Netflix’s Fullmetal Alchemist

This post contains spoilers for Fullmetal Alchemist, the Fullmetal Alchemist anime and won’t make any sense if you haven’t seen at least one of them. 

Perhaps a natural consequence of being a Japanese student at university, I have recently found myself drawn slowly back into the murky waters of anime. A big contributor to this has been Netflix, which reintroduced me to anime with Devilman Crybaby (more on that in an upcoming review). Their next big-ditch effort to get me watching anime again is with the live action adaptation of Fullmetal Alchemist; one of my favourite TV shows, animated or otherwise. (People will be quick to point out that this film isn’t really a Netflix film, but hey look it’s distributed by them here and it fits with my opening spiel so shh).

For those not in the know, I highly suggest not reading this post, and instead retreating to a cave for a couple of weeks to binge through the 2003 and 2009 adaptations of Hiromu Arakawa’s manga (and then coming back to this please). But if you really don’t have the time, then here’s a brief rundown of what Fullmetal Alchemist is all about. The story takes place in the fictional European country of Amestris post-Industrial Revolution. The country is ruled by a large military, which employs various ‘state alchemists’; essentially scientists who use alchemy (which in this universe is basically a kind of magic) for military purposes. The main plotline of Fullmetal Alchemist follows one such state alchemist in his effort to find the ‘Philosopher’s Stone’, which grants the user the power to perform alchemy without following the ‘Law of Equivalent Exchange’, which dictates that in order to create something, something of equal value must be sacrificed. Said alchemist, Edward Elric, needs the stone in order to get his arm and leg and his brother’s body back, having lost them attempting to resurrect their mother.

Despite how badly I explained that, you’ll have to trust me that the story of Fullmetal Alchemist is incredibly well told, and its world beautifully well realised. It perfects, to my mind at least, everything you need from a fantasy epic; an interesting and thought out setting; a complex but not pedantic plot; stakes that raise in a natural and addictive way, and most importantly, engaging and well-written characters. One day I’d love to write about the series and its many good adaptations. But, of course, that’s not what you’re here for. Instead, let’s talk about this adaptation.

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To put it simply, the new live action Fullmetal Alchemist adaptation is bad. Really, really bad. It works neither for fans of the series, nor for newcomers.

I think we can cover most of the film’s issues with an examination of one plotline, and it’s one of the most famous from the original story; the meeting between Edward Elric and Shou Tucker, the Sewing Life Alchemist. For many fans, this is the moment that sticks out most in all of Fullmetal Alchemist, and it’s for a good reason. This is the pivotal moment in which the series undergoes a pretty harsh tonal shift. There are undercurrents of tragedy throughout the series’ start, with the loss of the Elric’s mother and the loss of Rose’s husband. But the dramatic murder of Nina and Alexander is sure to stick in anyone’s mind. It brings the Elric brother’s to their lowest point, starts to expose the flaws in the military, and introduces the potential horrors of alchemy. So, of course, I was interested to see how the live action adaptation would handle it.

First impressions are pretty good; specifically in the casting. Shou Tucker in this version is pretty unassuming, much more so than the slightly creepy Tucker of the original. I’m sure his dramatic shift will come as more of a surprise than the original Tucker’s might have done. Nina and Alexander are also pretty adorable, just to stick the knife in as much as possible. In general, the casting in the film is on point, although, of course, with the caveat that the actors are Japanese.

Hollywood adaptations are often given a bad rap for their lack of diversity, and while I understand that, Fullmetal Alchemist dodges that criticism because the main cast are all European. I’d be fine with the Japanese version retconning the story to take place in a Japanese setting, or even keep the European style and have all the characters be Japanese, but instead the live-action version compromises. Blond characters, including Edward Elric, seem to either be wearing a wig or have their hair bleached, which looks awful. Doing this instead of hiring blond actors or simply not bothering makes it look like the characters are simply cosplaying, a problem that also extends to the costumes. Of this slavish devotion to the anime’s look, the Homunculi suffer the worst. Gluttony looks comical, while Envy’s outfit is just absurd. I know I’ll get a lot of flak for this, but I much prefer adaptations that change the look of the original to suit live action. Give me a US Death Note over a Japanese Fullmetal Alchemist any day.

Returning to Tucker, the meeting between him and Ed starts with the two of them talking about Tucker’s backstory while Winry and Al play with Nina and Alexander. Ed then tells Tucker about his backstory, which has just been shown to us around 2 scenes ago.

So here we come to the film’s second problem; exposition. Fullmetal Alchemist is about 27 manga volumes long, and each of its adaptations run for around 60 episodes. It’s clear that the film won’t get through that much content in 2 and a half hours, and at many points it thankfully doesn’t even try. This means, however, that there’s bound to be a lot of exposition, but the amount of scenes of characters just talking at each other is frustrating. When Ed talks to Tucker about his backstory it’s especially bad seeing as we’ve seen it play out minutes beforehand, but even if the information is new to the viewer, it’s often presented in the most boring way possible.

The anime also had exposition dumps, but the dialogue was often filled with personality, and the animation took full use of its potential, with wildly expressive characters. In this adaptation, if the characters aren’t expositing in a bland meeting room, then they’re expositing on the battlefield, between attacks. In anime, the suspension of disbelief allows you to get away with a lot more – in live action it’s much stricter. When Lust pauses during the fight with Mustang and Ed to explain her own weak point to them, I was baffled at just how poorly the writers were conveying this information.

When Ed has finished telling Tucker what we already knew, Tucker offers to help examine Al’s body, a touch I enjoyed, because it gives Tucker more to do than just own a library. Tucker then tells Ed about Dr. Marcoh, but he confusingly does this offscreen, despite the film already proving that it loves to shove exposition dumps at us.

When Ed returns from seeing Dr. Marcoh, we finally get to the scene when the truth about Tucker is revealed and it’s a let-down to say the least.

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Firstly, the scene takes place in pretty much broad daylight. I know that thunder and lightning during a dramatic scene is a bit rote, but pathetic fallacy is used for a reason; it ups the drama considerably, and allows some more interesting lighting. The scene in the anime looked threatening and dynamic – here it looks flat and cheap. This flat lighting is present throughout the film and really makes the whole thing look incredibly cheap and bland.

Evidence of the film’s budget is inconsistent – often the CGI looks amazing. Al’s armoured body is especially good, with some real weight behind it. Other times it looks less than convincing, and the Nina/Alexander chimera also suffers some because of it. In the anime, the flat, empty eyes of the dog were haunting because they were so simplified, but they just look a bit strange when made 3D. Other creations, such as the immortal army just end up looking incredibly strange, although maybe the fact that I can’t figure out if I find them incredibly creepy or completely ridiculous means they’re a success.

Eventually Ed figures out the truth behind Tucker’s mad experiment and starts to beat him up (again, lacking the dramatic lighting of the original). And I think it’s here where I can highlight my final problem with the film; the acting.

I want to preface this by saying I’m not entirely sure that it’s the actors who are completely at fault here, because there are some scenes with real promise in them. Instead, I’d say it was the script, and not even necessarily the original script. Instead, it’s a confusing devotion to the manga’s script and tone. In anime, you can get away with going extremely over-the-top, especially for comedy, but that doesn’t work as well in live action. When the actors imitate the anime’s line delivery it just doesn’t work, not just because of their many pregnant pauses in between lines, but because their facial expression just can’t match the energy required of them. Even in drawing Arakawa realised that the tonal shift of the way characters spoke sometimes was a bit jarring, and for comedic zany moments would simplify the art style to ease the reader into the new tone. Of course, you can’t do that in live-action, but the zany lines were kept in and it all just feels a bit odd.

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It’s not just comedy where this happens; melodrama creates it as well. In the anime, when Tucker starts revealing his true self to Ed, the lines he says are quite cliched, quite melodramatic (“Me and you; we’re the same!” is the sort of thing Dr. Evil says to Austin Powers, not what real people say to each other), but the animation makes it work. The Tucker of this version gives a subtler performance, but he’s asked to spout the same lines, and so they’re exposed to not really working in live action.

I think that’s the point, isn’t it? Fullmetal Alchemist would never work in live action, at least not when so accurately recreated on-screen. I’m fine with this, because the story exists in its perfect form already, but I think every anime adaptation needs to learn from this. Yes, changing the story dramatically will be controversial. No one (except me) responded well to the Netflix Death Note film, but the answer isn’t to go back to making 1:1 recreations. Stories need to be adapted to their medium, and what works in animation won’t work in live-action. I’m not just talking about the size of the plot, or the specific moments of flashy animation – I’m talking everything from character design to tone.

So. If Hollywood ever decides to make a Fullmetal Alchemist adaptation, or when Japan inevitably puts whatever was popular a few years ago to film – I want the directors to ask what they can bring to the story beyond just the bare minimum.

Stray Observations

  • Trisha Elric’s death scene is unintentionally hilarious, and a really bad start to the film, given that she just kinda… falls over.
  • The film is able to retcon Winry’s hair colour, but not Ed’s or Riza’s?
  • General Halcrow is given an expanded role in the film, but the Fuhrer isn’t in it. Halcrow’s role is that of a face for military corruption, but I really don’t see why they couldn’t have used the Fuhrer. I’m guessing this was to do with leaving him for a sequel, but it just makes Halcrow’s role very weird and underdeveloped. (Also, if he is supposed to be a symbol of widespread corruption, then why does he claim that no one gives him orders? Doesn’t that mean that everything that happened in Lab 5 was just down to him? Did Bradley even know in this canon????)
  • Also Tucker comes back for no reason at the end of the film. Basically he just says some exposition then is killed.
  • Speaking of ‘no reason’ – there’s no reason the Homunculi keep Ed alive. They keep saying he’ll be a good sacrifice, but this is never bought up. Instead, all he does is hinder their plan, so them keeping him alive is baffling.
  • The soundtrack is really awful – not just bland, but at times jarring.
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Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective

This post contains heavy spoilers for the ending of Ghost Trick, and I recommend having played the game before reading.

I view it as a mark of shame on my own self that it has taken me this long to finish playing Ghost Trick. I have owned the game on DS and iOS for a couple of years, but until playing it for this review I have never managed to get past the second chapter. This has been something I’ve been loath to admit, because the game’s writer and director, Shu Takumi, was responsible for the creation of the Ace Attorney series, and wrote what are its best entries. Ghost Trick is his first departure from that series in 10 years, and some fans hail it as his best game, or even his masterpiece.

To evaluate whether Ghost Trick is Takumi’s best game would involve comparing it to his other works, and the purpose of this review isn’t to do this. Instead, I want to talk about Ghost Trick alone, to attempt to come to terms with my own feelings about the game after having finished it; that I regard Ghost Trick as no real masterpiece, nor even Takumi’s best game, but that I found myself thoroughly enjoying it regardless.

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Last year, when I reviewed Breath of the Wild, I said that all of its various strengths can be easily shown off in its opening sequence and I think the same is true of Ghost Trick, so this post will use that sequence as its structural foundation.

