Dangan Ronpa's characters can be hit or miss, but the dark and ultra-slick mystery is worth experiencing.
(Disclaimer: I played the game using the translation patch by Project Zetsubou. In addition, I will attempt to remain as spoiler free as possible, but some will be inevitable.)
High school. A time of raging hormones, weirdly inflated self-worth, and the conflicts that occur when those two things meet. Needless to say, I do not reflect on my time in high school as a positive experience. However, compared to the students of Kibougamine Academy in Spike's Dangan Ronpa: Kibou no Gakuen to Zetsubou no Kokousei (Or, as I understand it is translated, "Bullet Refutation: Hope's Students of Despair Academy), I'm willing to count my blessings.
Player character Makoto Naegi has been invited to attend the illustrious Kibougamine Academy, a bastion of hope for the future, where the best of the best of the best attend to become essentially set for life. Even being accepted is no small feat, as the administration only accepts people who are the absolute best in their field of interest, trade, or skill. These Super Duper High School students, ranging from Scion to Shaman, High Roller to Outlaw Biker come from every walk of life because they are literally the best. Of course, Naegi is just a normal guy, so he was accepted as the Super Duper High School Luckster; someone who was simply lucky enough to make it in. Which, stripping away the fluff, also means "We needed some guy for the player to be that they can project themselves on to, so he can't be too outrageous of a person, come on now."
Unfortunately, this is, in fact, a video game, so things go horrifyingly wrong immediately as the story begins. After Naegi takes his first steps inside the school, then mysteriously passes out, wakes up in a classroom with massive iron plates over the windows, and then is introduced to 14 other students with similar stories. Here, we meet the vaguely mysterious, incredibly bizarre, and occasionally amusing Monokuma, the school's "headmaster" who gleefully introduces the students to the rules of the academy. In that the students are trapped inside the school for the rest of their lives, unless they graduate. Of course, this doesn't mean the whole Pomp and Circumstance bit. In order to graduate from Kibougamine Academy, one student must pull off the perfect murder on another. After a murder, the remaining living students (with Monokuma serving as judge, jury, and executioner, seeing as he has a network of CCTV cameras watching nearly every corner of the school, and therefore already knows the culprit) hold a Class Trial, to try and figure out who the murderer was. If the students come to the correct consensus, then the culprit is executed. If the students come to an incorrect consensus, everyone but the killer is executed, and the killer successfully graduates to freedom.
What follows is a tale of intrigue, betrayal, secrets, and conspiracies that, for the most part, is incredibly engaging, stylish, and just fun. The core mechanics of gameplay, while fairly derivative, aren't carelessly copied over. Each chapter of the game generally starts with a phase of Free Time. Here, the player has the chance to interact with the other students and get to know them better, in a system incredibly similar to Social Links from Persona 3 and 4. You spend time with someone, they talk to you a bit about them, generally ask you a question where responding correctly wins you relationship points, and you have the opportunity to give them a present acquired from the Monomono Machine in the school store (using coins found in the environment in a similar manner to Hint Coins, from Professor Layton). By spending time with your fellow classmates, besides the more fleshed out characters, is that Naegi also acquires skills from these events that provide perks during the Class Trial. Each skill requires a certain number of Skill Points (also increased from these not-Social Links), and can provide benefits such as increasing the time limit of the trial or narrowing down your pool of evidence per debate. Unfortunately, these portions are really where my main problem with Dangan Ronpa becomes evident.
I simply do not like a majority of these characters. This is a purely subjective judgement based off of a fairly narrow pool of reference, but, generally speaking, everyone I've talked to who has also experienced Dangan Ronpa, be it playing it themselves or through some other manner, generally has around four or five characters that they really enjoyed, and the rest of them they could take or leave. For me, outside of Chihiro Fujisaki, the shy, innocently sweet Super Duper High School Programmer, Kyouko Kirigiri, the steely Super Duper High School ??? (No, seriously, she doesn't remember what she does until the end of the game.), Yasuhiro Hagakure, the rather goofy and hapless Super Duper High School Shaman, and the player character, Makoto Naegi, everyone else seemed entirely one dimensional. Your list will probably be different from mine, and that's okay. Even taking into account these relationship events for other characters, they just seemed less like real people, and more like plot advancers, which made it incredibly hard to sympathize when characters either ended up dead, or turned out to be the culprit. That being said, if any of the characters you find enjoying ends up dead, it's absolutely, gut-wrenchingly despair inducing. And, (here's where a spoiler comes in), while none of the characters I found myself attached to ended up committing a murder, I imagine that would be hard to swallow as well.
