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Danganronpa is intense, hilarious, and could be PS Vita's next niche hit

on 8 February 2014

To find the very best PS Vita games, you have to look beyond conventional genres and blockbuster names. Sure, Killzone: Mercenary is a fun shooter that captures most of its console brothers' intensity and multiplayer fun. Tearaway is charming and memorable, as Media Molecule is known to bring in spades. But neither has captured my attention in ways that offbeat Japanese titles have been able to. Take my favorite Vita game: Persona 4 Golden. The OLED screen becomes a conduit for pushing bright, vivid colors and polished anime artwork to your eyeballs, and the day-by-day game structure, with short-but-sweet social events, chops up an 80-hour RPG into perfectly digestible chunks. Then there's Zero Escape: Virtue's Last Reward, a mind-bending visual novel whose challenging, multi-hour puzzles can be tackled in bits and pieces throughout your day.

These are my two favorite PS Vita games. But Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc feels like the firstborn child of a sweet, sensual marriage between the two.

NIS America is porting this Spike Chunsoft-published game over from Japan, where it debuted on PSP in 2010. It's part visual novel, part investigation thriller, all wrapped up in the antics of fifteen high school students trapped in a prestigious academy by an evil teddy bear headmaster. Monokuma, the sadistic, deceptive, and psychopathic headmaster bear in question, has ensured that escape is impossible, and the only way to "graduate" and leave the school is to kill a fellow classmate and not get caught in the ensuing investigation and trial. It's totally wacky, and the way Monokuma appears at random to interrupt conversations, introduce new rules, or give inappropriate commentary adds creepy intensity to a game already overflowing with it.

As a visual novel, Danganronpa throws a lot of text your way--but unlike Virtue's Last Reward, there's slightly more involved gameplay that punctuates the lengthy conversations. At times, you can freely move about the school and its dormitories, choosing who to talk to and what rooms to explore. There's incentive to build relationships with your classmates, a la Persona 4's Social Links, between murders, as there's opportunity to unlock equippable skills that prove useful during the game's court trials. More on those in a bit--I want to emphasize just how much the social interactions and day-by-day structure of Danganronpa feels like Persona 4 Golden. Choosing to spend time with a classmate is a tradeoff that loses a segment of the day in which you could have chatted up somebody else. You can choose to give presents to a friend, too, with beneficial or detrimental effects on the relationship based on your ability to read their wants.

The interface even reflects Persona 4, with a delightfully cheeky, self-aware yellow color palette and time-of-day marker that actually work as a dissonant element of Danganronpa's alternately terrifying and happy-go-lucky atmosphere. You're always on your toes, as the cartoony musical cues of Monokuma's monologues, bright pink blood, and wacky character designs clash with the grim reality of teenagers murdering each other for the right to escape a hellish prisoner's dilemma. And I shudder to think of losing some of these characters, all hilariously written with oodles of personality. There's Hifumi Yamada, the obese fan fiction writer infatuated with 2D women. There's Toko Fuwada, the teenage prodigy romance novel writer. There's Mondo Owada, the biker gang leader who seems to mask a deep sense of honor and a heart of gold. Words, actions, and trademark "dialogue sounds" (not every line is completely voiced) range from the genuinely sentimental to hilariously bizarre, and this unpredictability keeps me coming back for more. 'Free Time' can be just as engaging as murder time.

But murder time is where Danganronpa really shines as a mystery with complex ideas and not-so-obvious solutions.

More details after the break...