When the game opens, it does so with spotlights; a visual flair Takumi is clearly enamoured with, given its use in his latest duology, the Dai Gyakuten Saiban series. It’s remarkably easy to see why – the spotlights instantly shine a light (pun very much intended) on the game’s unique sense of style. I tried, mostly in vain to think of an appropriate catchy name for this style, but the best I could come up with is ‘cheery noir’, which doesn’t quite work – but hopefully gives you a sense of what I’m going for. In its opening area and night-time setting, Ghost Trick has many of the trappings of a noir style; the city at night, in the rain, with an appropriately jazzy soundtrack and hitmen dressed in suits. The spotlights aren’t a traditional noir trapping, but given the genre’s heavy emphasis on the interplay between light and shadow, they fit right in. This noir theming continues throughout the game; even as the settings and plot become more and more ridiculous, the soundtrack and certain visual hints continue to connect this game to its noir influence.

However, as the game continues, the “cheery” side of my newly-minted phrase becomes more apparent. It’s present from the beginning in the use of certain strong colours in Lynne and Sissel’s clothing, but as characters such as Cabenela and Missile start to crop up, the game’s tone becomes more upbeat and does so almost seamlessly. This balance between the game’s ever-present noir influence and its at-times relentless optimism is really reflected in the game’s style; in its music, its settings, its character design. From a visual side, Ghost Trick represents a game coming very close to appealing directly to my own sensibilities, and I love it for it.

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Of course, visuals are only a small part of the game’s appeal, and after the opening cutscene, the game deigns to explain to you its main mechanics; the ‘Ghost Tricks’ themselves. I’m hoping and assuming that those reading this will have played the game, but for a quick refresher (or for you naughty daredevils who really don’t care about spoilers); the main gameplay thrust is solving puzzles that require you to manipulate objects around a room, poltergeist-style, in order to prevent the deaths of various kooky characters around a nameless city over the course of a single night. By rewinding time to 4 minutes before the person’s death, our protagonist Sissel watches the actions leading up to their murder, then possesses and moves certain objects in order to save their lives. For my money, the best example of this system at work comes in the manipulation of a literal Rube Goldberg machine (or Heath Robinson contraption for us Brits) in order to prevent the firing of a gun at the end of the device.

All of the action in Ghost Trick is presented on a 2D plane, aiding greatly with visual clarity. When manipulating objects, it should always be obvious what effect that object has and setting the game’s action in vertical slices of large environments makes it clearer to the player what’s going on, without sacrificing the game’s visual design.

In the game’s opening chapter, upon possessing Lynne’s corpse, the player is shown a quick video of her death, and this becomes one of the game’s best ideas for preventing the puzzles from being turned into just trial and error (more on this later). When the game shows you the events before the corpse’s death, it often shows you how certain objects interact, and therefore what you might need to do to change the fates of the unfortunate victims. Take, for example, the second chapter murder of Kamila. Here, the video shown beforehand informs you that the mice are attracted to the doughnut; that the dog, Missile, barks at the mouse; and that Kamila will follow Missile wherever he is barking in order to shut him up. When the game then tells you to hide Kamila when the hitman enters, you have all the information required to lure her where you want – the only thing to work out is how to move the doughnut to where you want it.

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The problem comes in later chapters where the game is stingier with its information. Take, for example, the Chicken Kitchen chapter. Here, the video of the death is taken from inside the car, and helpfully shows the cause of death. However, all the actual manipulation to be done is inside the kitchen, an area you know nothing about until you arrive there. This is, to be fair, a lesser example – the puzzle inside the Chicken Kitchen is relatively simple, but this is a problem that shows up at various points; it’s there in the Justice Minister’s Office; in the Superintendent’s Office near the end of the game and in the Submarine, so it’s a shame when such a clever solution to an obvious complaint is abandoned so quickly.

The puzzles themselves, then, do often contain quite a lot of trial and error. While most are simple enough not to be too much of a problem, I don’t think that’s an excuse for the game’s worst habits. Trial and error can be fun; working out each object’s role is often a captivating experience, but it throws up two distinct problems.

The first of these problems is the lesser one. When the player is forced to mosey around the landscape for a while, working out how different things fit together, this often removes a lot of tension from the situation. Although it’s easy to argue that the time-travel mechanic means that these situations were never meant to be tense to begin with, the music and dramatic visual cues hint otherwise. I think this is probably something exacerbated by the last chapters, and you can tell that the final chapter was made easier to mitigate this problem, but it’s still worth pointing out, even if it might not have affected every player.

More importantly, the trial and error natures of the puzzle kills a lot of momentum that the game has, especially when you consider the fact that the puzzles are really just video manipulation. You see, the game often makes you pause and wait for a certain action to happen in the video before you can act. So the game, and not you, dictates when and how you can move, or even solve the puzzle.

Just as an act of facetiousness, I decided to look up a walkthrough of Ghost Trick and cmd+f to see how many times the word “wait” appears (it’s 34 times in 16 puzzle chapters). Of course, it would be fallacious to claim that this meant the game made you wait exactly this much, because this is based off of a perfect walkthrough guided playthrough. What’s more, most of this waiting is inconsequential, or won’t even be noticed by the player because they might realise what the next action should be when the video is at the perfect place for them to act on it. You could, however, twist it the other way; a player who doesn’t know what to do will often find themselves creating new wait opportunities for themselves, as they might mess with objects that require the action of another character to return to their original state (to continue with using Chicken Kitchen as an example, the fans in that room can be turned on by the player, but they then have to wait for the waitress to turn them off).

Regular followers of toatali reviews, or those who chat to me outside of it will know that I get more frustrated than the average person of a game wasting my time, even in minor ways, and at certain points I did wish the game streamlined itself with the inclusion of a fast-forward or rewind button. I’m sure that this was brought up in development, but if I had to imagine why it was shut down, it was probably due to the addition of certain timing challenges, such as realising that you have to use the split-second opportunity to move to the Chief Justice’s water jug in the puzzle in his room. With a rewind button this puzzle would be completely trivialised. As the variety in the style of puzzle the game presents is already slightly thin on the ground, I don’t think that abandoning this kind of puzzle for the slight convenience of a rewind button would be worth it as the game stands now.

This whole section might have sounded pretty nitpicky, especially to those who never picked up on these issues during their playthrough. For the most part, the puzzles were simple and well-telegraphed enough that the wait time issue wasn’t too big a problem. However, even if it only affected a few people a few times throughout the game, it would still be worth touching on.

I would like to reiterate, however, that I am still a big fan of Ghost Trick’s puzzles. They are extremely unique to the game, and for the most part, extremely clever in how they manage to tie together seemingly disparate objects and movements in order to string together some complex chain reaction that prevents a murder.

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There’s also a lot of smart little details to how the game plays with its puzzles. That the initial setting of the tutorial is a junkyard, for example, allows the game to use whatever objects it wants in order to make the puzzle solving mechanics obvious to the player. Or that a central plot device is a Rube Goldberg machine, which is a perfect distillation of the game’s environments into one device. The later addition of Missile’s object-swapping mechanic makes for some really clever puzzles, but it’s also impressive that the game can still think of innovative ways to use Sissel’s manipulation abilities so long into the game, with puzzles like guiding Jowd around making for some ingenious variations on the classic Sissel-based puzzles.

I think I’ve said enough on the gameplay, so let’s go onto story. In the introduction to the game, a number of central questions are asked that provide a core running hook to keep the player invested throughout the game. The main one is obviously “Who Am I?” but other subjects brought up at this point include Lynne and the case she’s investigating, the desk lamp Ray and his identity, the motivations of the hitman, and whatever the hell “Temsik” is. These plot threads all spiral off into multiple branching questions, until, at around the midpoint of the game you may have trouble just identifying what it is you’re looking for. At a certain point, the main narrative thrust becomes following a chain of dead bodies without knowing how this is connected to the central mysteries. But the game eventually deftly ties up all these plot points, capping it off by answering the two most intriguing questions; who are you, and who is Ray?

In focusing so much around a variety of questions, however, Takumi creates a problem for himself, and one that rears its ugly head as soon as the player talks to Lynne for the first time. There are quite a few names for this problem, as it’s certainly not exclusive to Ghost Trick. It’s linked to JJ. Abram’s infamous ‘mystery box’ style of storytelling, and it’s something that Takumi has become so fond of that a friend of mine had to address it in their review of Dai Gyakuten Saiban 2, referring to it as ‘pointless abstraction’. And of course, people might notice me doing it just there, as I name-drop the existence of this ‘thing’ without telling you what it is. To that effect, I’ve decided to, perhaps cringeworthily, name it the “ano hito” problem. “Ano Hito” literally means “that person”, and it’s because I’ve noticed this problem in quite a few Japanese TV shows and games that I decided to use that language in my desperate attempt to add at least one phrase to the pop-culture lexicon.

Anyway, enough beating around the bush – the problem in Ghost Trick is that Takumi loves to beat around the bush at any occasion given to him, because drawing a player in is more important than having characters address one another coherently. Sometimes it shows itself in the way I described, with characters saying things like “we have to tell that person that that thing is happening tonight”, but more often it’s strange character choices such as Lynne not telling Sissel about the case she’s working, even though he’s a ghost who just saved her life. Or perhaps when Jowd tells you that he killed the criminal in the park, just so the meteorite revelation can be a twist. If you look out for it, there’s a whole lot of plot convenience in the way people talk in Ghost Trick.

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I think that the ‘ano hito’ problem is a direct result of the kind of interconnected story that Takumi tries to tell here and in the Dai Gyakuten Saiban franchise; stories with sprawling plots and a myriad of twists and turns. Many of these twists are executed with pinpoint precision. I was, for example, a huge fan of the twist involving Sissel’s identity, which manages to be well forecast, and explain some of Sissel’s annoying character quirks, such as not knowing some basic English vocabulary. Other twists, such as Ray’s identity or Cabanela’s true good nature, build perfectly on characters we know.

Other twists left me slightly cold. Another problem of Takumi’s writing that surfaces in Ghost Trick is his reliance on tragic past events to inform character motivations. It’s there in DL-6, and SL-9, as well as 6 other cases throughout the trilogy (being generous), and of course crops up in Apollo Justice’s final case. Ghost Trick has two tragic crimes that become integral to solving the mystery of the present, and while past tragedies aren’t necessarily a bad motivation for character, it’s disheartening to see Takumi fall back on this old crutch.

More damning for me, though, were the twists that felt tonally inconsistent. Take my least favourite – the Rube Goldberg death of Jowd’s wife. It’s a tragedy, for sure, that Kamila ends up killing her mother (what is it with writers for AA and matricide?), but the murder method is just a bit absurd. While Takumi is a master of tonal balancing, he often strikes that balance by segueing between the absurd and the emotional, and when he jams them into the same scene, it tests my suspension of disbelief more than I would want. Kamila’s matricide could have been more of a gut punch were Yomiel to have simply manipulated Kamila into directly shooting her, as he later does with Lynne, but this isn’t the case. The Rube Goldberg death might have even been acceptable if the game had hinted prior to the revelation that Kamila was a fan of building these machines, but instead that’s a detail it casually throws in after the fact, when you’ve already seen a woman get shot with a birthday cake delivery machine and asked to buy it with a straight face.

