Originally released on PSP in 2010 and later remade on Vita last year, this release marks Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc’s first time in English. Looking at the title, the name Danganronpa may cause a glaze over the eyes and an assumption that this is either another Monster Hunter clone or another complicated JRPG in which cute schoolgirls fight various demonic beasts. Thankfully, this game is neither. Despite a name that sounds impossibly eastern, Danganronpa is an extremely accessible adventure game made for those who love the thrill of a Phoenix Wright case or the dark premise of Virtue’s Last Reward.
The set-up is simple: a selection of world-class students go to a high school with such impressive standards that the only people admitted are those who do what they do better than anyone else. Some of these students include the “Ultimate Baseball Star” Leon, the “Ultimate Biker Gang Leader” Mondo, and the “Ultimate Fanfic Creator” Hifumi. You are Makoto, an otherwise normal boy who “luckily” gets into the school as a result of winning a lottery. Once all of the students get to school, however, they all pass out and wake up elsewhere inside of it, seemingly trapped by a sadistic robotic bear (named Monokuma) that demands of anyone who wants to escape the school to kill another student and get away with it.
The story effectively tackles themes of dealing with despair in a place seemingly void of hope, the death of potential, and what happens when otherwise good people are realistically driven to murder as a result of their own desperation. That last point especially becomes true when you start to see that cast of 15 or so cut in half in no time. Naturally, the tale can get so depressing and painful at times that the Danganronpa experience sometimes becomes hard to watch. However, a cast of likeable characters (despite a fairly generic protagonist), some funny writing, and a cleverly developed plot that leaves no room for holes makes each mystery appealing enough to see to the end. Who killed her? How did he do it? What is the grand secret of what is actually going on inside this school? The game sometimes gets into predictable territory and the game ends with something of a thud, but the 20-hour adventure is compelling and has a plot filled with a similar level of dread and “holy crap” to 2012’s great Virtue’s Last Reward (which makes sense since both of them are cut from a similar Spike Chunsoft cloth).
Though I referred to it as one in the first paragraph, calling Danganronpa an adventure game is a little disingenuous. In reality, the plot is extremely linear with no room at all to alter its course, and it would be safe to say that around 70% of your experience will consist of reading with little to do in the way of gameplay. While playing, it often feels more like you are mostly witnessing a story unfold and less like you’re participating in it.
That’s not to say Danganronpa doesn’t have gameplay. While roaming the school, each chapter generally has a few key sections:
In your daily life when a chapter begins, you can roam the school in first person, witness preliminary parts of the chapter plot unfold, and hang out with other surviving students in a manner extremely reminiscent of Persona 3 and 4. During this phase, you can spend time with them that leads to stat boosts that offers assistance in trials (more on that later) and a little more insight into each character.
When a student finally ends up murdering another student, the game goes into investigation mode and you explore 2D layouts of rooms and talk to people in a way that completely apes the Ace Attorney games. You enter a scene related to the crime, you tap on things using the cursor, you hear relevant information to the case (recorded as “truth bullets”), and you move on to the next waypoint. And much like Professor Layton, you can tap coins out of the 2D investigation environments that are later used to buy presents for your friends and improve your relationships with them.
After investigating all there is to investigate, you are finally called to an in-school courtroom to experience the trial and determine the latest murderer. The stakes are high; if the students manage to reveal the murderer, only the murderer is executed. However, if the wrong person is chosen, the murderer walks free and everyone else is executed. These sections are the gameplay apex of Danganronpa. There are group testimonies that need to be refuted and corrected using the power of evidence (cough cough Phoenix Wright), logic, and literal truth bullets that are fired at faulty statements. There are also sections like Hangman’s Gambit where you play a game of hangman to figure something out, a section where you play a rhythm game to shut down opponent statements, and the climactic feat of putting together a manga of what actually went down in the crime.
For all of the game types stuffed into a video game without much game, every mode of play works well. The investigations are fluid, the trials are diverse and mechanically iterated upon between chapters, the characters beg to be explored, and exploring the school feels rewarding due to an overarching mystery worth discovering.
That said, the game sometimes feels like a copy-paste job made up of other game concepts that came before. The text boxes, style, and character interactions feel exactly like a poor man’s Persona 4. The investigations, while well done, take so much inspiration from the past that it hardly has time to find its own identity. The trials are a smorgasbord of game types, but most of what you’re doing just feels like Ace Attorney repackaged in an interesting way. Even the story, this game’s bread and butter, occasionally feels like a collection of plot threads I’ve seen older games do better. Its sense of dread and despair, its pacing, and its clever writing are unique. Unfortunately, those are the only things that are unique.
Except for the music, that is. One of my favorite tracks, which doubles as the theme for Monokuma, plays like a reggae jam dragged through a bayou. While exploring the school and looking for people to hang out with in your free time, the song changes to a dreamy track that sounds like you’re exploring space. The game’s music is undoubtedly a feat to behold. Outside of the music, the game’s presentation is somewhat forgettable. The character designs are good and the 2D environments are interesting, but the English voice acting sounds like it came from the Atlus C-team and the first-person exploration looks rather boring. When you finish a case successfully and someone does get executed, the hyper-violent 3D scenes that follow are a despair-filled joy to watch.
What Danganronpa tries to do, it does well. It has a good story, good writing, good characters, good gameplay, and a good sense of humor. What Danganronpa does well, however, it does so in a way that fails to distinguish itself among a pack of experiences that do most of what Danganronpa does but better. I can recommend this game to anyone who wants a good, accessible story and does not consider himself or herself too deep into the surprisingly plentiful VN/adventure hybrid genre. For those far more familiar of the 999‘s and Ace Attorney’s of the world, you can probably do better.
PS Vita review copy provided by NIS America. Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc releases on February 11 exclusively for PlayStation Vita. For those of you in Europe and Australia, the game releases on February 14.