Danganronap Decadence contains the existing trilogy of Danganronpa 1, 2, and 3, as well as the all-new Danganronpa S: Ultimate Summer Camp. I’m not going to review the three numbered games again. I’ve already written my piece on each of those with their respective Vita releases (read my reviews of D1, D2 and D3). What’s more, for good measure, I re-reviewed the first two on their PlayStation 4 release. I’ve written all I feel like I need to in review of these games, but suffice to say that I absolutely love them, they’re some of my favourite games of all time, and as they were some of my earlier visual novels they were also directly responsible for why the genre has grown on me to become my most beloved after the JRPG itself.
What I’m going to do in this review is muse on the new one, Danganronpa S: Ultimate Summer Camp, though the score at the bottom will reflect the value of the entire collection. Ultimate Summer Camp is very, very different. As anyone who has played a Danganronpa game knows, the series is founded around the idea of bringing together the epitome of a particular skill (ultimate athlete, ultimate detective, ultimate chef, etc), and pitching them in death games to see if despair can override their capabilities and sense of hope. Ultimate Summer Camp itself deserves to be a contestent in these games, for it is the Ultimate Fan Service.
I mean this on a couple of levels. Firstly, I do mean fan service in the typical way that we do when we talk about it in the anime and games space: highly sexualised versions of favourite characters. Danganronpa has always been a character-driven experience, and I have the figure of Kirigiri sitting proudly on my work table to prove it. Ultimate Summer Camp wastes absolutely no time whatsoever in giving you a key art CG of these characters in swimwear, and the game subsequently makes some of the most important rewards that of your favourite characters in those kits. Within the game, you’re only ever treated to visual novel-style portraits of these characters, and it seems like something of a missed opportunity to not give players more CG art or even posable 3D models for a photo mode. Dead or Alive would have done that. But, nonetheless, Summer Camp lets me enjoy Kirigiri wearing very little, with no serious death games involved, and as a fan, I consequently do indeed feel serviced.
To make this clear: where the “proper” entries in the Danganronpa series do stray into anime humour, the occasional upskirt for a dollop of sexualisation, and has a colourfully sadistic bear, this is a series with a lot of intellect behind it. For just some examples: it canvases the economic Game Theory as applied to moral situations to a complexity rarely seen in video games, that bear has some meta-subversion going on since it was voiced by the same actor that made Doraemon the most wholesome character that generations of Japanese kids grew up with, and much of the humour belies a cynicism and sarcasm that uses caricatures to blistering effect. It’s perhaps a little too linear and “clean” to be a truly surrealist piece or part of the dada tradition, but Danganronpa 1, 2, and 3 do align with a particularly thoughtful kind of intelligence and surrealistic subversion, and that was my initial attraction to the series. Ultimate Summer Camp, meanwhile, being the (deliberately) vapid fan service experience, has none of that. And that’s okay.
Actually, no, I should mention that it has one joke about Keynesian economics. It’s a good one too. That aside though, Ultimate Summer Camp really does very little to extend the characters or the thought behind the Danganronpa universe. The concept behind it is that everyone’s been drawn into a VR simulation where nothing they do ultimately matters (we’re told that they’re in training, but since we never see the payoff, that promise comes off as every bit the nonsense that it was intended). The characters, meanwhile, have very brief little narrative arcs within this world, and that’s to affirm who they are, rather than deepen our understanding of them or extend their stories.
This too is a kind of fan service. Rather than risk coming across something we don’t like about our favourite characters, Summer Camp simply lets us enjoy them in a very non-confronting matter. We roll the dice, move them around the board, enjoy their fun little interactions with the other characters, and eventually move on to the next favourite character. The only people that will really enjoy this are those that have played the previous four games (including the spin-off, Ultra Despair Girls, which is a really strange omission from the Decadence collection), but for those people, the references, in-jokes, and even the adorable little sprites that represent the characters on the game board, are a delight.
That game board is a fascinating little thing in its own right. Summer Camp gives you a single-player board game to play, where for 51 turns you’ll do as mentioned: roll dice, move around the board, power up, fight monsters and bosses with a Dragon Quest-style combat system, and enjoy fun interactions with the other characters. It’s not to compete with other players (either AI or human) as you might expect from the board game format, however. At the end of those 51 turns, however powerful you’ve managed to make your character, those stats become “locked in”, and that character becomes a “card” that you can take into the second gameplay mode; the monster tower. In the tower you form a party of four characters, and fight wave after wave of enemy for some big loot rewards. Most of the game’s treasure comes from this mode. What do you spend the treasure on? Gacha stores, predominantly, where you can unlock new character costumes (including those absolutely delicious swimsuit versions), and items and power boosts that will help them power-up more quickly the next time you drop into the board game.
If this sounds like a grind-heavy gameplay loop, that’s because it unashamedly is, but I found that the rewards and progress came quickly enough that I was never itching to spend real money on the gacha (unfortunately you can do that, but the fact it’s a purely single-player game will hopefully dissuade people from doing so). As grindy as it is, however, it’s also very enjoyable. The map is much too large to have any hope of exploring it all at first, but as you unlock more items and characters you’ll find yourself making more – and greater – progression with every run. The board is nicely designed, and through the events and encounters start to repeat too quickly, the effect that they have is nicely varied, to make the randomisation a replayable challenge to overcome.
The RPG combat mechanics that were added to Summer Camp are great as well, and perfectly fit the theme of the game. When you land on a “monster” or “boss” square you’ll need to fight some derivative of the Monokuma aesthetic, using a combination of skills and attacks to take them down. There’s not much complexity to this combat system (most characters can only take a couple of skills into battle), but it’s a lot of fun nonetheless, and the scaling challenge is enough to keep you on your toes from start to finish.
To be blunt, I would never call Ultimate Summer Camp a deep or important game, but it is pure, undiluted fun. It’s not trying to be deep or smart, but rather a bubbly-light bit of nonsense with a healthy dollop of fan service, and it delivers that with some spot-on delivery. Think of this as a reward for making your way through the 60-odd hours it takes to get through the Danganronpa series and the relatively serious and deep-thinking themes that those three titles explore. After that, you deserve a reward, and as a positive foil to them, this is the perfect delivery mechanism. So don’t judge this in isolation. Consider that Danganronpa Decadence contains all those other games as well, and that you really ought to have played through them all before even stepping into the joy of this thing, making the overall collection the best that has been released on the Nintendo Switch to date.
Also, Kirigiri is in a bikini. A skimpy little string black bikini. If this is the end of the Danganronpa series (and there’s a strong reason for us to believe it is), that’s going out in the best possible way.
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