The revelations behind the ghost trick powers of the dead that involve the meteorite Temsik also didn’t quite strike the right note with me. I was happy to buy that the powers of the dead just were; I didn’t need a space radiation-based explanation. My biggest problem with Temsik, however, is that occasionally it’s used to cleverly explain certain aspects of the plot, such as who gets ghost powers and how the appearance of certain cores differ – but occasionally I feel like it’s used to write its way out of certain plot difficulties. Most jarring to me was the half-hearted explanation as to how ghost powers change over time so that the game can explain away some of Yomiel’s, and later Missile’s, actions. If the game hadn’t even tried to explain the powers of the dead, I think I would have probably just bought all of it, as I did at the start of the game, but when they are explained it casts them under new scrutiny as a plot mechanic rather than just a gameplay one, and they hold up less well.

Ultimately, I’m left wondering if Ghost Trick is really the right game for this kind of story. In Ace Attorney, a game that also revels in its twists and reveals, those twists are delivered in the hands of the player. We expose the murderer, we reveal how he got away with it, and we expose the truths behind tragic cases from the past. In Ghost Trick, Sissel is a useless character outside of gameplay; the various plot revelations are just told to him, and it feels more like watching a film with occasional semi-related gameplay breaks, as opposed to being a ‘Phantom Detective’ myself. Were the game to allow you to solve the mysteries, I wonder how I would have reacted to some of the more outlandish twists, having proved them myself, but as they stand, I can only fully get on board with a few of them.

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If there’s an aspect of the plot I can get fully behind, it’s definitely the characters. I’m not exaggerating when I say that I think the characters turn Ghost Trick from a game I like to a game I’m very close to loving. The main characters are fantastic; each are surprisingly static in terms of character development (Cabanela seems to be the only character who changes much, but it’s hard to know if it’s him that changes, or simply the player’s perception of him), but the emphasis is mainly placed on getting you to want to spend time with them. If the plot of Ghost Trick is a rollercoaster, then the main characters are the people you’d want to experience it with. This may sound sentimental, and I think it is a bit, but it shows the power of Takumi’s writing.

If I can single out one specific thing Takumi does well, it’s writing animals. I’m not just talking about Missile, who is a stunningly well written little doggie, but also about Sissel himself, who was the perfect kind of begrudgingly friendly that the revelation that he was a cat all along was surprisingly natural.

It’s not just the central cast, however; the world of Ghost Trick is just such a bizarre pleasure to be in. The way Takumi writes the bit parts in Ghost Trick has, I feel, improved from his Ace Attorney days, but he’s aided by the game’s animations. The characters were originally rendered and animated in 3D, before being squashed onto the 2D plane, and this allows their range of movement to be unlike any other I’ve seen in an adventure game. There’s a subtlety to their actions that allows wordless scenes to convey character as well as any of Takumi’s writing. In an interview Joystiq did with Takumi, they point out the way Lynne backs up against a fence in the opening scene and quickly looks back against it. When admiring Ghost Trick’s animation, it’s easy to think of Bailey’s panic dance or Cabenela’s shimmy down the stairs, but I think it’s these moments that make the animations such an essential part of Ghost Trick.

Is Ghost Trick, then, Takumi’s masterpiece? I hope I’ve proven to you why I think that it isn’t. The game has too many minor issues that niggle away at the back of my mind to come even close to matching the two games I think best showcase his writing (Trials and Tribulations and Dai Gyakuten Saiban).

That’s not a problem, however, nor is it a deterrent that prevents me from really enjoying this game. When I finished the game, I messaged a friend of mine that it was a “lovely little game”. I think that this summation of the game is a little flippant, but to dismiss this instinctual reaction would also be wrong. I think that Ghost Trick has so much going for it; the gameplay is fun and original; the writing is funny and engaging. Even if it can’t reach the heights it might aspire to, I’m still just happy for its existence. I thought that writing about it might sour me on the game, as it has done for others in the past, but ultimately I’ve just been reminded of its charm in spite of its flaws.

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The Big Bang Theory

As promised, this month’s post is something a bit different to the norm; a commentary of an episode of The Big Bang Theory, providing some rough reasons why I think the show really isn’t very good. This is my first video, and, much like my thoughts towards my early blog posts, I can see loads of areas for improvement (for example, I probably should have written a full script rather than just some notes) – but that’s all part of the process. I hope you enjoy this departure and aren’t as annoyed with my voice as I am.

If you want to see more like this, or alternatively want the idea of it scrubbed from the face of the earth, just leave a comment and I’ll take it on board. A new blog post is still being worked on, and should hopefully be up by next month, but you already know how bad at scheduling I am.

Now sit back, relax, and enjoy me saying the word ‘Bazinga’ a bunch of times.

Top 7 Films of 2017

2017 continues to prove itself excellent as we move into the realm of cinema; I’ve seen about 50 films this year, so not everything, but not a shabby amount either, and there’s a lot to recommend. You might notice that this list is in alphabetical order; that’s because I was, in fact, having such a difficult time deciding on the order of films that I just gave up entirely. Like last year it’s worth reminding you that because I live in the UK there’s quite a few films that have released overseas, but not over here; Lady Bird and The Shape of Water and The Third Murder are three that spring to mind as potential omissions from this list. This also means that films released in 2016 in America, but in 2017 over here are applicable for my list, seeing as they were left off last time. So, without further aideu,

Honourable Mentions

As I said, this year has been excellent for films, and this meant that even picking the honourable mentions involved a whole lot of tough decision making. I think some films that came out early in the year and that I have yet to rewatch suffered the cost. Manchester By the Sea and Moonlight were both fantastic dramas, and Moonlight especially deserves to be lauded for its importance and the beautiful way it told its story. The three more recent films I would like to also mention are Blade Runner 2049; The Florida Project and The Disaster Artist, the former two of which narrowly missed out a place on this list.

Baby Driver

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The last film made by director Edgar Wright before this was 2013’s The World’s End, probably the weakest of the ‘Cornetto Trilogy’. But before that he directed Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz and Scott Pilgrim vs the World, three of my favourite films. So to see him back on form is a treat. Baby Driver is exactly the film the premise describes; a car chase/heist movie literally set to music. The best scenes in the film exemplify this vision. The initial set piece of a car chase set to Bellbottoms is the perfect opening statement, while a gun fight where each shot fires to the beat of Tequila is sublime. There are flaws here; the central romance is undercooked and the final act runs a little long. But I think the most telling thing about Baby Driver is that I went to see it in the cinema 4 times, twice as much as any other film on this list.

Colossal

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There were, amazingly, two subversive Kaiju films that released in the UK in 2017, but while I have every respect and love for the Iannucci-style comedy of Shin GodzillaColossal is the clear choice as the better film. To just describe the plot of Colossal would be doing it a disservice, because written down it becomes silly. But yes, this is a film in which Anne Hathaway ends up controlling a giant monster in Korea whenever she goes to a certain park at a certain time.

It’s an extremely strange plot, but that the film manages to make it work so well would already be a marvel. That the film also tackles subjects such as alcoholism and abusive relationships through the lens of this plot is even more remarkable. However, Colossal is not just a gimmick – it’s a truly great film, and one I urge you to seek out, because judging by the box office results; you haven’t yet.

Get Out

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At a certain moment during the climactic scene of Get Out, the audience at the cinema I was at burst into applause and cheers. It was a moment of huge relief, to be sure, but in no other movie I’ve seen in the cinema, horror or otherwise, has that sort of spontaneous reaction been elicited from the audience. That speaks to the power of Get Out; a satirical horror-comedy in the vein of The Stepford Wives; a black guy visits his white girlfriend’s parent’s house and finds that not all is as it seems.

Where Get Out finds such great success is in its target. Not content to go after the standard “hillbilly” racist, Get Out reaches for a subtler target; something much more prevalent in modern liberal society, and thus much scarier for it. This is a film for 2017, but to restrict its influence would be unfair, because even without the backdrop of the current political climate, this film is smart, funny and extremely creepy.

La La Land

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Damien Chazelle’s first film; Whiplash, shot up my ranking of favourite films quicker than almost anything I’ve seen before. La La Land, while continuing the jazz theme, seemed like such a departure from the thriller genre that defined Whiplash, that I was skeptical I’d love it quite as much. I was a fool to be skeptical, though, because La La Land is something extremely special.

The musical numbers are all instant winners and shining examples of filmmaking at its most visually impressive. The plot is something that initially seems like a simple love story; a vehicle for these musical interludes, but quickly reveals its depth, leading to an utterly heartbreaking epilogue that I can’t even think about without tearing up. A stunning achievement.

mother!

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mother! is a film that courts controversy, but I think it’s too easy to get lost in the discourse surrounding the film and forget that what’s being discussed is a truly amazing piece of horror filmmaking. Basing its story on an allegory that becomes pretty obvious around 20 minutes into the film (but which I still won’t spoil here), mother! uses this base storyline in order to explore more complex themes such as human destruction of the environment; the creative mind and abusive relationships.

So much can be read into the strange and surreal visuals and characters of mother!, that some may regard this as a weakness; that the film is too vague to say anything of any note, but I regard it as a strength; the film is made to be discussed, and hopefully will be for quite a while longer. Even scraping back those layers of subtextual storytelling, the basic filmmaking skill on display is to be marvelled at. Everything, from the camera’s close claustrophobic focus on Jennifer Lawrence to the emphasis placed on certain sound effects, racket up the tension and make for a horrifying; unforgettable and truly unique cinematic experience.

The Death of Stalin

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The Death of Stalin is much funnier than a film about the struggle for control over Russia after Stalin’s demise has any right to be. It is, however, a clear perfect fit for the writing talents of Armando Iannucci, who specialises in the political farce. Free from the suffocating terror of Stalin, the film documents the struggle for power over those who worked directly underneath him. The Death of Stalin could have easily worked as simply a clever political farcical comedy like The Thick of It, and certainly it includes a lot of that.

However, what elevates it is the ability to infuse the comic with the tragic; to reduce the leaders of the Soviet Union to clowns while also reminding us of the tragic consequences of their power. In the opening scene, a radio producer has to struggle to find a replacement conductor for a re-performance of a piano concerto, specially requested by Stalin himself. The farce elements of the producer trying to find a conductor for his impromptu performance is offset by the way the conductor is found; armed guards storming buildings and carrying people off in the night. It’s this delicate balance of comedy and horror that The Death of Stalin plays off to great success.

The Handmaiden

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The Handmaiden is an extremely clever erotic thriller, as you might expect from director Park Chan-Wook; based on a novel set in Victorian England, the action is transposed to Korea under Japanese colonial rule. There, the film follows three individuals; a wealthy Japanese heiress; her Korean handmaiden and a faux Japanese count. The interplay between these three characters fuels The Handmaiden, with each of their different goals and schemes leading to a multitude of complex twists that shift the focus between characters, as well as the audience’s sympathies.

If that weren’t enough, the film takes the time to comment on class, porn and sexuality, as each of those things becomes an integral part of how the characters play off one another. The Handmaiden also provides a showcase for one of the best pieces of cinematic architecture I’ve ever seen; a half Victorian half Japanese mansion that holds various tricks and secrets among its sliding doors and imposing bookcases.

So that’s 2017 all wrapped up. Here’s to an even better 2018 for pop culture (and hopefully for global affairs as well (although that might be too much to ask))

 

Top 5 Video Games of 2017

Because of their nature as more time consuming and expensive than films and tv shows, I didn’t get the chance to play too many games in 2017 (something further complicated by me moving somewhere without a TV in September). But the games I did manage to play were almost all at a higher standard than what I normally consume, further proving the strength of 2017 as a year for pop culture.

