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November 2, 2017

Re: Danganronpa V3: Killing Harmony


Hey, you.  Yes, you.  You, reading this sentence right now.  Stop.  Shut up.  Listen.

This post is going to contain spoilers for Danganronpa V3: Killing Harmony.  Everything up to the first class trial -- and a little beyond that -- is up for discussion.  On top of that?  This post is going to contain spoilers for Danganronpa in general, so that anything and everything from the first game, second game, and Ultra Despair Girls can and will be mentioned casually.  (Not the anime, though, because I haven’t seen it…yet.)  Also, do me a solid: don’t go into anything after, during, or before the second trial, i.e. who becomes the next victim and/or who’s the killer.  We’re all struggling against spoilers together.

Okay?  Okay.  So let’s --

NO, I’M SERIOUS.  STOP IF YOU DON’T WANT TO BE SPOILED ON ANYTHING.

Okay.  So let’s talk about this game for real now.  It'll be a hoot.


For those who know the Danganronpa games, the initial setup should sound pretty familiar.  Sixteen superlative high school students -- dubbed the “Ultimates” because of their excellence in one specific field -- are abducted my largely-unseen forces and locked into a sprawling habitat.  For what reason?  That’s not exactly clear; the important thing is that, under the orders of stuffed bear/robot Monokuma, the Ultimates are forced to take part in a killing game.  The killer who dupes the class into pointing fingers at the wrong culprit escapes while the others are all killed, but the reverse is true if the class rightly fingers the so-called blackened.

I can’t help but wonder about the setup this time, though, because something different happens as compared to the other games.  Our first look at this batch of Ultimates has them believing that they’re normal high school students -- not the Ultimate Pianist, Ultimate Artist, or anything of the sort.  Their costumes are different, too, and their eccentricities have been filed down to a nub.  It’s not long before that changes by way of Monokuma’s subordinates/”children” -- the Monokubs -- restoring everyone’s seemingly-stolen memories and doing a soft reset of the killing game.  Still, it kind of makes you wonder.


In terms of the plot?  The fallout from that hasn’t appeared just yet, but knowing what kind of game this is -- and knowing storytelling in general -- Danganronpa V3 wouldn’t have started like that without a reason.  So while I can’t prove anything yet, and I’m assuming I’ve got this entirely wrong, my current theory is that one of the big reveals is that even if the Ultimates had their memories restored, the Monokubs botched the process and gave the Ultimates the wrong talents -- and by extension, the wrong memories.  So the Ultimate Detective running around?  Maybe he just thinks he’s that, but the truth is that he’s the Ultimate Tennis Pro.  I have my doubts about that theory since we’ve got an Ultimate Robot in the cast; then again, the current Robot has done a lot of talking about it, and not doing robot stuff, so we’ll see.

The bigger issue is more thematic than anything.  DR has always put its super-talented students front and center (with the exception of Ultra Despair Girls, albeit to its detriment), and these characters have been informed heavily by their talents.  The idea that this new cast is a bunch of sad sacks without their talents is sobering; the idea that this new cast might be wandering around with the wrong talents is even worse.  If I was the Ultimate Writer in this canon, how much would my talent impact my personality given that it could be/would be the end result of coalesced, transformative past experiences?  Would any elements outside of it be corollaries to the crux of my existence?  How much of me would cease to exist without a talent to serve as the foundation?  Shit, how much of that is true now, for me and for others?

…This is a depressing train of thought.  Let’s talk about what really matters.


I don’t know if it’s clever of Spike Chunsoft to load up this franchise with faux dating sim elements (a la the modern Persona games), or cynical, or downright evil.  No matter what word you choose for it, I’d still say it’s a stroke of genius.  On one hand, you’re being coerced into interacting with characters to power your protagonist up and gain special skills to use during the gameplay segments.  On the other hand, it’s a way to dupe players into forming bonds with the cast -- so that when the bodies start hitting the floor, the deaths will take on even more meaning than before.  Also noteworthy: because of the nature of the game, there’s a hard time limit in place to bond with your waifus and husbandos of choice.  You never know who’ll die next, so you have to make every moment count.

