Developer Spike Chunsoft / Publisher NIS America
Genre Visual Novel, Adventure / Platform PS Vita
What would you do if you found yourself in game of life and death? Would you actually kill? It is impossible to know unless you’re in that situation. It may be exceedingly visited topic, but it is one that always seems to be interesting. But with Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc, it takes this very concept and makes it its own with its fresh take on visual novel gameplay, original story, and creative cast of characters.
The premise is simple enough. You play Makoto Naegi, a newly enrolled student at Hope’s Peak Academy. Makoto, along with fourteen other students, has been admitted into the academy. What the kicker is that everyone is essentially a prodigy of some sort. There’s the Ultimate Baseball Star, the Ultimate Fashionista, Ultimate Idol, etc. Everyone is special; everyone except Makoto. While several students represent the best a certain field has to offer, the hero of this story admits to being nothing more than lucky, thus he is dubbed the “Ultimate Lucky Student.” However, this would prove to be quite the misnomer.
Due to unknown circumstances, the students find themselves locked in their new school with only one way to escape: murder. But its not just a matter of killing someone – you have to kill someone and get away with it without anyone knowing you did it. And after getting to know most of the cast of characters, it hard to believe most of them would even be capable of doing such a thing. But we all know how this is going to play out. Guess all you want, but when the deed is done, the game really starts to shows its true colors.
Danganronpa is dark and almost subversive in its attempts to manipulate your perception of this school’s humanity. It comes back to asking, who is capable of killing? Perhaps its human nature to have a breaking point, but at such a heavy cost one really wonders if everyone’s motive is truly justifiable. Early on, it’s disheartening. But as time passes, you as the player almost become subdued to the nature of schools rules. That says a lot about the game thematically, and I found it quite powerful that it doesn’t just affect the characters, but myself as well. It is rare to see a game that can evoke the same theme it preaches.
It is not all doom and gloom though; Danganronpa is also very comical at times. The monochromatic bear, Monokuma is equal parts sinister and jovial. He’s from a different cloth of villain – in fact he is the only one cut from that cloth. Sure, he wants all of the students to kill each other, but his childish behavior and indecent nature is the sort of dark humor that makes a villain memorable. The rest of characters are quite memorable as well. You can imagine the amount of different scenarios you might see play out with several prodigies in the same room. The only character that stood out as rather boring was the protagonist actually. His inherent lack of uniqueness really does make him something of a boring character, but its somewhat understandable since he essentially acts as the player’s proxy for pushing the narrative forward.
Something that seems rarer these days is a legitimately well translated story localized from Japan. While Makoto may not be an interesting character himself, the situations we see played out through his eyes are so are very well written. The game is so adept at being serious and poignant at times, but can easily flip the switch and become humorous on a whim. Banter between the characters is one of the best reasons to talk to everyone and to try and discover every aspect of the story. This is complemented by the script’s delivery as well – the voice acting is phenomenal. However, the best is saved for last – without going into too much detail, the final scenes of the story tranced of its pages because of well delivered some of its final lines are by a specific character.
A game is not a game without its gameplay, and where other visual novels have failed, Danganronpa succeeds in creating a unique gameplay mechanic. Each chapter has a trial that revolves around a murder, thus it is split up into two phases: the investigation and the student trial. The investigation phase is not unlike the Ace Attorney games. You will investigate the many accessible rooms for clues to bring into court, and present them during cross-examinations and/or debates. These trial phases though are where the real fun kicks in – unlike Ace Attorney, which can be slow and somewhat methodical at times, Danganronpa is like a court case on nitrous. These trials more a very brisk pace, so it’s on you to keep up with each testimony. And, it’s right about now the subtitle Trigger Happy Havoc comes into play.
Presenting evidence needs to be timely, and accurate. To do this, you need to shoot down testimonies with “truth bullets” and break down contradictions. It’s unique and creative, as well as being genuinely fun. It brings into play all of the unique features of the Vita, such as the back touch to break down white noise, or the touchscreen to memorize sections of a testimony. However, it’s not a perfect system. It makes some of the segments too easy. Players are typically given only one bullet with one piece of evidence already gathered; it then just becomes a matter of find the contradiction during the debate/testimony. Some sequences remedy this by introducing multiple-bullets (about three typically) or throwing a red herring-type bullet. Other games do better in this regard because you have to choose the right evidence based on the stacks of evidence-collected prior. When the game chooses for you, it just seems a bit to easy and this negates the work put into locating said evidence.
The trial system also has a unique rhythm based mini-game that comes into play when you really got to break someone down. You have to shoot your bullets to the beat of music and slowly break down a student’s argument until you can finish him off with your “proof.” It is this type of gameplay that makes Danganronpa stand out so much. The easy way would have been selecting evidence and continuously presenting it – which is not necessarily a bad approach. But by creating these inventive ways to make the trials more than just story progression, you can’t help but praise the novelty, despite the faults. Once the trial essentially concluded, Makoto gives a run down of the entire murder step-by-step in a very cool comic book sequence. Easily one the best touches that should be added to any mystery game as it easily caps of the murder with a complete understanding of motive and procedure. After that, the murderer is then left in Monokuma’s hands – and its not pretty. (Granted, it is creative!)
It should be mentioned the game isn’t all for the sake of the its story either. When murder isn’t afoot and cases don’t need solved, you can spend time with classmates, explored the school grounds, or go to the academy shop. It’s not much, but it’s always a nice to give the player a semblance of choice of what he or she would like to do next. For instance, time spent with other classmates can unlock abilities that make trials more manageable. The system itself is reminiscent of Persona game’s social features, albeit not as significant. I never felt the weight of my friendships over the course of the story, but it helped having that boost in court. What more, it gives you an opportunity to learn a bit more about each character’s back-story, which is a nice touch.
A game like Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc is very easy to recommend to those who would shy away from the visual novel genre. Is it the best of its kind? Not necessarily. But it nails all the parts it gets right. The dialogue and atmosphere is top notch, and while the story can seem somewhat derivative, it still retains interest throughout. The biggest complaint is its relative lack of challenge, but that can be made up for with abundance of charm. It is a thrilling ride all the way to the end, and it is certainly a must own for those who own a Vita and looking to dive into a fascinating story with a wonderful cast of characters.
+ Dark and Unique Story
+ Well Written
+ New Take on Trial/Court Based Gameplay
+ Great Group of Characters
– Its fairly easy, even at higher difficulties
– Some gameplay elements are hit-or-miss
– Boring Protagonist
The Score 8.7
Jaime ‘Paco’ Sifontes is an editor at Analog Addiction; you can follow him on @RTBL1990 if you like having a debate about anime, sports or anything really. He tends to ramble though.