Honourable Mentions

I have three games I wanted to shout out this year, although I can only give one of them an unqualified recommendation. That one game is Gorogoa, a puzzle game that is unlike any other I’ve played in its central puzzle mechanic, which involves the manipulation of painstakingly drawn illustrations in order to guide the central character to his goal. With a subtle story playing out in the background, and amazingly detailed visuals populating the foreground, this game narrowly missed out on a spot on my list, because its short length meant that I was left a little unsatisfied.

I also want to shout out the two 90+ hour JPRGS I played this year, mainly so I don’t feel that my time was wasted on them. I completed Persona 5, and wrote an extensive review of it on this site, which I’d encourage you all to read if you feel it deserved a place on my list this year.

The other stupidly long JPRG Xenoblade Chronicles 2, I have yet to come close to finishing, but while it lacks the polish of P5, it makes up for it in sheer campy fun. I can’t recommend XB2 to anyone, but it comes the closest out of any game I’ve played to being “The Room” of video games; with its abysmal and stilted English voice acting, ludicrous semi-parodic JRPG plot and hilariously complex battle system, Xenoblade Chronicles 2 really manages to live up to the rare adage of ‘so bad it’s good’.

With that out of the way, let’s move on to talking about the games that are so good they’re good. (Hooray for another year of clunky segues).

5. Metroid: Samus Returns

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Yes, in truth much of the reason for this game’s spot on the list is that it’s been so long since the last Nintendo published Metroid game, and Metroid is a series near and dear to my heart. It’s also true that this game is not without major flaws as an adaptation, and both Mark Brown and ShayMay have made excellent videos as to how and why it falls slightly flat when remaking Metroid II.

However, I don’t really care. I had a lot of fun with Samus Returns. Samus feels absolutely fantastic to control; simultaneously light on her feet when leaping around SR388, and grounded when she plants her feet to allow for free range aiming. I was also extremely fond of the counter mechanic, despite the controversy. There’s an immense satisfaction to countering bosses and enemies, and while it slows the pace in the early game, by the late game your beam is powerful enough the it stops being a necessity.

The structure is perhaps a little odd for a Metroid game, bearing closer to the Fusion model of linearity than the classic “Metroidvania” model of games like Super Metroid. However, as a return to prominence for Samus, it strikes a perfect balance by introducing players new to the genre to the non linear paths of many Metroid games in bitesize areas, which connect to each other in a linear fashion.

Samus Returns is a welcome return to form for a long dormant series, and I can only hope we don’t have to wait another 15 years for the next 2D Metroid game.

4. Nier Automata

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Nier Automata‘s place on this list just proves how stupid the system of ranking is, and that I’m only doing it because I misguidedly think it’ll stir up some discussion and add to my view count. Anyway, full disclosure, I have yet to finish Nier Automata, and I have no doubt that when I’ve finished the Route I’m currently on (Route C), I will feel moved to bump this game up my list a couple of places.

That’s because Nier seems to direct itself towards my tastes; rich sense of atmosphere; hack-and-slash Platinum games gameplay; intriguing pseudo-philosophy and a great sense of humour. All these things combined made my first play through of Automata an absolute delight. It’s been a while since I’ve played a game like this that speaks so strongly to my sensibilities. I can’t say that Automata does any of those things the best, but that it combines them all into one discreet package was a wonder.

However, I do have a bit of a problem with games that don’t value my time, and making me play through the same campaign twice was an annoyance that seemed unnecessary to me. It was an indulgence that served to artificially elongate the play time for reasons that could have been dealt with a hundred more time effective ways.

It’s not just that Automata didn’t value my time, however, it’s also that on replaying a game the faults always become more glaring. Combat in Nier lacks some of the depth of other Platinum games, and the game will occasionally throw you in combat scenarios that its systems feel unprepared to deal with. Endings that come out of nowhere appear clever when first encountered, but can become an annoyance when triggered unintentionally. The atmosphere of areas such as the Amusement Park are fantastic, but these areas are criminally under-utilised, and going through the same motions in them twice is not a fix for this.

Those problems aside, Nier Automata deserves to be celebrated for everything it does right, because there’s not only a lot of it, but the way it puts it together serves for something that may lack a bit of polish, but is wholly original and satisfies most of my personal desires for what I want in a video game.

3. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild

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The game that’s topping most end of the year lists lands here on mine, but not for lack of trying. In fact, releasing the second DLC pack for the game at the end of the year really made me reconsider not putting this game at #1, because the world of Breath of the Wild really is something special.

I don’t think I’ve had a game impress me this much in its first couple of hours as Breath of the Wild; Hyrule is for sure the best open world I’ve ever played in a video game, and it’s almost enough to justify this game as my favourite of the year. The amount of things to do is immense, so much so that you’ll often find yourself distracted from the central Legend of Zelda quest in order to find things hidden away that would be main events in lesser games. Dragons are simply optional events hinted at by NPCs, waiting to be fought for their treasure. Important weapons, items and shops are stumbled across by accident or read about in rumour columns. And almost everything is left in the hands of the player; how you want to approach the deepest combat system in a Zelda game to date; how you want to tackle the bosses; how many of the oft-ingenious puzzle shrines you want to seek out. The best dungeon in the game, if not the entire series, Hyrule Castle, takes advantage of this freedom and condenses it into one compact space with a central end goal of the final boss.

However, play enough of the game and some of the novelty wears thin. While Hyrule Castle may be the best dungeon in the series, the Divine Beasts are some of the worst, and their challenge becomes laughable once you’re far enough into the game. Shrines and Korok seeds wear out their novelty as well, and since they become the only reward for exploration at a certain point in the game, so much emphasis is placed on the journey as opposed to the destination that even a fantastic open world like Hyrule can’t quite bear the burden of it.

It’s for this reason that I can’t wait for whatever the sequel that expands on this game to come out. Because Breath of the Wild comes very close to perfection, but falls apart when it has to be played for so long. However, the problems can be fixed, and Breath of the Wild will, I imagine, continue to be influential for not just the Zelda series, but for every open world game for years to come.

(If you want to read more of my thoughts on BotW, I wrote a full review of it here).

2. Night in the Woods

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It’s pretty rare that games make me cry. It’s not that I’m some sort of macho man who never cries at anything; films and tv manage it too often for me to be comfortable to admit it. But games don’t, and I think that’s for a variety of reasons; their subject matter often revolves around topics that don’t lend themselves to tugging many heartstrings and the writing often takes a backseat to gameplay.

In Night in the Woods, the opposite is true; gameplay here takes a backseat to the truly excellent writing. But to discount the game as a cartoon where you have to press buttons to move the story along really sells the game short, because a lot of Night in the Woods’ emotional engagement requires it to be a game. Choosing who to spend time with puts a lot of impact when they eventually reveal their problems to you, and the player involvement in certain mini-games and events does make a difference in getting you to care more easily about the characters.

But what struck me most about Night in the Woods; what earns it this high spot, is that the writing in the game is astoundingly good. It’s incredibly natural for a video game about talking animals finding dead bodies and investigating ghosts, although where it really shines is in the smaller character moments and anecdotes; it wasn’t the slightly overly dramatic ending that induced tears from me, it was talking to a friend after her emotional breakdown in a party. Those small moments are what fuel this game, and what propel it to such heights.

1. Super Mario Odyssey

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I talked in the last entry about games eliciting sadness, but I think that pure joy is underrated. Lots more emphasis is often placed on the creative endeavour of making people sad, downtrodden; you’re more likely to get my critical praise if you can make me cry or think about how shit the world is than if you can make me happy. And yet, I think it might be harder to make me joyfully happy. Like, giddy with happiness. And Super Mario Odyssey is the only game this year to make me feel that way.

Odyssey‘s campaign zips along in a breezy 9 hours, and pretty much every minute of that is a wonder. Bursting with creativity, Super Mario Odyssey never lets up, always providing you with something new to do; somewhere new to go and someone new to capture. I think quite a few games this year (Persona 5, BotW, Nier (to an extent)) suffer from going on for too long; where all the discovery of the game’s strengths are front-loaded into the first 15 hours, and then the game struggles to find ways to amuse the player. Odyssey‘s tightly controlled campaign never lets that happen to you. It introduces the central mechanic in the first stage, then goes on to building a 9 hour campaign where you get new chances to use that simple, satisfying mechanic of the hat throw every minute.

And when the game is finished, once the credits have rolled, the game continues to parcel out its surprises; each stage is given a whole bunch of new collectables, and new stages are added after you scour the inventively made miniature sandboxes for moons. I think those seeking to find all 900+ Moons might wear out the game beyond its breaking point, but I don’t think it was ever built to be played that way; the secret final level unlocks after only 500.

But even those who purposefully stretch the game have been rewarded; pulling off difficult secret techniques is recognised by hidden rewards from the developers, and those who are content to see only as much as they need will still be able to enjoy that joyful campaign. I seriously can’t think of any complaints to levy at this game; it’s that good, and a deserving recipient of my game of the year.

Just an FYI that today marks the two year anniversary of Toatali Reviews! Hope you’ve all enjoyed this year of content, and here’s to another year of annoyingly long reviews about pop culture! (PS. make sure to check my twitter for more of my ramblings about the past year and other shit).

Danganronpa V3

This post contains spoilers for the entire Danganronpa series. I recommend having played the games before reading this, or you won’t understand much of it. 

Recently I held a poll on my twitter as to which game I should review this month. The choices were between Danganronpa V3, a game most people had at this point moved on from, and Super Mario Odyssey, the current hot topic. I felt sure that Odyssey would win and I’d be able to spend pages upon pages praising that game on everything it does right; on what a joy it is to play; on how it revitalises the collectathon genre, the Mario series, and “open world” gaming. But, in case you hadn’t already guessed, the surprise winner of the poll was Danganronpa V3, the third entry in a series that I hadn’t really given too much critical thought to before this review.

Danganronpa is often introduced to people as an alternative to the Ace Attorney series, which is one of my favourite video game series of all time. But comparing the two does a huge disservice to Ace Attorney. Danganronpa is a pretty bad series of video games. The first game Danganronpa Trigger Happy Havoc, is really an awful game, and yet it serves as the template for the rest of the series to follow. It features 16 high school students trapped inside their school and forced to play a “Killing Game” by the robotic bear Monokuma. The killing game is an excuse to have the students conduct a series of murder mysteries, all of which are infuriatingly easy to solve, and yet needlessly drawn out by a cast of idiotic characters, none of whom are in the least likeable or fun to spend time with.

The second game, Super Danganronpa 2 Goodbye Despair is slightly more enjoyable, and the cast has one or two memorable faces in it, but it suffers the same problems in its mysteries and its confusingly terrible ending. From my description of the games, it would seem like I wouldn’t have even wanted to play Danganronpa V3, but the series isn’t without certain charms – while the writing isn’t anywhere near the standard of Ace Attorney, it has quite a lot of energy and lowest common denominator humour that, while hit or miss, is often enjoyable in the moment. The pace is infuriatingly slow during the ‘Daily life’ sections, but during the Investigations and Class Trials it picks up in a way that can make discussions feel pretty exhilarating, even if they don’t hold up under close scrutiny. So Danganronpa isn’t entirely without merits, and those bursts of enjoyment led me to pick up Danganronpa V3 Killing Harmony a few months after it came out in the UK.