As my brother would say, there are some real bangers and some real hangers.  While the cast on average seems solid overall, there are some characters I’ve got zero interest in, both for the dating sim aspect and their place in the story.  I’m waiting to be proven wrong vis a vis certain reveals in the story that I strongly suspect are on the way, but for now?  There are some characters that lean so strongly on their gimmicks (i.e. anime clichés and archetypes) that they contribute little to any scene…as if to have them wave the death flag at full mast.


Who you see as a banger and who you see as a hanger will vary, of course.  But for me?  Of the guys, I’m super-down to hang with Korekiyo and Kaito.  The former (the Ultimate Anthropologist) looks like a fusion between Vega and Dragunov; despite his clear intelligence and appreciation of the arts, he’s so dedicated to acting like a creeper that it warps around and makes him more endearing.  Meanwhile, Kaito (the Ultimate Astronaut) is basically Kamina minus his mech.  Hot-blooded, brash, loud, straightforward, and the like; plus he’s a fan of space, which I can resonate with.  10/10, would become space bros with.

On the ladies’ side?  Without question, my top pick of the bunch is Kirumi (the Ultimate Maid).  I know that maids in Japanese media tend to fit a certain niche -- not even Persona 5 could escape the black abyss of pretty girls paid to call you Master and do your dirty work -- but damn, Kirumi is so cool.  There’s more to her than just a servant forced to wait on others; in fact, it seems like her personal arc is about teaching her not to live solely for others.  Beyond that?  She’s classy, intelligent, and the implication is that she’s a costume change away from being a super-soldier.  Badass.  The runner-up for me is Miu (the Ultimate Inventor); she’s a foul-mouthed trash talker with an ego the size of a blue whale…that is, until you call her out and she becomes a quivering coward.  It’s a gimmick, yeah, but I’m down for it.  (I also appreciate that in her portrait and sprites, her eyes are perpetually wobbly as if she’s on the verge of tears.)

With all of that said, hunting for waifus in this game is pretty much pointless.  Why?  Because this game has Kaede Akamatsu, the Ultimate Pianist…or should I say, the Ultimate Waifu.


SPOILERS.  COMING.  NOW.  THIS IS YOUR LAST CHANCE TO ESCAPE.  

YOU’VE BEEN WARNED.

 You start the game as Kaede, both when she thinks she’s just an ordinary high school student and when she has her memories (?) back.  As is the standard with the DR series, you guide her through the locked-tight locale to meet and greet the other students, Ultimate Detective Shuichi Saihara first among them.  From there?  Again, it’s the standard: Monokuma inducts them all into another killing game, acts like a goofball/psychopath, and trolls the Ultimates as a means to get them in the murdering mood -- with the auxiliary goal of getting them to embrace despair (a constant theme in the franchise).

In stark contrast to other protagonists in the series, Kaede quickly takes center stage and passionately pushes the others to hold onto hope (another franchise theme).  She’s a natural-born leader in that sense, or at least one in Fiction Land where she firmly resides; she’s idealistic, she’s fervent, she’s brave, and more.  Underneath it all, her drive comes from a simple place: she wants to end the killing game so she can bond with her new friends and enjoy a peaceful high school life.  She doesn’t try to trade blows with Monokuma (because that’s gone…poorly in the past), but she doesn’t have to.  Her hope, and the ability to inspire it, becomes her strongest weapon.

So naturally, Monokuma uses that against her.


It’s at this point where I have to hit the pause button.  Yes, I think that Kaede is a good character -- and I’ll keep explaining why in a minute -- and that she qualifies as one of those mysterious, elusive “strong female characters”.  But the question worth asking is an obvious one: what does that really mean?  Fans have been begging for ages, and creators have tried to provide; at this stage in the game (i.e. reality) not everyone is going to clap and cheer when presented with another damsel in distress or fanservice-laden insert.  You’ve got to do more.

