The Danganronpa series wouldn’t be what it is today — ten years later — without its magenta-splattered marketing, its colourful characters, and its penchant for executing your favourites in the most brutal, heartbreaking ways. These games gained a following not only for their wackiness but for commentary on society and exploration of Hope and Despair. But in Danganronpa S: Ultimate Summer Camp, there is no killing game. Instead, the students of Hope’s Peak Academy from the three main games and spin-off are going on a virtual vacation to help hone their ‘Ultimate’ talents.
An anniversary celebration for the series, Danganronpa S has two main modes. First is Development mode, which is the bulk of the game and a hugely-expanded version of Danganronpa V3‘s Ultimate Talent Development Plan. This allows you to play through a board game with your favourite Danganronpa characters from all four games. Not everyone is present (fans of Ultra Despair Girls and the Danganronpa 3 anime might be a bit disappointed), but at the very least, all of the students from the three main killing games are playable. You have to unlock them first, though. The second is Battle mode, a huge tower where you can bring a party of characters to fight in endless RPG battles. Playing through both of these nets you Monocoins and Monomicoins, which you can spend in the School Store.
I want to touch on the School Store first because you use an in-game gacha system to unlock characters using these coins. That means that there’s a random chance to get the character you want. The three different gacha machines all have different rates, and all of them guarantee different ranks of cards. The Monomicoin machine guarantees at least the top-two tiers if you don’t get a Hype Card (a skill-boosting card for your characters) or a gift (a stat-boosting item that’s consumed on use) instead.
There are microtransactions in the game itself, but not to buy coins. Instead, if you really want that Kaito Momota U-rank card, the highest rank you can get, then you can just pay for it. The vending machine allows you to access the eShop to buy whatever card at whatever rank you want, removing the random chance. This is preferable to using real money to buy more monocoins, at least. Still, something about this system rubs me the wrong way, given Danganronpa V3‘s metatextual commentary on video games and us as spectators, especially given that you still have to pay for the base game, whether it’s part of Danganronpa Decadence or on its own.
I spent most of my time in Development mode, which is set on a giant board game analogue of Jabberwock Island. In this mode, you select a character to level up and take them around the board, beating the boss of each of the five islands. You can land on Event squares, which give you a choice of what to do for the rest of your school friends and boost your character’s stats. You can also fight enemies and level up the good old-fashioned way. Or there are Card squares that give you cards, like those that let you walk a certain number of squares or others that grant you a temporary buff for the day.
Your goal with the board game is to take as many characters around it as possible, and, at the end of 50 days (turns), you complete that character’s development and get a stone for them, and ten stones allow you to advance the story. Stones are granted based on the character and not card rank. So, if you already got Makoto’s stone while using his R rank card, you won’t get it again if you complete the board with his U rank card.
Getting multiple stones can take a long time for several reasons. Initially, figuring out where to go and where each island boss is can be a pain. Then you have to figure out how best to level your character. If you want to beat every boss, you sometimes have to rely on luck: having the right cards and unlocking the right skills by using Talent Fragments. Or just hope that Monokid and Monosuke don’t show up to steal your money, which prevents you from buying new weapons and armour.
The real draw of Danganronpa S is likely to be, for many, the unique character interactions between this colossal cast of over 60 characters. Landing on a Friendship square gifts you a cutscene between a small selection of two to four Danganronpa characters, as well as some stat bonuses. Getting the chance to see what Nagito thinks of Koichi, or how Leon will interact with Ryoma, or even how Sonia will take to Byakuya, highlights just how eclectic and fun these characters are. They’ve always been the number one appeal of the games for me and in general, so I cherished the little chats I got to have with Shuichi and Kaito and laughed as Gundham and his dark devas met with Sakura.
It makes a change seeing these kids we’ve watched go through the wringer and encounter endless despair actually be happy. And without any real consequences. But it takes a long, long time to see how many different cutscenes there are, and it’s even longer because of the time required to run through a 50-turn board game and unlock every character. What’s more, the rewards aren’t always worth it. So while I’ll take Ibuki being a goof, or Kyoko relaxing rather than flexing her detective muscles, the writing just isn’t up to speed with the main games.
And that perhaps exposes something about the Danganronpa series in general. As much as I love these big personalities, and as much as I adore seeing them interact within their respective game (or adaptation), what makes them so magnetic and amplifies their tropes is the situation they’re in. When they’re pushed so far into despair, they have to reach out for hope. You see how they come together to combat despair. I kept waiting for something more to happen or for snippets of drama to occur via the Monokubs. With the stakes as low as they are, Danganronpa S reduces these characters to their base tropes even more than they often are in the main games, with little opportunity to exist beyond them.
Once you’ve built up your characters, you can take them to the Tower of Despair in Battle mode. This 200-floor dungeon allows you to flex your strongest characters and take on groups of enemies. Every ten floors, there is a boss, and beating the boss grants you access to the next ten floors. The RPG combat is simplistic with a dungeon-crawler-style interface. Your character can attack, use skills you’ve unlocked in Development mode, such as offensive spells, healing magic, and powerful punches and kicks, or build up their Awaken meter to boost any attack they have.
Characters have one of three alignments, which indicates what they specialise in. Sports type characters are better with physical attacks, Intelligence types are proficient in magic, and Variety type have a bit more flexibility but are good at support. A lot of the time, it didn’t feel like these types made a lot of difference, but their card ranks certainly did. S and U rank cards can equip more skills than N rank, which can only have two skills and gain better stats.
It’s a simple mode, but given how many floors there are, you need to grind. A lot. That was the issue with V3‘s version of the board game, and again, grinding is the glaring issue with the whole Danganronpa S package: you’re either grinding for new characters, grinding for coins, or grinding those characters up in Development mode again and again. Once you complete a Development mode run and that character finishes at level 50, you cannot carry on levelling them. If you start Development mode with the same character again, they will go back to level 1. Unfortunately, you might have to do this because the further you progress in the story, the better rewards and exp bonuses you get, and the better cards you unlock. The higher levels become easier to achieve.
Danganronpa S: Ultimate Summer Camp is all about fanservice. The repeated assets, the reused music from Masafumi Takada (which is still great, by the way), the familiar voice clips, and the recreation of Jabberwock Island are all familiar to fans. There’s new art and new sprite work throughout, but only a limited amount. There are callbacks to all sorts of Danganronpa merchandise and some brand new music tracks. Whether it’s all enough to justify picking up separately is down to you, however.
I can’t say I was compelled to explore the board with every single character, nor was I enamoured with the story or the writing. If anything, I felt a bit weird playing this after V3. And while the main games are rarely longer than 30 hours, I can see people grinding forever just to get something satisfying out of Danganronpa S. Unless you’re a hardcore fan, I don’t think it’s worth it. But if you’re picking up Danganronpa Decadence, it might be worth a peek.