Discussing V3 [as it will henceforth be referred to] is actually slightly more complicated than it might be to discuss the other games in the series, and the sole reason for this is the ending. Throughout my play through of the game, I was warned about what was apparently the most controversial ending in the series, and while I’ll save my feelings on it for later on, its nature pretty much forces me to split this review into two parts – the game as it is before the final Chapter, and the game post-final Chapter. This allows me to discuss the characters and mysteries of the game without the need for tons of qualifications etc. So, without further ado…

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Danganronpa V3 – Discussing the Prologue to Chapter 5

Much like in the original Danganronpa game, V3 starts by trapping 16 students in a school, and forcing them to take part in a killing game presided over by robot bears. Despite the series only having 3 main entries, the simplistic start is somewhat refreshing. The second game placed its students on an island, gave us two rival robo-bears, and had to deal with the baggage left by the ending of the first game. V3 initially seems as if it rids itself of the baggage of the ‘Hope’s Peak Academy’ arc, and that’s a really promising start.[1]

One of Danganronpa’s problems has always been its interest in creating some kind of huge connected dystopian alternate reality fiction, and that’s ending up distracting from the actual appeal of the games, which are the closed-circle mystery stories.[2] Of course, by Chapter 5 the game reverts to bad habits and the entire story is once again linked to the confusing mythos of Hope’s Peak Academy, which I won’t even begin to explain here because I don’t understand it myself.

The plot follows the basic structure of the first Danganronpa to almost a fault. In the first case, it’s revealed that a female character we thought was going to be important thanks to the game’s marketing (Sayaka in DR1 and Kaede in V3) is actually a murderer. The killing game then continues for a couple of chapters after that, with the third case involving a double homicide and the fifth case being a subversion of the norm due to a trick played by the killer. As the game continues, information about the outside world is drip fed to the players and the characters. Meanwhile, the game “subtly” hints at its underlying themes, before they are unceremoniously shoved into the player’s face in the concluding chapters.

V3’s themes slightly differ from the ‘hope vs despair’ of previous titles, a welcome change given how that theming was not only overused, it was also extremely confused. V3 introduces the central dichotomy of ‘truth’ vs ‘lies’, and it’s already a much easier concept to work with. Danganronpa has often confused ‘hope’ and ‘despair’ for extremely literal concepts, rather than the vague abstracts that they are. Thus, when in those games you have characters that seek to embody ideas of ‘hope’ and ‘despair’, it’s hard to understand. How is someone who is always hopeful meant to act? Can it really be justified that someone so obsessed with the idea of hope ends up committing suicide? Or even that someone obsessed with despair ends up killing themselves instead of those who are meant to be humanity’s final hope for the future?[3] Lies and truth are solid concepts. I understand how a liar is supposed to act, and it’s also a theme that fits so much better with a game about solving mysteries.

Now, the bulk of the exploration of these themes comes in the game’s finale, but they are present in the main game. Lies become a part of the gameplay with the perjury feature, but are also explored within the conclusion and motives to the murder cases. The truth is shown to often be more painful than the lie, for example, the truth that Kaede is the killer ends up being the painful moment that kickstarts Shuichi’s own development. But the obvious example is the motive of Case 4, that Gonta found the truth so painful it spurred him to kill Miu for Kokichi, and then cover up the murder so that everyone would die rather than find out the truth of the outside world. In Case 5, this is also important; Shuichi finding the truth fucks up Kokichi’s suicide plan and his plan to end the game through confusing Monokuma. Finding the truth in this case invalidates Kokichi’s sacrifice and ends up killing Kaito.

The problem is that Danganronpa V3 is often confused with what it wants to say with its theming. It seems to be that lies can lead us to the truth. That’s certainly the aim of the perjury feature. This also lines up with how the revelation of Kaede’s death ends up leading Shuichi to the truth of what role he must play within the killing game. But Gonta’s motive, arguably meant to be the most impactful of the thematically important moments, doesn’t line up with this at all. Instead, the message there seems to be that the truth hurts and can lead people to do horrible things. I’ll go more into why the motive of Case 4 is ruined in other ways, but for now, it’s worth saying that while V3 has a much stronger idea for a theme than the past two games, that doesn’t mean it utilises it well, or really knows what it wants to say.

Anyway, one of the most important explorations of the theme that I haven’t talked about yet is one of the characters, so let’s segue into that topic now…

Class of 2017: The Characters of Danganronpa V3

Characters in the Danganronpa series are always pretty tricky to talk about, because it’s hard to gauge how seriously Kodaka, the series’ lead writer, wants us to take them. All are caricatures that have some tacked on backstory and are built and designed around their ‘ultimate ability’, which is the ultimate worst way to write a character you’re meant to believe in or care about. If Danganronpa didn’t want us to connect with any of the characters and just see them as stock players for the killing game who serve a dual purpose of entertainment in Daily life segments, I’d be fine with that, and in past Danganronpa games I’ve mainly skipped the free-time events so that I can treat the characters like that; pawns in the killing game, not actual people I care about. However, while that works for the most part, the game also forces you to bond with certain characters, and the more it does this, the less I connect or care about these characters. The writers of Danganronpa only know how to write in tropes and archetypes, and that may work fine for expendable background characters, but when they try and make me care about a character, those flaws in writing come to the surface.

Seeing as there are 16 students and 6 robot bears, going through the cast one by one would be a pointless and boring endeavour, so instead I’ll highlight a few characters that I thought worked, and some that I thought didn’t.

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The Serviceable Characters of Danganronpa V3

Looking back at the game, there’s only a few characters I was ever actually happy to see pop up, and one of them is Monokuma (and, by extension, the Monokubs seeing as they serve the same purpose). There isn’t that much to say about Monokuma and the kubs, but their arrival is mainly for exposition and comedy, as well as a blast of their great leitmotif. None of their jokes are particularly laugh out loud funny, but a constant onslaught of bad puns and surreal physical humour is a pretty good recipe for creating some kind of comedic atmosphere.

As a comedy nerd, I might take this juncture as an excuse to talk about the comedy of Danganronpa. To call it lowest common denominator is an insult to the lowest common denominator, and when comedy is used by most of the cast it often comes out of nowhere and is extremely unfunny, sometimes veering on offensive. Miu Iruma is basically the worst example of this; her constant sex jokes weren’t funny to begin with and start to become cringe-worthy as the game continues. I feel genuinely embarrassed on the behalf of the voice actor who had to say, out loud “someone finally called me a cum dumpster”. Another character is basically a walking “caricature” of feminists, but is so far removed from reality that it misses any sort of satirical mark that it might have been aiming for. What’s worse is the way these comic moments are presented, springing out of nowhere from characters in relatively serious situations and for no real reason. The art of comedic timing has not been gifted to the Danganronpa writers. That said, Monokuma and the Monokubs do work, comedy wise.

While the bears were the only characters I was happy to see, I will shout out Shuichi for being a perfectly serviceable protagonist character… for the most part. Being a visual novel protagonist normally means sacrificing anything but the most basic of character development in order to maintain ‘relatability’ with the audience. Danganronpa at least attempts to subvert this slightly by giving Shuichi some rushed development in Case 1, while he’s an NPC. In this case he realises his responsibility as an ‘Ultimate Detective’ in a killing game; falls in love, and most importantly, learns how to take off his stupid hat.

While Shuichi is fine to play as, think about his role in the game too hard and it ceases to make much sense at all. Shuichi is the ‘Ultimate Detective’, and that’s a dangerous role to have in a killing game, especially as a protagonist. The previous protagonists were both talentless, which means that it didn’t make much sense that in the class trials all eyes were on them.[4] In V3, at least, it makes sense that you’re leading the class trials. The writers have also made it so that the characters have motives that mean they probably wouldn’t be aiming to kill Shuichi; that they’re aiming for the mastermind; that Ryoma is the character with no desire to live; that they need to kill a girl; that Miu is about to kill them first and that Kokichi is an asshole. But the sneaking suspicion is still there that certain characters would have their lives made a lot easier if they’d tried to kill the Ultimate Detective as opposed to one of the idiots who contribute nothing to uncovering the murderer.

The biggest problem Shuichi’s talent creates is that, despite the game telling you he’s really clever, he’s an absolute idiot who takes way too long to notice incredibly obvious things. I’ll go over this more when I talk about the mysteries in the game, but there are certain pieces of evidence and obvious clues that Shuichi completely ignores, but that anyone with a title like ‘Ultimate Detective’ should pick up on immediately. I’m not a genius, and I’m certainly no ‘Ultimate Detective’,[5] but that I was able to solve these cases before we even got to the trial doesn’t shine a great light on Shuichi.

While we’re on the subject of protagonists, let’s talk about Kaede, the protagonist of the game for the first 7 or so hours. I can’t outright say something like ‘Kaede is a better protagonist than Shuichi’, because I’m only comparing 7 hours of playtime to 16. However, Kaede is a better protagonist than Shuichi. She’s got a pretty sensible motivation, and the kind of upbeat spirit that’s usually reserved for NPCs who are going to be killed off in a tragic way.

The sarcastic but mostly passive ‘nice guy’ protagonists of previous games (and later of V3) are generally inoffensive enough that I don’t have to think about their presence too much, but I actively enjoyed having Kaede as the protagonist of V3. I think it’s not unfair to compare her to Athena from the Ace Attorney series; a change of pace as a playable protagonist.[6] After everything though, she’s thrown away on a gimmick case, and as a way for Shuichi to get some character motivation.

If I had to suggest some way of improving the game while still keeping the twist intact, I’d have Kaede as the protagonist for more than one case; it would give her much more motivation to kill, make the twist more shocking and allow Shuichi more character development as an NPC. Sadly, unable to not have a weedy shy guy as the protagonist for more than one case, Kaede isn’t given the time in the spotlight she deserved.

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Before I talk about the characters that didn’t work, it’s worth just touching on the extended cast of V3, who I will at least admit I liked more than the casts of the previous two games. Certain characters were annoying to be around, but the general idea of some of the characters; a friendly cult leader; the creepy masked anthropologist etc were entertaining enough that they worked as cannon fodder for the game’s various murders.

I’ll give a shout-out here as well to my favourite background character Ryoma, who ends up as the butt of one of the most successful dark comedy moments in the series. Ryoma considers himself absolutely worthless and even sees himself as a potential sacrifice for the killing game, at least until he learns that Monokuma has prepared motive videos for the cast that will appeal to their reason to live in order to force them to kill to escape the school. Desperate to find his own reason for living, Ryoma goes so far as to blackmail Maki in order to get a hold of his motive video, at which point he finds out… that there’s nothing on it. At this point he allows himself to be murdered by Kirumi, which is a shame, because I found his character a refreshing change of pace for the chipper V3 cast, and the motive video twist is perhaps the funniest moment in the entire game.

