Danganronpa S is What Danganronpa V3 Warned Us About

The board game/social sim spin-off feels out of place after the series' previous commentary.

On its surface, Danganronpa S: Ultimate Summer Camp is a mostly fun, mindless spin-off of Spike Chunsoft’s murder mystery visual novel series with some interesting writing surrounding its various “what if” scenarios. But in the broader context of Danganronpa, I don’t have a lot of positive readings on why a series that held itself to a higher standard of narrative integrity than most video game series ever do has released a game like it. 

Danganronpa S is a non-canonical expansion of a mini-game in Danganronpa V3: Killing Harmony. It uses much of the series’ iconography to Frankenstein a scenario where the casts of all four games (Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc, Danganronpa 2: Goodbye Despair, Danganronpa Another Episode: Ultra Despair Girls, and Danganronpa V3: Killing Harmony) are able to experience a life devoid of the main series’ killing game, and just vibe on the beach like mostly normal high school students. All the characters are either students or family members of students at Hope’s Peak Academy, and are taking part in the school’s Talent Development Camp. This takes place in a virtual reality called the Neo World Program, which projects the image of a tropical paradise called Jabberwock Island. Once inside, series’ antagonist Monokuma corrupts the entire thing, and floods the beaches and resorts of Jabberwock with monsters made in the animatronic teddy bear’s image. These kids spend their time on the virtual island developing their talents, all to combat Monokuma’s deranged minions.

All of the proper nouns above will be familiar to any long-time fan of the series. Danganronpa S is built upon the foundation of the franchise’s lore, but it’s not using these concepts to facilitate its usual teen-murder-mystery-death match synonymous with Monokuma’s appearance. Instead, the students of Hope’s Peak Academy go to the Neo World Program for a mostly chill social sim splayed out across a board game, as was the case in Danganronpa V3’s first iteration of these systems back in 2017.

So if V3’s already done this, what is Danganronpa S, really? It’s mostly just more of the same, just with some extra bells and whistles you won’t find in V3’s version. If that’s what you’re looking for, there’s certainly a lot of content to sink your teeth into, and the social elements bring characters together who never actually met in the series’ continuity for some fun, and occasionally great interactions. I spent a lot of time playing as my favorite character in the series, the mastermind behind Monokuma, and was genuinely compelled by their reflection on their ideology in this non-canonical space. And if you’re a long-time fan simply looking for more of these characters, Danganronpa S has that in spades.

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But Danganronpa isn’t a series that often made moves in the name of fanservice. In fact, the series has been overtly antagonistic to the notion — all in the name of staying true to its story. This is a franchise that, in service of its narrative, opted to release a puzzle shooter and an anime to naturally conclude the Hope’s Peak saga, even if that ran counter to a fandom that wanted it to return to its murder mystery roots. The series extrapolated this rebellious attitude to an entire game with Danganronpa V3, a return to the murder mystery in a separate continuity altogether. Instead of continuing the story of Hope’s Peak Academy, Spike Chunsoft once made a game that was a cynical satire of the franchise, pointing fingers at both the developers who created it and the fans that demanded it continue. It was a game that spent 30 hours leading up to a metatextual commentary on the dangers of fandom, consumerism, and art losing its soul all in pursuit of satisfying supply and demand. 

And here I am, four years later, holding my Switch and playing a game that feels like that same story and all its characters are being mangled to create more. There are more interactions between all these characters we love so much, even if it has to break and bend all of these pieces of its world to make it happen. It’s not been made into another murder mystery, but now the stages for those same death games are being used for turn-based battles against monsters that bear Monokuma’s face? Characters like Danganronpa V3’s Monokubs, Monokuma’s children meant to be a parody of shark-jumping characters like Scrappy-Doo from Scooby-Doo and Poochie from The Simpsons, are now acting as everyone’s guides on the island, weaving in luck-based mechanics to the board game segments. A character who has existed in different forms across the series is having conversations with themselves as almost anyone who had a sprite in the four games has been dumped into the simulation, regardless of whether their existence was mutually exclusive with another. All these interactions and relationships make sense in Ultimate Summer Camp’s contrived repurposing of Danganronpa’s world. But the entire thing feels off. It’s like watching someone play make-believe with a box of toys, creating scenarios on the fly to see what sticks.

This weird collage of characters, concepts, and events start to make more sense when you remember that Danganronpa S is the first game in the series (other than a short-lived mobile game that came out in 2015) with microtransactions. At first, you have access to all the protagonists of each game, but if you want to unlock other characters you either have to grind for in-game currency, or pay up. Full disclosure: the option to use real-world money wasn’t live during the review period, but Spike Chunsoft has already laid out how it works when the game launches on Switch. Both characters and “Hype Cards” that give specific characters boosted stats can be bought outright.

At first, I thought the game’s unlock rates were fair, and that the microtransactions wouldn’t be all that appealing. I unlocked my favorite character (the aforementioned mastermind) in my first use of the in-game currency, and was relieved that in order to see their social content, I wouldn’t have to pay out of pocket. But after several hours of play, I looked at the characters I had unlocked and realized that there were still so many to acquire through in-game gacha machines. And if I hadn’t got my favorite early on, I would have felt very differently about all the time I’d already invested, and likely would have caved.

Being able to unlock characters outright helps circumvent the grindy, exploitative schemes of games that use gacha systems, but if you’re less concerned with playing specific characters and simply want to collect everything Danganronpa S has to offer, you have to do a lot of grinding. In that light, spending real-world money becomes more appealing. It’s not the most heinous example of microtransactions in the world, but coming from a series that once created a satire laughing at the concept? It all just feels…wrong.

That sense of unease hangs over Danganronpa S: Ultimate Summer Camp. Where the original series managed to create a sense of dread in its horrifying scenario of teenagers killing each other to escape Monokuma’s clutches, Danganronpa S is a foreboding arbiter of what the series’ future might look like. After Danganronpa spent years defying market expectation to tell a story of hope, despair, and all the grey in between, Danganronpa V3 laughed at anyone who thought these characters and this world could ever have represented anything else. More than most video games ever aspire to, Danganronpa ran counter to the expectations the video game industry has nurtured. When I finished Danganronpa V3, it felt like the only way for that to remain true was for the series to die on its own terms. Now, I’m fearful the same franchise that mocked fandom’s insatiable desire for more is giving in to the same cycle it sought to end. I hope that I’m wrong, but it sounds like Spike Chunsoft is just getting started with dragging Monokuma out of storage and onto the assembly line.