Answers to the question are going to vary from person to person.  But for me?  It’s pretty simple.  Yes, it’s important to make a female character -- or any character -- with positive traits like courage, or wit, or the ability to handle a fight.  (To be clear, though, fighting ability =/= character quality.)  At the same time, you’ve got to put in the work to make them characters.  A female character that is strong or ideal or positive and nothing else is hardly a character at all, let alone strong.  That’s why you’ve got to have balance.  You’ve got to give them weaknesses, too.  Negatives.  Flaws.    


This is what makes Kaede a compelling character, even before the first body is found.  She willingly becomes a symbol of optimism and inspiration for the other Ultimates, and gives exactly the lines you’d expect from her: “Everything will be fine if we all work together!”  And “As long as we don’t give up, we’ll beat the bad guys!”  It’s actively used against her; by building up the Ultimates, she leads them into a no-win situation (represented by a platforming minigame, of all things) where they endure countless death traps for hours.  As a result?  The pain of failure plunges the Ultimates into far greater despair than if they’d ever tried at all, because Kaede set them up for an even bigger fall.

I don’t begrudge her for it, though.  Even though she realizes the error of her ways, it doesn’t stop Kaede from thinking she had the right idea -- the crux of it being that she wants to help, support, and even nurture the strangers she hadn’t even known for a week.  Her earnest effort to be there for the other Ultimates may reach an obsessive level, but in exchange, every word that comes out of her mouth comes from a real place.  Her multiple asides to Shuichi -- pep talks to help him become more confident -- are so ridiculously heartwarming that even I felt breathless from my side of the PC monitor.

It might have something to do with the fact that Kaede’s VA is Erika Harlacher, who was the voice of Ann Takamaki in Persona 5who, as you may recall, was my waifu in that game.  Alternatively, I’m starting to suspect that ever since Mercy debuted in Overwatch, I’ve developed an appreciation of blondes. 


In any case, Kaede’s flaw is more than just a minor talking point.  It ends up shaping the narrative in the best and worst way possible.  See, Shuichi comes to the conclusion that, among the Ultimates this time around, there’s a mastermind who’s either working with the baddies or piloting Monokuma as he/she sees fit.  It’s something anyone who’s followed the series should expect at this point, given that multiple Ultimates in multiple games haven’t exactly been truthful about who they are or who they have relationships with (Junko being the most triumphant example).  Kaede and Shuichi work together -- and separately from everyone else -- as part of a secret mission, wherein they’ll end the killing game before it starts by stopping the mastermind.

It doesn’t work.  And how could it, given that it’s before the first class trial?  Another Ultimate gets killed in the library where Kaede and Shuichi set up an elaborate trap to catch the culprit in the act.  Because of it, the killing game claims its first victim -- Rantaro, who didn’t even know what his Ultimate talent was -- and the others are forced to figure out whodunit.  Kaede is still keen to try and find the mastermind, and the player is by default.  But as it turns out, the first culprit is by far the hardest to pinpoint in the entire franchise to date.

The first killer is Kaede.

The protagonist.

You.


Like, I actually took hits to my life bar that I didn’t need to because the very concept A) hadn’t crossed my mind, and B) seemed impossible.  I’d subconsciously ruled it out because…hey, she’s the protagonist.  We’ve been following her since minute one of the game.  If she actively tried to kill someone, we’d be the first to know, right?  Well, the answer is yes and no.  The truth is that even though Kaede and Shuichi worked together to create a setup and nail the mastermind, they had two different plans running in tandem.  Shuichi’s setup was there solely to get the mastermind on film and give the duo evidence to convince the other Ultimates.  Kaede’s setup, on the other hand, was much more lethal; minor bits of dialogue reveal that she used a shot put ball, rearranged books, and the vent connecting the library and a classroom to roll the ball until it could fall on Rantaro’s head, fatally wounding him.