The Worst Characters in Danganronpa V3

I said in my introduction to the character segment that the characters who didn’t work in Danganronpa were those that the writers wanted you to care about. For V3, those two characters are Kaito Momota and his would-be girlfriend Maki Harukawa. I can’t really say which is the worst character, but I doubt that really matters. Kaito never really pissed me off as much as he did some people, but I admit that he’s written extremely poorly. He adopts Kaede’s trait of believing in other people, and while he says this a lot, it only comes into practise in Case 4, where he arbitrarily decides that Gonta is the only one of the murderers who couldn’t have actually been the murderer, despite the fact Gonta admits it. This becomes a really arbitrary source of tension between Shuichi and Kaito which is then resolved stunningly quickly, leading me to question what the point of it was beyond turning Kaito into even more of a death flag than he already was.[7]

Aside from this blip, Kaito is pretty much a consistent nice-guy idiot throughout the game, and thus becomes a little dull. The developers don’t even have the balls to make him a proper murderer – it would have been just about believable for him to kill Kokichi, but instead he is pretty much blackmailed into it, which cheapens the twist a little. Kaito is like tinnitus – a constant source of mild annoyance, but eventually it becomes so commonplace that I sort of forget about it. It’s only when it’s pointed out to me that I start to actively dislike it, just as Kaito only becomes a problem when the writers give him something to do.

Maki fares worse with her development, even though coming at it from a point of cultural ignorance one might assume she’s one of the better written characters in the game. Starting off as a cold secretive character who talks little, she slowly befriends Shuichi and falls in love with Kaito, causing her heart to open. The problem is that this character arc is so overdone in anime it even has its own name; tsun/kuudere. But the game, despite being pretty self aware, never calls itself out on using one of the most standard character development arcs in its genre. I don’t hate all cliches or archetypes, but when it becomes impossible to separate Maki from the archetype she’s drawn from, I get bored by each of her appearances. I know exactly what’s going to happen every time she appears on screen, and yet the writers force me to spend time with her as if I’m going to be shocked that she actually has a heart of gold. I won’t go into the inherent semi-sexist problems with this trope that caused Hollywood to abandon it after the 90s, because in the end it doesn’t matter. It’s problem here isn’t just that the trope is bad, it’s that the trope is so ubiquitous that every time I see it, all I can think of is how lazy the writing is.

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As I said, I’m not going to talk about the background characters, because they’re not really begging to be analysed in the detail that the others are. But you’ll notice that one character is conspicuously missing – Kokichi Oma. I decided to give him his own paragraph because he has his own special role in the game; that of the embodiment of the key theme of ‘lies’. Basically, Kokichi is to ‘lies’ what Komeada is to ‘hope’ in DR2, except, as I mentioned before, it’s much easier to imagine what this kind of character is. He basically lies all the time.

Now, before I talk about Oma more, it’s worth noting that his character has been apparently butchered in the translation to English, and there’s already been great writing about this very subject.[8] But I can’t comment on this at all, because I played the English version, and in this version Kokichi is a total dick. Apparently it’s much easier to foresee the twist that Oma actually has a heart of gold in the original Japanese, but here it comes out of the blue, and is handled kind of poorly. Outside of some meta reasoning, you’d be hard pressed to show that Kokichi actually cared about the cast, because while his end game actions show that he wanted to end the killing game, and that he was actually just a leader of the Mischief Makers, nothing he says, nor much that he does, would lead any reasonable person to the conclusion that underneath it all he’s a good guy.

But personally, I wouldn’t have it any other way. First of all, Kokichi’s true intentions are always hidden from the player, pretty much up until the end. You can interpret it any way you like, and I think that’ kinda fun. It also has a bit of synergy with the post credits sting, even if it doesn’t sync up too well with the idea of lies being useful. The thing is though, he’s really fun. During trials, he’s the one I was waiting to speak up, because he brings a sense of energy to the proceedings by continually messing with the trials and the player’s mind. Most of Danganronpa’s supporting casts are idiots in the trials, so Kokichi actually presenting a bit of a challenge is cool. Plus, his role as ‘that guy who’s always lying’ means that it makes some sense when he withholds the information he has – unlike the Ultimate Detective in the first game.

So yeah, the most important thing about Kokichi Oma is that he’s fun. It’s fun to watch him insult the other characters, it’s fun to see him lie, it’s fun to have him being tricky in class trials. Even if he doesn’t work thematically as well in the English version, he still ends up my favourite character in the game.

And Then There Were Five Cases

We’re now going to quickly run through the actual murder mysteries of the game, which are, in short, fine. In hindsight, separating this section from the plot part of the review doesn’t make a huge lot of sense, but what’s done is done.

Case One is essentially a gimmick case, but at least it’s a gimmick I’ve wanted to see in playable mystery fiction for a while. Ace Attorney is way too wedded to its main characters to ever do anything like this, so Danganronpa with its preference for shock value over character development was always the series try and pull off the protagonist being the murderer. It’s certainly an impactful surprise half way through the class trial, and while I worked out parts of the murder method, I was too blind to put two and two together when I was playing.[9] But anyone can make a good twist, the key is in making it work, and with this kind of twist it needs to be both surprising and logical – that no clues are hidden from the player. V3 is generally alright at hiding the clues in a way that avoids it cheating, the best example being in how it shows you Kaede organising the books for her death trap. But the actual moment where she drops the ball down the vent is perhaps a bit cheap. There’s a token reference to it – Shuichi leaves before her, and the narration reads “I dropped everything… my heart was racing”, but it’s really not enough, I think; even those who are looking for clues that Kaede is the killer would overlook this section. I do think this is a better problem for the first case to have than the opposite problem that Case 2 has – that it’s all too obvious. With that said, let’s move onto that case.

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Case Two is really where the problems of Danganronpa’s core gameplay loop start to come to the forefront. In the investigation you’re given all the clues to the case, while in the trial your job is solely to put them all together. No new evidence is presented in the trial itself, which means that you can theoretically work out the solutions to each case before you even get to the trial. This isn’t an intrinsic problem, because it’s how most murder mystery novels work. In fact, you can criticise Ace Attorney for pulling a few cheap tricks to invalidate or get evidence from nowhere within its trials.

However, two problems hinder Danganronpa’s structure from working. The first is that certain pieces of evidence make the mystery way too obvious to figure out. In Case Two, it’s the ropes and the black bit of glove found in the pool. This is the worst of the case scenarios in this game, but it’s telling that the entire series has quite a few cases that have this problem. Once again, that wouldn’t be a huge problem, at least if the class trials weren’t so long. In murder mystery books, the reveal section is a couple of pages where the detective, having solved the case, lays out the entire thing in a way that those trying to solve it can check their answers, while those just sitting back can get a good surprise. But in Danganronpa, you have to go through the entire solving process yourself, often with the game forcing you to go down the wrong path. So when you know the answer but still have to go through about 2 hours of class trial, this makes what is otherwise the strongest portion of the game into a massive chore.

Before we get to Case Three, let’s rest a little and talk about free time. Loads of people have already extracted meticulously the problems with Danganronpa’s free time events, but allow me to recap.[10] Free time events allow you to spend time with the characters of your choice, exploring more into their backstory, in an effort to make you care more about them so that when they kick the bucket, you’ll (hopefully) feel worse about it.

But even if you find one or two characters in the cast that you care enough about to not just skip the free time events, they end up being pointless anyway. The game never changes dialogue within the main story events to account for the time you’ve spent with characters, so even if you’ve given Tenko a bunch of presents and cosied up to her, she’ll still act like she hates you in the main story sections. What’s more, the free time events only pay lip service to what’s happening in the plot, making it often a bit confusing why someone is talking to you about their hobbies while the world burns around you.

When you aren’t doing free time or going through the main story, the game will task you to find new areas using special items as a form of puzzle solving, but what this really is is unnecessary padding. In the old games, new areas of the school would be automatically opened to you as soon as you completed a class trial. But now, you have to match some secret item you’re given to a location in the world. This could be a chance for some clever environmental puzzles, but it actually just boils down to hunting around the school for an area that matches in theme with the item you’ve been giving. It’s too easy to be considered interesting, and too tedious to be a fun distraction.

Eventually, the group finds the cult leader Angie lying dead in a locked room, and so begins the third case. I don’t really have much to say about the core mystery here; in fact, I rather liked the way the locked room is set up, and the see-saw trick can be nitpicked to death, but is clever enough in principle.[11] I think the writers really missed a trick, however, in exploiting the loophole that comes about when two people are killed. I thought for sure that Kiyo, the obvious choice for murderer, would have only killed Tenko and not Angie, hence guaranteeing his survival and creating an interesting dynamic outside of the class trial. But nope. He killed them both. This complete missed opportunity baffled me when I played at first, and sours the whole case in hindsight.

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One thing that I (see)saw pointed out about Case Three a lot during my pre-review research was that people hated the Hangman’s Gambit mini game in this case where you had to spell out ‘SEE SAW EFFECT’. This came as quite a surprise to me, because I assumed everyone already hated all the mini games in Danganronpa.

Look, I want to say that I really love lots about V3’s class trials. The style is fantastic; the music is top notch and the core debate mini game is great. The core debate game is basically a timed version of the Ace Attorney cross examination system with some added pressure of having to aim your evidence at the objectionable words.[12] Occasionally the game will cover up words with “white noise”, which takes the form of other words or phrases you have to shoot out of the way, although in this game they’re never fully covering up the phrase you have to shoot to proceed, meaning that they act as more of a hint than a hinderance. V3 does build on the idea of white noise with Mass Panic Debates, but these again often only utilise the shouty bits when covering up the phrase you have to shoot, marking it out.

Further complicating the core debate mini-game is the inclusion of ‘perjury’ – in order to continue one of the game’s themes of lies being helpful to getting to the truth, the case will often require you to lie to proceed. These moments are telegraphed to hell and back, but I nicely found out after beating the game that you can unlock optional routes by lying even when the game doesn’t tell you too. However, the lie system can be a bit confusing; as one reviewer pointed out; “you can’t check lie bullets. While the opposite of “Kaede said she ate the sandwich” might be obvious, the “opposite” of more complex pieces of evidence is not.”[13] So I’m not going to call the new perjury feature an unqualified success, but it never distracted from the core satisfying gameplay of the debates.

What does distract from the debates, however, are the mini-games, which V3 sadly has in abundance. The worst is by far the aforementioned Hangman’s Gambit, which now has been made worse with the addition of a blackout section. The problem with Hangman’s Gambit isn’t just the annoying gameplay but also the fact that since the second game you basically have to start reading the developer’s minds; while in the first game the answer would usually be a simple piece of evidence which you would probably know before going in, now, even if you know how the murder was committed, you have to work out that the developer is trying to say ‘SEE SAW EFFECT’, as if that’s the obvious phrase.

The main new addition game is Psyche Taxi, which is actually just a reworked version of the surfing mini game from DR2. I’m not opposed to this in principle; I love the Ace Attorney Thought Route system, which allows you to work out the answer to big unexpected twists in a stylish way. If anything, Psyche Taxi stands to improve on that by penalising you for answering incorrectly. But it takes so long as to sap any enjoyment out of it. You first have to collect a bunch of letters to spell out the question, and only then are you allowed to answer it. It’s so much of a pace-breaker that the writers are keen to not put it anywhere too climactic. But then at that point what’s the point in going through something that tedious if it’s not going to be the cool major breakthrough of the case?

