma, who reveals the deadly truth. Not only is he the one behind your kidnapping, but there really is no way to escape - unless, you play his killing game. All you have to do if you want to survive is to kill one of your fellow classmates, and then survive the class trial that follows without getting caught. If your classmates can piece together the pieces well enough that you can figure who did it, the murderer will be "punished" (by which we mean, killed) while the rest of the students will go on to live another day. But if the class makes the dreadfully wrong choice, the murderer will get to graduate - and the rest of the class will be killed.
And so begins your life in the weird and wonderful world of Danganronpa - a world that's crammed to the rafters with mysteries, despair, and plenty of gut wrenching plot twists. As with the previous games, the story is king here, and a lot of your time will be spent chatting with your classmates, as they try to come to terms with what on earth is happening to them. With so much uncertainty, there's a real, tangible sense of mystery to V3, and that's just one of the things that'll have you playing until the early hours.
Of course, a game like this is only as good as its cast, and so we're pleased to say that V3 has an ensemble of unique lovable/hateable weirdos that almost equals the original. From Kaito Momota, the Ultimate Astronaut and "luminary of the stars" (despite never having been into space), who becomes your comedy sidekick of sorts for the game, to the Ultimate Magician, Himiko Yumeno, a girl who's so dedicated to her art, she swears everything she does is genuine magic (and that she's a mage to boot), or the gentle giant Gonta Gokuhara, the Ultimate Entomologist and bug lover who loved bugs so much, he went out on a bug hunt, only to get lost in the woods for over a decade, ending up being raised by wolves (before setting out on his current quest to become a true gentlemen), there's an eclectic cast to say the least, and one that never fails to surprise. With 16 equally kooky Ultimates locked inside, there's plenty of potential for jokes, digs, drama, and more than a bit of innuendo.
In terms of gameplay, Danganronpa V3 follows a familiar structure - though the Ultimates always start out by trying to get along, it doesn't take long before Monokuma gets bored, and throws out a motive to get the killing started. With so many forceful personalities trapped in close quarters, tempers soon begin to fray - and before you know it, someone ends up taking Monokuma's bait.
If there's one thing Danganronpa does really well, it's creating this real sense of dread. Often, you can see the parts of the crime falling into place before it happens, only to find yourself thinking "Oh God, someone's going to use this to kill someone, aren't they". When a character doesn't show up for breakfast, or otherwise mysteriously goes missing, you'll feel your stomach jumping into your throat, as that bad feeling sweeps over your body - something the game takes advantage of on several occasions, with many a red herring to throw you off course. Of course, eventually, your worst fears will come true - but after you've got over the initial shock of discovering the dead body of one of your friends, it's up to you to try and figure out what happened.
From here, the game becomes less like a visual novel, and more like a crime scene investigation, as you pore over the scene of the crime, and start to collect clues about what happened - clues that will turn into what the game dubs as "truth bullets", ready to break through weak arguments when you head to the class trial. From giving the corpse the once over, to asking your friends for their accounts of what they saw (or what they were doing at the time), you'll soon start to build a mental picture of what you think happened (although with so many fake leads, the chances are your hunches will probably be wrong).
With the scene fully investigated, you and your classmates will move on to the school's built-in trial grounds, where it's up to you to finally start to get to the truth. Effectively taking a back seat, you get to watch as your friends debate with each other, keeping a close eye out for any potential contradictions, which are highlighted in orange. Of course, as with so much in Danganronpa, alongside the actual contradiction, plenty of other phrases will be highlighted too - and it's up to you to figure out which one is the real contradiction, and what evidence you have that can refute it, before firing your truth bullet at it and breaking through their argument.
There's a number of new features for the class trials in Danganronpa V3 too, most of which make it a vast improvement over Danganronpa 2. Gone is the ability to "grab" a contradiction, and then fire it into another one - a confusing tool that mostly just left you feeling puzzled - replaced with a much simpler system where you instead simply have to look for contradictions to refute, or truths you can agree with, along with a new way of moving the debate on - lies.
Lies play a big part in Danganronpa V3, both in terms of its storyline and debates. The idea here is fairly simple - sometimes, you'll see your friends are taking the conversation down the wrong path, and even though you don't have any proof that they're wrong, you know you need to get them back on track. As such, you can hold triangle to turn any truth bullet into a lie, as a last gasp attempt to steer the conversation the right way. One early example sees you having to pretend you were with someone, when you weren't, as they're in desperate need of an alibi, and you know they didn't do it. While it's a nice idea, this is actually one of the worst parts of V3's debates, as once you've got past the first few debates, it's not always all that clear when you need to use it. Too many times we'd sit watching the debate loop past, thinking "but none of our truth bullets help?" before eventually figuring out we needed to lie to keep the conversation going.
At certain points during the trial, you'll reach an impasse, which will trigger a mid-trial mini-game, designed to help you get closer to the truth. Each a big improvement over the ones found in Danganronpa 2, the games here are no longer as much of a distraction from the trial, and for the most part manage to add to rather than detract from the fun. There's Psyche Taxi, a game that mixes Outrun with Carmageddon, and sees you swerving over a road to collect blocks to form a question, before crashing into the "escort" that you think has the right answer (you'll collect her if you're right, or splat her if you're not). Hangman's Gambit, meanwhile, gives you a screen of moving, blacked out orbs, casting a light across the screen every few seconds - it's up to you to remember what letters are where, and spell an important word. Finally, Mind Mine asks you to chisel away at groups of same-coloured blocks on the screen, before choosing one of the hidden objects you reveal.
And for the most part, the trials here are very good. While good mysteries are hard to do, Danganronpa has it down to a fine art, giving you all the evidence you need to frame the real killer, but mixing it up with so many red herrings, you'll almost never have the crime pinned on who actually dunnit when you first set out. What that means is, in almost every trial, there's that incredibly special moment where the pieces finally sink into place, and all of a sudden you end up feeling kind of sick, as you finally twig "Oh my God, it was them". It's a feeling no other game can match.
That said, while V3 may be a better game than 2, it still doesn't quite manage to match the original in terms of its story, characters, or twists. Perhaps it's because we've been here so many times before, but it feels a little bit odd that the Ultimates don't seem to be all that bothered about being imprisoned in a school, and only rarely seem to discuss getting out, or attempt to figure out what's going on in the outside world. If a clue is hinted at, they'll go after it with gusto, but without the carrot dangling in front of their faces, they almost all seem to forget they're trapped - or at least, they don't often show it. Similarly, the class trials do have some awkward sections, where two or more options seem equally plausible, or in some cases, where the wrong answer actually ends up being the right one. One trial section asks you to prove why a person couldn't have broken into a room, with the answer being that the person inside was only letting certain people in - but of course, "breaking in" kind of means you're doing it without permission... Luckily, moments like these are few and far between, but they do frustrate when they arise.
But beyond the odd awkward moment in the trial, and slightly confusing plot point, Danganronpa V3 is nevertheless a return to form for the series, back on top after a slightly disappointing second outing. With a plot that'll have you hooked from the very beginning, some masterful storytelling that'll leave you floored on a regular basis, and a great cast of characters to befriend, Danganronpa V3 is well worth picking up, and is one of the best visual novels on the PS Vita or PS4.