But why, though?  To be clear, it didn’t necessarily have to be Rantaro.  It just had to be whoever was lured into that specific spot thanks to Kaede’s planning and tampering.  She did it so she wouldn’t just capture the mastermind or get him/her on film; her reasoning was that if they just killed the mastermind outright, then they could move on to brighter days.  He/she deserved it for threatening to put them through hell, or “it was the only way” or some other excuse.  Kaede’s overwhelming desire to protect and nurture, and live according to her ideals, ended up doing her in.  It’s her eternal reward for trying to play the mama bear.


Now that begs the question: if Kaede, the protagonist, ends up biting it -- and biting it first, Rantaro aside -- then who’s the protagonist after that?  Isn’t the game over?  The answer is no.  Shuichi steps up mid-trial to become the new leading man.  Not only does he become a (slightly) bolder character, but afterward he takes off his hat to reveal that he has the mainstay of every DR lead: an ahoge.  So I guess the truth is that Shuichi is and always has been the real protagonist of DRV3; it just took time for him to step into the spotlight.  By extension, that means the devs willingly lied to us from the outset, all for the sake of the big reveal.

Now you know why I threw up those spoiler warnings.

Before she goes, Kaede ends up giving Shuichi and the others something special.  She doesn’t bother to fight against any accusations once the leading role switches to Shuichi (although mid-trial he has to convince her that she didn’t act solely out of malice or turned into some irredeemable monster).  And when all’s said and done, she ends up giving her motive to the others.  Crucially, she imparts on the other Ultimates a will to fight on -- to believe in hope, the future, and everything she believed in, so that they can overcome Monokuma and despair.  Granted it’s probably not going to work out because there’s still dozens of hours of game left, but the sentiment is there.

Here’s the thing, though: when the reveal happened, I was about ready to drop DRV3.


The reveal left me shocked, stunned, and a little bit butthurt.  I was ready to ride with Kaede from start to finish because she was such a cool character.  I thought I’d get to be soul sisters with Kirumi.  I thought I could space bro it up with Kaito.  I thought I could walk up to people asking “What games have a strong female character?” and then point directly at this game with both fingers, and motions fierce enough to shred my muscles into confetti.  Then it turns out Kaede, of all people, is the first killer.  Not only that, but her execution is the most painful to sit through yet, partly (if not largely) because it’s happening to a character who deserved better than what she got.

Now, don’t get me wrong.  I’m not saying that it was a mistake to kill Kaede off.  I would have loved to keep playing as her, without a doubt, but I understand that the devs had a divine plan in mind.  But you have to understand my gut reaction to that turn of events.  When the Ultimates were all sorting everything out, and Shuichi put the pieces together to make that happen, my first thought was “WELP, that’s it.  Kaede’s totally fucked.”  And she was; as per the rules, a correctly-accused killer gets killed in turn.  Prior to that execution, a specific thought ran through my head: “This is awful.  I never want to play this game again.”

Then ten seconds later I thought, “I can’t wait to play it again.”


You know, I’ve played a lot of games.  Plenty of them have been good.  Plenty of them have been awful.  But it’s not often that I have a character, story, or game at large that can draw such a massive reaction out of me.  No, scratch that; it’s not often that I have a game that can draw such despair out of me.  And not your standard-fare despair when you play something terrible and can’t believe money went into it; I’m talking about intentional despair.  The pain, the sorrow, the anguish that arises from the tale before you; I’s not something that comes easily.  But against all odds, I can confirm that DRV3 is one of the rare few that excels.

Kaede may be gone, but she won’t be forgotten.  Even if the time we spent together was criminally brief, it was packed with meaning -- for Shuichi, for the Ultimates, and for the player most of all.  She crossed the line for a noble cause, which is a definite rarity in this franchise.  But even when you look past the murder and the big reveal it’s hard for me to deny that, no matter what, Kaede is absolutely a strong female character.

Pour one out for the Ultimate Pianist.


There.  Now watch your back, Monokuma.  I’m comin’ for that ass.

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