But I think there’s something else about Psyche Taxi that highlights another flaw in the mini-game system. What are mini-games for? Psyche Taxi, like the Thought Route, is there to facilitate you working out a solution to a complex question by guiding you to it through other easier questions. But it’s the only mini-game that is there to help you work something out. The other mini-games assume you know the answer already, so then the whole thing is just a tedious time waster so that you can say something you already know or present evidence you already have. In Ace Attorney, mini games like the Mood Matrix or the Divination Seance might not be perfect, but at least they have a point; to allow you to uncover new evidence. The mini games in Danganronpa are pointless time wasters, and the only one that is in the service of helping the player work something out takes a stupid amount of time.

Now that we’ve dissected the gameplay, let’s return to the cases, and this time it’s Case Four, which has a really interesting set-up. It’s not a new idea for the Danganronpa universe, for the group to be relocated to another location with its own rules, but I’m always a fan of when Danganronpa utilises its freedom from the restrictions of realism to provide some interesting set-ups for murder. It’s a shame then, that the central “trick” of the virtual world is easy enough to work out during the investigation section, and then is frustrating when the class trial takes so long to get to the revelation that is pretty much obvious from one fact; the way the sign moved. As I mentioned previously, the best part of the case is Kokichi, who basically steps in and starts messing with the rest of the group there by giving away his murder plan, while the others try and work out if he’s crying wolf.

Both cases three and four, however, have a major problem with motive. Case Three’s motive is just batshit insane, and I’m still really unsure if I’m meant to take it at all seriously. In Case Four, the motive problems are more egregious. The fact that Gonta is the murderer is known to computer Gonta, but not to real Gonta. This is done, I assume, so that we, the audience, still feel for Gonta despite him having killed Miu. However, it has the unintended consequence of taking out all the impact from his pretty interesting motive. Wouldn’t it have been so much more interesting and more of an emotional gut-punch if kindly Gonta had been driven to so much despair by the truth that he not only killed Miu, but hid this throughout the trial. Instead, it’s not even really Gonta who killed Miu, but some crazy laptop Gonta, who may or may not even be the same person as the real Gonta. It’s a strange decision that undermines what I imagine the game was going for.

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Case Five is my favourite in the game, mainly because it plays like a better version of DR2-5, my favourite case in that game. In DR2, the case was trivialised by Komaeda’s luck superpowers, as well as a few other strange inconsistencies. The trick in this case is that the murderer and the victim are both unknown by Monokuma, and thus the killing game is broken, and cannot continue. It’s a really neat trick, and the case bottles along at enough of a pace that you don’t start to question some of the inconsistencies like… why am I solving the case at all, especially if Kokichi’s plan would help the group in the long run, or the convenience of the Exisal with a voice changer and a script written by Kokichi.

I think overall the mysteries in this game are… fine. Not one is perfect, but they all have their highlights, and most hold up when playing them, even if not so well in hindsight. I’m not the king of mystery analysis, and I await eagerly the full breakdown of these mysteries from a more dedicated critic, but I think that during gameplay I was only ever really bored by them occasionally, and I’ve pointed out the most egregious cases of this already. They’re certainly stronger than the mysteries in the previous two games, but they suffer from a feeling of familiarity that irked me a bit. The final mystery I have to talk about, however, comes in Case Six, so let’s now head to the second half of this critique.

End of an Era: The Ending of Danganronpa V3

To borrow a phrase from the youtuber ‘CE53’ whose reviews I recommended earlier in the post, previous Danganronpa endings have always had a “conflict of scope”, which means that although the key narrative focuses on a cast of 16 students, the scope of the ending widens out to include a situation which has affected the entire world. These endings were confusing and inconsistent with the events we had been playing for, and they are understandably pretty much universally derided for this.

I think before we go into discussing the ending of V3, it’s worth having a little PSA about the effect of ret-cons. No matter your opinion on the ending of V3, which creates a situation wherein the events of Hope’s Peak Academy never happened, it shouldn’t affect your opinions on the other two games. A retcon changes the status quo for future stories, but no matter the creator’s intention, it does not effect the quality of past instalments. The endings of the first two Danganronpa games may now be “non-canon”, but I still had to sit through that trainwreck, so they aren’t off the hook. The same sort of applies to the other 5 cases in V3, which is why I split this review up. Yes, it’s easy to say that shoddily written characters “is the point”, that recycled mysteries “is the point”, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t spend a good chunk of my life having to play through a game with bad characters and recycled ideas for mysteries.

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With that out of the way, let’s talk a little about the case that precedes the first twist and the reveal of the mastermind. The actual case itself is serviceable; running around the school under a time limit is a bit annoying, and I’m not quite sure how to feel about the fact that said time limit ends up not meaning anything, but it gives the case a little bit of a kick up the arse, so there’s that. I like the idea of having a retrial for the first case as well, especially as it manages to address the issue of how conveniently Kaede’s plan worked out (which is something they could have easily never brought up). That said, the mastermind is a little obvious. Tsumugi has done nothing throughout the entire game, and any character who literally calls themselves “plain” is automatically a huge red flag.

Junko Enoshima may be one of the worst written video game villains, but as a twist, she’s pretty good. It’s not out of nowhere, but she’s someone we haven’t thought about in a while, and she’s not a participant in the killing game, which would have been too risky. Tsumugi is predictable, but she’s also a participant in the killing game, which is a real risk for a mastermind. It’s unclear as to how much the killing game is plotted beforehand, but there seems to be an element of spontaneity to it, and Tsumugi wouldn’t have been immortal; were Kiyo to go for her in his hunt for a girl to kill, she couldn’t have stopped him without giving the game away.

If Tsumugi is a bit of a disappointing reveal, the twist that comes afterwards is anything but. I realise that I’m going to be lambasted by both fans of the series and those who hate it, but I liked the ending of V3. If by any chance you’ve gotten this far without having played the game, or need a refresher, the ending boils down to this; the whole game takes place inside a reality TV show version of Danganronpa in an alternate future where the Danganronpa game series has become so popular it has been turned into a ‘Purge’ style reality tv series where contestants sign up for the chance to participate in the killing game, which is on its 53rd instalment (hence the V3). Oh yeah. We’re talking meta here.

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I think we should start by comparing this ending to the endings of the other games, and we’ll find some immediate strengths. While Tsumugi might be a worse twist than Junko, as a character she’s much better. Junko is an awful evil villain, because she’s evil for the sake of it; her Ultimate ability is the “Ultimate Despair”, which means nothing and explains nothing about why she does what she does, other than that she’s a psychopath. Not everything she does even lines up with that sole character trait, however, so not even her one motivation is consistent. Tsumugi, however, is a cog in the machine named “Team Danganronpa”, and their goals are simple and understandable; to sustain the killing game for an audience who enjoy watching it. It’s basically the Truman Show, and like that film, the motivations of sustaining a show for an audience fascinated in real human behaviour under abnormal circumstances, is something I can understand, as opposed to “because the villain loves despair”. I think there’s a bit of ham-fistedness in the way that those watching the show are called “the real masterminds”, but in a situation such as this, that’s the inevitable conclusion to draw, and I wouldn’t expect anything but ham-fistedness from Danganronpa handling that scene. So I think it should be clear that, in its simplicity, the ending of V3 is miles better than what came before. But that’s a very low bar to clear, so why do I actively like the ending so much?

Part of it is certainly that I like meta twists; they’re fun, and I think a lot of people put too much weight on them. Using meta doesn’t mean you have to have a point to it; meta can be employed simply because it’s an entertaining twist for an entertaining game, and I think that’s why I enjoy it here. People are more touchy about self-critical meta (also known as “lampshading”), and I actually agree with this wholeheartedly. It’s not an excuse for awful characters and a bad villain that “it’s because the fans lap it up and we know we’re lazy, you’ll just enjoy it anyway”. But you already know I don’t like lampshading; it’s why I split this post up into two parts so I could fully criticise the game without even mentioning the game’s criticisms of itself.

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Here’s the nub of it though; I don’t have enough respect for Danganronpa for me to get angry that the game shrugs its shoulders and gives up at the end. To me, Danganronpa is an inconsequential safe space in which a bored writer can live out his meta fantasies. Free from the restraint a story with any weight, Kodaka can basically say ‘fuck it’ to his work of the past 7 years and create a wonky, but ultimately really fun ode to meta. This isn’t some great work of fiction, but it shows that meta doesn’t have to be used to make some grandiose statement, but also just for a bit of fun. I think the execution leaves something to be desired; it takes much too long, and occasionally lapses into taking itself too seriously, which only highlights the flaws in the game’s writing. But… and I know this is a cop-out; it’s fun. It plays with the themes of the game in a way that makes sense; lies vs truth, fiction vs reality. It spins twist after twist, all of which are fun to figure out and hear and it’s also a cathartic destruction of a confusing lore for a bad series. In a way, I feel like Kodaka realised his mistakes with the previous two games in the series and decided to just take them apart in the most fun way he could think of; like realising a SimCity town you’ve spent ages on is fundamentally flawed, and then setting the dinosaurs and UFOs on it.

I did say earlier that the final chapter is where the themes of the games were really pushed onto the player, and this is true of V3’s ending as well. Because everything in the game has been a lie; the characters are just fake memories with fake personalities; none of the Hope’s Peak Academy backstory or connections are real and the earth is still there. I think the game gets a bit confused at this point, because much of K1-B0’s final speech is about how fiction has the power to influence reality. This is fine, but I’m not sure it’s the right message to go with what’s happening in the game. Instead, I think that what the game is trying to convey is that even though the game is fiction and the memories are fake, that doesn’t fully invalidate them; what happened during V3 still happened to those characters, even if their memories are false. There’s a subtle distinction there. One is that ‘fiction has the power to influence reality’ and the other is questioning what the boundaries between the two even are. I think that this is a nugget of really interesting philosophy buried within the ending, and even if it isn’t fully explored within the game itself, it’s worth mentioning.

One question that leaves me with is how you should treat Danganronpa. The game often treats itself seriously, and I think Kodaka did actually want me to care about Maki and Kaito, and to take a message about fiction away from the ending. When the game wants me to take it seriously, that’s when I realise how bad it is. But in a series that includes robot bears and where each character is defined in-game by their caricatures, I can’t take it all too seriously, and I think that works in its favour. As a critic, this pains me, because I think that the idea of “switching your brain off” or the idea of letting something get off the hook for bad writing is a harmful idea. But Danganronpa has done that to me. It has broken my deep set beliefs that every work of art should be judged in the same way, under the same criteria, and with the same scrutiny. I hope in this post I’ve managed to level enough criticism at the game, but I also need to be honest as a reviewer, and say that I did really enjoy the ending.

With all that in mind, I think it’s time for

The Conclusion

Danganronpa V3 is not a good game. It’s the best instalment in a fundamentally broken series, and yet it still gets a lot wrong. It has badly written characters, and mediocre mysteries, and it further helps to ruin one of the series’ only consistently enjoyable elements; the class trials. But I can’t say that its ending, a brazen rejection of all that came before from a writer clearly fed up with his own work, isn’t at all cathartic. Were this a series I got more out of than occasional enjoyment value in its bonkers mysteries, bizarre sense of humour and sometimes fun characters, then I might have different things to say about this ending, but for pure enjoyment value it worked for me. So I think in the end, all I want you to take away from this long rambling essay is that Super Mario Odyssey is probably a contender for one of the greatest games of all time, certainly of this year. Its short but continuously inventive story campaign introduces the beautiful and content rich mini open worlds that are then expanded on in the seemingly limitless post game, but most importantly, it’s extremely enjoyable in the way only a Mario game can be.


