When I describe Danganronpa to people, I usually start with the murder part. The series' main draw is its battle royale-style killing game, its participants high school students trapped in a school (or an island, in the case of Danganronpa 2) and unable to contact the outside world. The game master is a sentient teddy bear named Monokuma, and he tells them that if they want to leave, they have to get away with murder. But, if they're caught red-handed, they'll be executed, leaving the innocent ones to survive and continue the killing game.
Solving each murder in Danganronpa's bizarre, darkly funny world has always been my favorite thing about the games. But the mysteries extend beyond the murders to the fate of the outside world, the truth of the killing game, and whether hope can truly defeat despair. While the first two games are mostly light on details about the world at large, Danganronpa V3: Killing Harmony focuses much more heavily on the bigger-picture questions. A surprising twist in the first case is followed by a series of rather lukewarm murders, but they're a slow setup for greater mysteries that lead to a fantastic and unpredictable ending.
Like the first two games, V3 is divided into chapters, each with visual novel storytelling, first-person exploration of the school grounds, a murder investigation, and a trial. It takes a while to get to the first murder, mostly because the students need time to wrap their heads around the killing game, and there's a lot of back-and-forth as they decide what to do. Of course, that also gives you time to get to know the characters and figure out which ones are suspicious (or most likely to die). Once each murder happens, you're launched into a point-and-click investigation, where you gather evidence in the form of "truth bullets" that you can use to literally shoot down contradictions and false statements during the ensuing trial.
Mechanically, Danganronpa is a bit all over the place. It looks best in its dialogue sequences and while exploring its 2D environments, its characters like cardboard cutouts that follow you wherever you look. 3D exploration is a bit more janky, reminiscent of an old corridor shooter. But the trials, especially, mix in a series of minigames and a ton of instructions designed to help you select answers. An anagram game has you spell out murder weapons or methods; a driving game cleverly called Psyche Taxi has you drive over letter pickups to form questions; the debate sections have you shooting down "white noise" statements to clear the path for your truth bullets. It's a lot, but it's charming in its weirdness and gets easier to handle with practice.
The biggest addition to trials is the ability to lie. Holding down triangle will convert your truth bullet into its opposite--for example, you can take the truth bullet containing someone's lack of an alibi and turn it into a lie claiming you saw them, if you don't think they're the culprit. The idea is to use lies to direct the debate toward the truth, and it adds another dimension to the trials that keeps you on your toes.
Danganronpa's murder cases are always extra bizarre in some way, and that often comes from its eccentric cast of characters. Each has an "Ultimate" talent, like the Ultimate Detective, that drives much of their personality, though they're all deeper than that--and most are hiding something. V3 is no different. At first glance, even, V3's characters seem a lot like reskins of past ones. There's the gung-ho leader, the mysterious tsundere, one that's so creepy that it almost makes them less threatening, the pervert, and the chaotic evil lunatic. The parallels aren't just there, they're suspiciously overt, down to the over-the-top dialogue that hits anime archetypes hard. It feels off somehow.
But in true Danganronpa fashion, anything that feels wrong is almost definitely that way for a reason. The first trial is proof of that; because the characters seemed so familiar and therefore predictable, I saw the false conclusion the game was trying to lead me to and figured the twist was obvious. The actual explanation for the murder, though, completely blindsided me. It was fresh, completely changed my perception of the characters, and set the stage for a shocking, exciting series of murder mysteries. That's why the next few chapters were a bit disappointing.
Compared to the first two main games, V3 feels exceptionally long. The "daily life" sections, where you get to know everyone around the academy while you wait for another body to turn up, take up more time than they need to. Most chapters took around eight to ten hours to complete in total. The cases in the middle of the game are drawn out, the trials long and winding (though not slow or boring, at least). Even when the culprit is totally unclear, the explanations lack the revelatory feeling of the first case. There are a few standout moments, especially when revealing the hidden depth to different characters, but it mostly plateaus.
It's hard to explain why that works without spoiling the ending, but it becomes more clear when you focus less on the individual details of each case and more on everything else around them. There are a few things that still don't work regardless, like the unrelenting, grating vulgarity of one of the characters, but the things that felt almost great turned out to lead somewhere much better. The ending payoff is more satisfying for it, even if it takes 40 hours to get there.
Danganronpa V3 doesn't top the first two games overall. Its murder cases generally aren't as memorable, and its slow pace can make it feel flat in the middle. But as a sequel to those two games, it does a great job of tying the loose threads together and remaining surprising to the very end. The characters are interesting, their collective story very long but still engaging, and unraveling the mysteries of Danganronpa is ultimately satisfying--even if, at times, its unpredictability seems predictable.