But, that's only one third of the gameplay. Another portion, initiated after the discovery of a dead body, is Investigation. During an Investigation, Naegi and the other students snoop around the crime scene and other locations relevant to the crime looking for clues, talking to witnesses, and all around doing all the things expected of amateur sleuths. It's incredibly hard to miss things in these portions, as the player can press triangle for a quick survey of every potential interaction in the room, and the fact that every clue is rather hard to miss. There aren't any 2x2 pixel bullet holes in screens or anything, and Naegi will generally internal monologue connections to locations or people. As a result, these portions are incredibly linear, generally consisting of "examine everything in the room where the corpse was found, talk to everyone in the room, they'll point you to another room, rinse, repeat". In fact, the only part where I got downright confused for a portion of an investigation was rather late in the game where I misconstrued a broken piece of something as a picture frame instead of what it actually was, and Naegi kept referring to it as being "somewhere" but wouldn't get specific. Needless to say, I did not get very far looking for a missing picture frame somewhere.
During Investigations, the evidence you find gets loaded into your "Ammunition", which may seem like a weird euphemism for "Court Record", but when the students step into the slightly dishonorable Judge Monokuma's courtroom for the Class Trials, it begins to make more sense. Trials generally start out with a phase of Nonstop Debate, where the students start discussing things about the murder. The debates feel incredibly dynamic and intense, with the camera swooping around the circle of students as they discuss the case, in addition to having a fairly lax, but still taxing in concept, time limit. The students' statements appear as floating text while they talk, and, being a courtroom drama, generally will have a contradictory weak point in the form of text that glows orange. If there's a contradiction with that particular statement and a piece of evidence that you have chambered, simply move the crosshair over the weak point and, quite literally, blow a hole in their assertion. The game does mix it up during these portions, first of all introducing purple chatter text, which will block your evidence if the chatter passes over the weak point. Shooting it with your silencer (gun jokes!) on the X button both eliminates the chatter, and adds a brief amount of time back to the clock. Then, sometimes with your evidence, a contradiction just cannot be found. In these cases, the player can convert a different character's assertion into ammunition to fire at a contradiction found then. The system's constant evolution keeps the debate portions interesting and fun, and the slight action elements brought upon by the firing of evidence makes the courtroom action tense and exciting. In addition, by limiting the evidence pool from everything relevant to that specifc case to a number between one and five, attempts to avert the Ace Attorney problem of knowing what the contradiction is, but not figuring out what the game is trying to pull out of you. I say "attempts" because, for the most part, it is successful. There is the occasional time, few and far between, but enough to be a little annoying where the evidence, or even the weak points are similar enough to fall into the trap of being unable to figure out what goes where.
However, debate only gets you so far. Occasionally Naegi will need to figure out a particular word or phrase that was important earlier, but not necessarily a piece of evidence. Here, Naegi focuses inward and starts an Epiphany Anagram, and shoots letters out of the great beyond to solve the anagram. These generally happen once per trial, and aren't particularly difficult. In addition, sometimes there is a student who will downright refuse to listen to your evidence, no matter what. This starts a Machinegun Talk Battle, a rhythm based fight where you shoot down someone's ad hominem attacks and refusals in time with with a beat. These extra trial phases help everything move along fluidly and keeps twists in the trial interesting and interactive.
All crimes have a culprit, and all crime dramas require a summation. This is presented graphically during the Climax Logic phase, where Naegi puts everything together in a nice manga for everyone else. While this is a fantastic way to turn the stereotypical "here's what happened" talk into something interactive and fun, the predominant problem is that the panels you use to fill in the manga summary of events are really small, and it is difficult to make out two different but opposite events such as "Culprit takes down a poster from a wall" and "Culprit places poster on a wall". But all these minor nitpicks do not get in the way of how stylishly fun the trials simply are. And considering it's such a core part of the game, I consider that a success.
Now, I am not entirely certain how much this applies to the game proper, or just the translation patch, but tonally this game is absolutely all over the place. It bounces between some slapstick comedy, to some fairly heavy drama, to winks and nods at the fourth wall based around conventions of mystery stories, to just pure sadness. If you're familiar with a Japanese drama called "Meitantei no Okite", about a detective who is fully aware that he is in a mystery drama, a lot of the humor seems very similar to that. Characters do things, not necessarily for personal gain or the bounds of logic, but because it makes the mystery more intriguing. It really does not make a lot of sense, given the situation, and even then, while the mysteries are certainly interesting, they aren't particularly complex. Even the most basic logic looking at the evidence is enough to very easily figure out who the murderer is. If you can't figure it out there, it becomes readily apparent during the trials, where one person will generally always make the mistake of saying something that they should not have known.
But all these mostly minor mechanical nitpicks do not get in the way of the thrill of solving mysteries. Games that attempt whodunnit-style mysteries are few and far between, so when one comes along, it's always a real treat. In addition, the game's mastermind reveal is fantastic and final debate sequence is simply inspiring, in addition to being a clever spin on the mechanics of the Nonstop Debate. Unfortunately, my problems with the game, with its bland characters and tonal inconsistencies are enough to make me throw in just a few caveats when I want to recommend it to other people. Don't get me wrong, Dangan Ronpa is still a fantastic game to play, but your enjoyment past base mechanics will entirely depend on how much the game can get you, personally, to like the characters. If the game falls into a rhythm of bad things happening to people you enjoy, it's downright heartbreaking. If not, it's still a decently clever set of mysteries, with some incredible flair hidden behind the crust.