 

[1]  I have yet to watch the anime which concludes that arc, but while the game mentions it, knowledge of it isn’t required. I have, however, played the abysmal spin-off title ‘Ultra Despair Girls’, although again, this isn’t required playing.

[2] You could argue for a while about what the actual appeal of the games are, and it’s true that it varies hugely from person to person, but while there are boat loads of high-school sims and dystopian YA novels/games, there’s very few closed circle murder sims out there.

[3] I can only imagine how confused this makes those reading this who haven’t played Danganronpa, but I can assure them I also have no idea what I’m talking about.

[4] Especially in DR1, where the Ultimate Detective there had pretty much always solved the case before the trial even started.

[5] For proof, please check out my podcast Murder at Podcast Manor (on iTunes now (sorry for the shameless plug))

[6] Athena is a much more problematic and unnecessary character than Kaede, but I will maintain that she feels like a stark change of inner monologue compared to Phoenix and Apollo.

[7] My favourite reddit comment refers to Kaito as “more death flag than man”

[8] https://pastebin.com/nASSfuLK < this contains the specific post, but the source is http://oumakokichi.tumblr.com/

[9] This is a good point to mention that I won’t really be nitpicking the cases for predictability in hindsight, mainly because my post style falls somewhere between critical analysis and personal experience, and here I’m leaning on the personal experience. This is partly so I don’t have to do the work, and partly because I think that I’m reasonably well versed in detective fiction, so that if something escaped me it would escape the average player. Nitpicking isn’t also really where I get my kicks, or something I’m very good at (although I appreciate it when others do it). But I’m more than willing to admit I’ve missed out some key plot holes, and I’m sure some obliging people will point out what I’ve missed in the comments.

[10] I implore everyone with the time to watch CE53’s series on Danganronpa

[11] I’ll resign my nitpicking to down here for now – despite the fact that the characters should be able to hear everything going on in this tiny room, the players only hear Kiyo stamping on the board, when we should also be able to hear him moving around given that he’s singing, and probably we should hear him rubbing salt on the floor.

[12] I would say added pressure came from the timers, but it really doesn’t.

[13] https://bp-reviews.blogspot.co.uk/2017/05/new-danganronpa-v3-v3.html

 

Top 5 TV Shows of 2017

It’s December, which means it’s the season to reflect on the year and assign an arbitrary number to the things you liked over the past 12 months. This year, I’m splitting up my lists in order to tantalise my readers, and give me more things to post this month. (I’m still working on my review of Danganronpa V3, which should hopefully be out sometime next week). I’ve decided to start with TV shows, because no new TV shows are coming out or ending this month that will bump anything off this list. If Black Mirror Series 4 ends up surprise dropping just after I post this, then so be it, but other than that, the TV season is over for this year. I’ve also extended the boundary to mean that old shows can now appear on this list, meaning I’m ranking it by season, not simply first season, which I thought was a bit limiting. Anyway, with that rambling out of the way, let’s continue.

Honourable Mentions

I didn’t have any of these last year, but 2017 has been so fantastic for media (perhaps compensating for other deficiencies) that all my lists now need this. I guess I’ll start by shouting out the last thing to be bumped off my list – Nirvanna The Band The Show, which aired two excellent seasons this year despite not even being on my radar until it was half way through the second season. It’s notable for its semi-documentary stylings, wherein the majority of the show is scripted, but chance encounters with ordinary people often change the direction of the episode’s plot. It’s also got a really nice relaxed and unique style of comedy that comes with the improvised nature of the show. It’s hard to find to watch, but worth seeking out. I think Crashing also deserves a mention on here; even though it’s another “comedian makes semi-autobiographical semi-comedy show”, it really worked for me, and since we can’t watch Louie anymore, this fills in the void nicely.

There are loads more shows I’d want to talk about in detail, but because that’d make this way too long, here’s a list of what to check out for you; Lady Dynamite Series 2 (the first season made my list last year, this season is more of the same in a very good way); Curb Your Enthusiasm Series 9 (the worst season of Curb is still good TV, and it’s just nice to have Larry back); Back (basically Peep Show with beards, but who doesn’t love Peep Show?); Big Mouth (Nick Kroll and John Mulaney cartoon about puberty… somehow surprisingly touching); The Good Place (The best network show everyone is talking about); The Mick (The best network show no one is talking about) and Vice Principals, which finished its short run to become an excellent dark comedy, even if the ending didn’t blow me away.

5. On Cinema: The Trial of Tim Heidecker

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Part of what makes me love the trial season of On Cinema so much is that it’s really ambitious television. On Cinema, for those who aren’t aware, is a web series hosted by Tim Heidecker and Gregg Turkington where they review films on a scale of 1 to 5 (or is it 6?) bags of popcorn. As the series progresses, hints as to the two’s personal lives are revealed and the show becomes a mini soap opera that plays out on the set of a film review show. The On Cinema universe has even expanded to take over the twitter handles of both Tim and Gregg, as well as the creation of the band Dekkar, and a whole separate TV show Decker, created by Tim and Gregg (in character). The show’s fanbase are also an integral part of the experience, continuously in character when interacting on social media. It’s an amazing experimental miniature universe, which was bought to some kind of a culmination this year in the trial of Tim Heidecker, broadcast live over 6 days, and played amazingly straight by a cast of On Cinema regulars and some lawyers. I’m not sure if the trial itself was more captivating than watching it with the On Cinema Facebook page open, but On Cinema has only ever partly been about the show, and has grown to encapsulate the fan base. Even so, the trial stands out as great television, with some classic courtroom drama and pretty hilarious cringe comedy. Without the fans, this might land only in my honourable mentions of the year, but On Cinema wouldn’t exist without its fanbase. Now, if you’ll excuse me…

Even putting aside my bias as a Gregghead, this trial was a total SHAM and a mockery of the legal system. It’s obvious to everyone with half a brain that Tim meddled behind the scenes here – he paid off witnesses for fuck’s sake! Also, that Star Trek writer was completely misguided, and Tim was leading the witness anyway. What a disgrace…. but at least we can now focus back on what matters, the movies.

4. Trial and Error

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I talked in my Office post, as well as in my review of The Good Place, how much of a Michael Schur fan I am. In Parks and Recreation, Brooklyn Nine Nine and The Good Place, he’s crafted three worlds that are a pleasure to inhabit, with extremely likeable characters and comedy that is relaxing and laugh out loud funny. Many shows have attempted to crib his style, but the one that comes the closest is for sure sure this year’s Trial and Error. I think it succeeds in aping Schur’s style mainly by not trying. The town of East Peck bares a passing resemblance to Pawnee, but its local customs have more of the absurdist comedy of a Fey/Carlock show. The show also has much more of a running plot than any of Schur’s shows, even The Good Place. Because of its courtroom setting (I’m sensing a trend), the show has much more of a narrative thrust, which gives it a great sense of pacing and light tension to the comedy. But although the comedy of the background is absurdist, and the narrative is pushed to the forefront, the character comedy that defines a Schur show is replicated brilliantly here – even though each character is a joke, they’re a joke with real heart, and that’s the essence of a truly great single cam ensemble comedy. I hope I’m not diminishing the show’s unique charms by constantly comparing it to Schur’s shows, but given that Schur is my favourite comedy tv show creator working at the moment, it’s high praise indeed.

3. Review: The Final Season

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I’ve written extensively about this season of Review already, and its place as only #3 on this list should give you an idea of how amazing this year was for television. Review, is, after all, still my favourite TV show… ever. And this final season, despite its short length, wrapped it up admirably. I think the final episode ranks among this year’s best episodes of TV, but the preceding two episodes felt slightly as if they were in service of setting up for that finale, and as such they make the whole season a little worse. (To continue the courtroom theme, while justifiable, I found the way the trial wrapped up a little disappointing). Still, two mediocre episodes of Review are still two incredible episodes of television. Andy Daly’s show tracks the fall of Forrest MacNeil with the kind of dark comedy that most comedians would be terrified to touch with a ten foot pole. And he does this while still managing to craft a show that’s amazingly funny and explores ideas about criticism and what it means to have an unwavering dedication to your work. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a TV show quite like Review, and this final season, and most importantly, this final episode, ends it perfectly.

2. Master of None 

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The first season of Aziz Ansari’s Master of None was pretty good. Although Aziz Ansari isn’t a perfect actor, he’s a great comedian, and much of his best material translated well to a tv show. Some episodes in the first season went above and beyond, but often they were a bit meandering, a bit unmemorable – not funny enough to make the mundane watchable, but with not enough to say that the comedy wouldn’t be missed. The second season immediately injects the show with a bit of energy by constructing a loving ode to Italian cinema – beautifully shot and lightly funny, with a plot that sets up perfectly Dev’s struggle in love during the second season. As it progresses, each episode does something unique and memorable, and even the more “mundane” of the episodes are bolstered by a strong ongoing plot. Episodes like “Thanksgiving”; “First Date” and “New York, I Love You” distract from the central love affair between Dev and Francesca, but are strong enough to work on their own right. Meanwhile, the pivotal romance, explored in the Italy episodes, “The Dinner Party” and the two final episodes, is absolutely heartbreaking and brilliantly real. Even if Ansari isn’t the greatest actor out there, the script seems to be tailored to make his (to be generous) “naturalistic” performance shine. What’s more, the series’ signature sense of style is played up to the fullest, with an excellent soundtrack and visual direction. A jump in quality and confidence this severe is always heartening to see, and even if Master of None doesn’t return for a third season (which, given the ambiguity of the final shot, I hope it doesn’t), it makes me anxious to see Ansari’s next project.

1. Nathan For You

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Nathan For You has always had a special place in my heart as the counterpart to Review that I found delivered more laughs out loud, but was, at least in my eyes, always in the shadow of its Comedy Central companion (I do realise how arbitrary the comparison is, but I’m not the only one to have made it). Finally, with the fourth season, it has surpassed it. To be more precise, two episodes really make this season shine above the rest. That’s not to say other episodes weren’t great; they played out as “standard” Nathan For You episodes, meaning they delivered lots of laughs and great moments, but weren’t quite groundbreaking. However, “The Anecdote” and “Finding Frances” rank as two of the best episodes of television I’ve seen in a long time – good enough to catapult this season of Nathan For You to the top of an excellent year for TV. I can’t say much about “The Anecdote”, because to do so would be to ruin the surprise, but it is the perfect blend of hilarity and really clever humour, capitalising on the pre-release hype of the fans in a genius way. “Finding Frances”, the series finale, turns from classic laugh-out-loud Nathan For You schemes into a touching exploration of love that plays with the boundaries of the show’s reality TV format to genuinely profound effect. The final shot, which uses a drone to reveal the cameras that have been filming the entire show, is lent a huge poignancy by the people on whom it focuses. Again, I don’t want to spoil anything about this episode, but I don’t really see any way Nathan For You could improve on it. If this ends up being the show’s final season, it will have gone out not only on a personal high, but on a high for all reality TV.

So that’s my favourite TV of the year. The other two lists (films and games) will come out over the course of December, but before that will be the V3 review, so look forward to that!