Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc’s unusualness doesn’t end with just its name. It’s a visual novel game containing a premise not common in the genre. Here you are not trying to woo one of many cutesy-looking moé girls or trying to save the entire world. No, in Danganronpa, your goal is the rawest objective every living person must do on a daily basis: survive. This is a story exploring moral quandaries and the foibles of human nature that cause others’ pain, which in this case includes murder. Like many visual novels, this production from developer Spike Chunsoft is dense with text, but contains a narrative filled with enough intrigue, interactivity, and great pacing that I found it hard to put down despite whisking away hours of my nights. The game is not free of offenses: characters never reach the depth they have the potential for, some annoying gameplay elements creep in, and there was a missed opportunity for more influence in the story. Luckily, none of Danganronpa’s shortcomings stop it from being a fantastically engrossing experience and one of the best games on the PlayStation Vita.
This cryptic thriller takes place at a prestigious Japanese high school named Hope’s Peak Academy, where completing graduation guarantees Ivy League-level success later in life. You take the role of Makoto Naegi, a normal teenager who is admitted to the school by random lottery and thus deemed the title of the “Ultimate Lucky Student.” Meanwhile, each student at Hope’s Peak Academy is the absolute best at a particular skill or field. Makoto’s middle school classmate Sayaka Maizono is the “Ultimate Pop Sensation,” Aoi Asahina is the “Ultimate Swimming Pro,” and so forth. Shortly after arriving, all the students faint and encounter a sadistic robot bear named Monokuma who tells them they are to spend eternity there with no ways to escape the now barricaded school. The one ticket out is if a student pulls off murdering a classmate without being found guilty. What unfolds is a tale of despair, betrayal, greed, and other faults of human nature. What drives a person to willingly kill another? What is the nature of hope and despair in society? While bleak sounding, Danganronpa avoids feeling overly tense by throwing in sprinkles of humor throughout. Each character’s defined personality results in a colorful cast that leads to interesting and sometimes funny interactions between them. Quickly, you will find your favorites and anxiously hope they survive. It all culminates over a hardly noticeable thirty plus hours to an unbelievable and stunning yet satisfying conclusion that no-one could possibly predict.
Being a visual novel, most of the game is spent reading text as the story unfolds before you. There is more interactivity and independence here though than others in its category. Each chapter is divided into two subsections titled “Daily Life” and “Deadly Life.” During Daily Life, you are allowed to freely explore the school from a first-person perspective, plus choose who you build relationships with. Building relationships unlocks perks to use during class trials, along with discovering more about the character. However, as soon as a murder is discovered, the chapter transitions into the Deadly Life section, where the remaining students must scour the campus for clues. The Class Trial – the core of Danganronpa’s gameplay – begins after all the evidence is collected. The trials are reminiscent of the Phoenix Wright/Ace Attorney games except faster paced. Makoto’s classmates debate about the murder, with possible fallacies or inconsistencies written in orange text. Your job then is to use evidence you uncovered or dialogue said as “Truth Bullets” to shoot down the correct false statement. Occasionally matching the right Truth Bullet to the right mistaken phrase is tricky, but your skill relies on how logically you’ve followed the debate.
Objectio–I mean, Counter!
Other mini-games are employed during trials as well. If Makoto figures out an object or place important to furthering the case, “Hangman’s Gambit” begins. The word in question appears incomplete at the bottom and you must tap the missing letters as they float among other letters. The Bullet Time Battle is a rhythm game occurring when a classmate vehemently disagrees with Makoto. Both of these are fairly easy and never caused me much trouble throughout. Every class trial ends with a “Closing Argument” – arguably the worst mini-game of them all, in which you must place missing panels of a comic that summarize the events of the murder. The problem is many times a possible panel you can use is vague, especially considering only a circular cut-out of it is used. Danganronpa’s court gameplay is trial-and-error, but the Closing Argument comic is guilty of this bar none.
Originally released on the PlayStation Portable in 2010, Danganronpa takes advantage of the additional input options provided by the Vita. Navigating in the first-person perspective through Hope’s Peak Academy is a bit easier with dual analog sticks than PSP’s circular nub. Advancing through dialogue can be triggered by hitting the X button or tapping anywhere on screen, which I found more convenient. Similarly, selecting objects is quicker by touching it versus aiming with the reticle. Oddly enough, the game doesn’t have full touchscreen support despite having been ported to smartphones before. Some functions still require using the directional pad or left analog stick and pressing the X button. A minor annoyance came from when I would accidentally brush the touchscreen with my finger, causing me to mistakenly hit the wrong selection.
On the note of improvements, Danganronpa features a solid presentation that has transitioned well onto the Vita. The crisp text and sharp artwork is largely owed to the system’s high resolution screen. Illustrations by Japanese artist Komatsuzaki Rui display stunning quality while fitting the story’s melancholic tone. His character designs of the students at Hope’s Peak give each one a distinct appearance so mixing them up is inconceivable. Colors are painted in high-contrast fashion, making images eye-popping – such as the striking pink used as the color of blood. Another element I immediately noticed is the eerie-looking “2.5D Motion Graphics” visual technique in which objects are flat images placed in a three-dimensional environment. There’s also the musical score by Masafumi Takada that I never grew exhausted of, even though it’s composed of less than a dozen tracks. Whenever a song played, it always nailed the emotions of the on-going scene. NIS America included both the English dubbed and the original Japanese voice tracks, the latter being my preferred choice.
How I feel about dual-audio in Japanese games and Danganronpa in general.
The mysterious Hope’s Peak Academy student Kyoko Kirigiri at one point remarks, “If you spend all your time trying to avoid danger, you’ll never move forward.” Spike Chunsoft and NIS America both took risks producing and localizing Danganronpa, respectively. In Japan, the game garnered enough fans to spawn an anime, spin-off novels, and a sequel. Hopefully it can find at least niche success in the West and usher in more games of its type. Danganronpa is one of the best PS Vita games I have ever played thanks to its wildly suspenseful, addicting story and above-average interactivity for a visual novel. Its shortcomings combined cannot overrule the enjoyment I got from this fantastic murder mystery adventure.
PSU was provided a digital copy of Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc by NIS America for the purpose of this review.