Eschewing the school setting from the first game, Danganronpa 2's tropical island setting features a whole new cast (for the most part). Sixteen students, with talents ranging from a budding chef to a Princess, have been dragged to this island by a strange rabbit-like robot called Usami. Surprisingly, there's nothing sinister in Usami's intentions, and although the students were drugged and dragged along against their will, they need only learn about each other in harmony in order to return home safe and well. This would make for a rather dull murder mystery title, but fortunately it isn't long before Monokuma shows his face, takes control of the island from Usami, and begins the killing games once again.
Once things finally kick off, the gameplay in Danganronpa 2 is similar to the first. During off days you can wander around the island and spend time with your classmates to learn more about them, with new areas opening up for exploration after each chapter. Learning about your classmates isn't just for exposition's sake; it also nets you 'hope' fragments, which you can trade into Usami for skills that will help during the eventual classroom trials. After a murder occurs you'll be tasked with looking for clues as to who the culprit is and the story will not move on until you have found everything necessary to proceed. The challenge comes from thinking about each clue you find so you know where to use it in the upcoming classroom trial.
The other half of Danganronpa 2's gameplay is centered around the aforementioned classroom trials. Clues you have collected become ammunition which you can use to try to disprove yellow colored statements or support blue colored statements made during arguments between your fellow students. The PlayStation Vita's touchscreen is perfectly matched for these sections and later in the game you'll make use of both the front and back touch pads to clear away white noise before firing off your “truth bullet”. Incorrect use of the clues is punished by decreasing a life bar, which is meant to represent the level of trust your other classmates have in you. If their level of trust in you falls too low then they'll suspect that you're the killer and will vote accordingly (although you can quickly restart from the section that you failed).
Usually this gameplay set-up works well, but every now and then I knew the answer to the question being brought before the group but I couldn't get the correct combination of clue and statement to move things along. Sometimes I even had to resort to trial and error, which might be a failure on my part but perhaps also indicates poor gameplay design for certain sections. The failure scene should also be adjusted for certain scenarios. For example, it doesn't make sense for your classmates to vote for you if you've worked through all but the final details of the case. Why would they turn around and vote for you, simply because you had trouble with your closing arguments, in the full knowledge that such a vote would doom them all to death? In a game where the narrative is a vital component of the gameplay, more effort should be put into making sure that these sections, which remind you that you're playing a structured game, are blended into the background more seamlessly.
Classroom trials don't just consist of group-based debates, but are comprised of a number of other mini-games as well. Many of these are repeated from the first game with a couple changes and new minigames added in, but there are two major improvements I'd like to focus on. Firstly, while Hangman's goal is still pretty much the same, the new and improved version turns it into a puzzle game in which letters are floating along on the screen. You can pick up and drop any one letter in order to match up pairs of letters but must keep incompatible pairs from hitting one another as they will damage your health/trust meter. Secondly, Logic Drive is a brand new game where the player delves into their own mind in order to answer a series of questions. This mini-game takes the form of a snowboarding game on a cylindrical course, and later levels are actually quite challenging on the harder difficulty setting, but the questions being asked are always fairly obvious. Both of these additions help to bring an added layer of challenge to the series, albeit not one usually based on the murder mystery at hand.
The storyline is definitely the strongest part of Danganronpa 2, and that's largely because of the insane, unique characters and intriguing twists and turns in the narrative. Even in the very first case you find that things are never as they seem and I don't recall a single murder that played out exactly as I thought it would during the investigation. You'll often get an idea of how the crime occurred from the various clues you gather but they are always so intricate you'll likely never guess how the murder played out in its entirety. Part of the fun of the classroom trials comes from working through the case alongside other characters, piecing everything together. This feeling is heightened more and more as the main storyline of your classmates and their position in relation to events set up in the previous game is filled out. If you haven't played the first game then I highly recommend doing so, as numerous references are made to the events of that first title, but it's not necessary to have played Danganronpa to understand the thrust of events in this sequel.
Danganronpa continues to be one of the few video game series that legitimately makes me feel sad when certain characters die. All of the Ultimates are interesting - each having mastered a particular field and having an original background - that learning about them is one of the series' great strength. Thankfully, once you complete the main storyline other modes unlock that let you delve deeper into these characters that you've become attached to over the course of your playthrough.
Presentationally, Danganronpa 2 is much the same as its predecessor, which means lots of catchy music and dialogue scenes that are presented via character stills. The pop-up effect from the two dimensional props in each area you enter remain endearing, and I can appreciate the need to keep costs down, but I do hope future games become less afraid to use animated scenes because I feel the game could really benefit from more of them. There were, for example, a couple of key scenes in particular that would've been more impactful if they were animated.
It took me 31 hours to beat the main storyline of Danganronpa 2, but that's not all the game has to offer. Completing the main storyline unlocks three other modes. One of these modes casts the player as Usami as she tries to take down wave after wave of Monokuma's minions. This side mode is a good momentary distraction but is unlikely to hold your attention for long. The next mode is a novel set during the events of the first game, which is intriguing but also very heavy in reading compared to the main game. The third mode, however, is my favorite and the concept will be familiar to those who played the first game. In this mode the killing part of the “killing school trip” is taken out and replaced with simply managing your fellow students as they accomplish simple menial tasks. This gives you time to become friends with them and learn about every single one of your compatriots, in contrast to the main game which doesn't give you the time to do so before they're offed or caught having killed someone.
Danganronpa 2 is everything I had hoped it would be - a very high quality entry in a unique and fun series, one that I was able to experience this time without being spoiled by an anime adaptation - but it does start to show some cracks in the series' design. Despite that, I highly recommend it to anyone who owns a Vita and enjoys a good murder or two. Now let's pour out a forty on the Vita for the virtual friends we lost along the way*.
*We are not liable if you actually choose to douse your Vita in liquid
This review is based on a retail copy of Danganronpa 2 for the PSV, provided by the publisher.