Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc
Developer: Spike Chunsoft Release Date: February 11, 2014
Publisher: NIS America ESRB Rating: M
Platforms: PS Vita MSRP: $39.99

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Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc is a murder mystery visual novel from Spike Chunsoft (you probably know the company best for the Zero Escape series). It takes place at Hope’s Peak Academy, a secluded private high school that gathers students who are the “ultimate” at something in order to nurture their talents as the world’s hope for the future. That skill doesn’t necessarily have to involve academic aptitude, though; for example, you play as Makoto Naegi, who got accepted by winning a lottery, making him the Ultimate Lucky Student.

Makoto arrives for his first day at Hope’s Peak, only to find that he and his classmates have been trapped inside. The self-proclaimed principal, a black-and-white, remote-controlled bear named Monokuma, declares that the students must live at the school forever. If anyone desperately wants to leave, there is only one way out: kill a fellow student without getting caught.

Danganronpa Students
The students arrive at Hope’s Peak Academy.

This sets the stage for a deadly whodunit with plenty of plot twists. Some of those twists are predictable, but the unfolding mystery is fascinating, and the characters have complete development arcs of their own. As Danganronpa progresses, each student has to grapple with Monokuma’s efforts to shatter their hopes, specifically for escape but also in regard to life in general, and the story examines how people respond when driven to that dark emotion called despair.

As Makoto, you explore this twisted school from a first-person perspective, with the hallways in 3D and the rooms and characters in 2D. It’s a little disconcerting to go from the 3D environment of the hallway to a 2D room, but the transition is made easier by a nifty animation sequence where all the pieces of the room plop down from the ceiling and bounce into place. The only downside is that after the novelty wears off, waiting for the animation just causes an annoying delay, and you can’t turn it off or skip it. After that animation sequence, you can pan the room and move around a cursor to inspect objects. Anything you can interact with will show an indicator when you hover over it, but you can use the triangle button to display everything at once for a couple of seconds.

Danganronpa Display Objects
Showing all objects you can interact with is handy. Also, note the giant bolts on the steel plates on the windows. Nobody’s getting out.

That display feature is particularly helpful during investigation sequences, where you must gather evidence to figure out who killed someone. These play out a lot like the investigation portion of an Ace Attorney game. You examine the crime scene and the body for clues and talk to people to see what they know, and when you’ve found everything you need, you’re sent off to court.

Of course, Monokuma’s court is nothing like a real court of law (It makes Ace Attorney look realistic, actually.), and this is where you’ll find most of the non-reading gameplay. (It’s also probably the main reason the game is subtitled Trigger Happy Havoc.) Any time a student is killed, the sadistic bear calls a “class trial” in which you must uncover the murderer’s identity. The developers really threw the kitchen sink at this part, and it can be overwhelming to the point of annoyance. There are four minigames that make up a class trial: Nonstop Debate, Hangman’s Gambit, Bullet Time Battle, and Closing Argument. During Nonstop Debate, you use your evidence to uncover contradictions by firing “truth bullets” at inaccurate statements. Hangman’s Gambit is pretty much what it sounds like: fill in the right letters to complete a word or phrase that sheds new light on an argument. You just have to shoot down the letters in the right order. Bullet Time Battle is a simplified rhythm game, in which you press buttons in time to a metronome to shoot down someone’s statements of denial. Finally, Closing Argument has you placing panels that show how the crime unfolded into a manga that reads right-to-left.

Danganronpa Hangman's Gambit
Makoto plays Hangman’s Gambit.

Each minigame is timed; if you run out of time, your classmates turn on you, and you fail the section. This can be stressful when you have trouble making a mental leap, though for the most part, Danganronpa suffers from a similar drawback to the Ace Attorney series: You’ll be several steps ahead of the trial in terms of epiphanies, but you still have to prove things in the exact order that the game dictates. When you do make mistakes, you have a trust gauge that decreases, and if that drops to zero, you also fail the section. Thankfully, the game doesn’t kick you back to the start of the trial when you choose to continue; you just restart that minigame. Once you make it through the class trial, you get sent back to continue your communal school life.

That school life isn’t all murder investigations and trials, either. When you’re not uncovering the truth, you’re free to explore and spend time with your classmates in a social system reminiscent of the Persona series. Each time you hang out with someone, you become closer, and you learn new skills that will assist you in class trials. Unfortunately, you have to actually track down the student you want to talk to by wandering the entire school; there’s no quick travel and no way to know where a particular person will be be. You can also give presents, obtained by spending coins you acquire throughout the game at a capsule machine, to further improve your relationships.

Danganronpa re:action
During conversations with other students, you can respond to particular points in the text for more information if they are highlighted in purple.

The English voice cast for those students did a great job overall, and Monokuma was particularly amazing. (By amazing, I also mean utterly insane.) The only parts that grated at all were the partially voiced conversation sounds. They’re not badly acted, but they’re just unnecessary. Hearing the same grunts, “ummm”s, and “you know”s from certain characters multiple times in a single dialogue segment was worse than having no vocals there at all. As for the music, most of the ambient tracks in the game were pleasant, but they weren’t anything special; the class trial theme and the opening theme, on the other hand, have a lot of energy and are quite catchy. 

Unlike the music, Danganronpa’s artwork is a surreal experience you’ll never forget. In contrast to the morbid happenings at Hope’s Peak, the character art and the setting are full of vibrant colors. The school itself is just garish, with different sections of the school’s various floors having their own color schemes. Color comes into play again with the gore, which the artists made somehow more shocking by coloring any blood a bright pink. It’s easier to look at, sure, but that trivialization of death just makes the killing game feel even more screwed up.

Danganronpa Monokuma
Monokuma is leading this little show, but to what end?

Danganronpa’s biggest shortcoming lies in the fact that it tries to cram too many types of gameplay into the class trial segments. The minigames can wear you out, and they only get more difficult as the game progresses. Ultimately, however, those minigames are still fun, and when you combine that with undeniably top-notch artwork and scenario writing, Danganronpa is a must-play for anyone who enjoys a good mystery. Just note that it’s rated M for a reason. There’s plenty of cursing and mildly disturbing cartoon gore to go around, and after all, the story is about someone trying to make a bunch of high school students murder each other.

Full disclosure: This game was reviewed using a review copy from NIS America.

Story: ★★★★★★★★★★
Graphics: ★★★★★★★★☆☆
Gameplay: ★★★★★★☆☆☆☆
Audio: ★★★★★★☆☆☆☆
Balance/Difficulty: ★★★★★★★★☆☆
Intangibles: ★★★★★★★★★☆
Overall: ★★★★★★★★☆☆

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