Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc is a visual novel game in the murder mystery genre for the PlayStation Vita, developed by Spike Chunsoft and published in North America by NIS America. The game is available as a retail game cartridge or as a digital download on the PlayStation Store.
As a staunch believer in “gameplay first,” I don’t often get a chance to play many visual novel or point and click adventure titles, even though they’ve had a great resurgence in the last five or so years. I was very curious when given the opportunity to review Danganronpa because of this, and maybe a little apprehensive, but once I got past the introductions of games and into the first piece of real meat, I became obsessed with continuing and to see what was around that next corner.
Hope’s Peak Academy is a private high school where only the best students are allowed into and once there, they’re basically guaranteed success after graduation. This year’s class includes the Ultimate Writer, the Ultimate Pop Star, the Ultimate Programmer and others. So how did Makoto Naegi, an average nobody with nothing interesting or spectacular about him get here? His name was selected in a lottery as the Ultimate Lucky Student. And our game starts on his first day of school.
Upon arriving, Makoto blacks out and wakes up inside the school, except things are a little strange. There are cameras everywhere and the doors and windows are bolted shut, for example. As you meet the other students, fifteen others, to be exact, they have similar stories of blacking out and waking up inside. A mechanical jester-like teddy bear then appears proclaiming himself to be the headmaster of the school. He welcomes them to school and gives a stunning revelation: this is will they will be staying for the rest of their lives. The only way a student can leave is to graduate and the only way to graduate… is to murder another student (and get away with it).
That’s the basic introduction to the game’s plot; I don’t want to give too much more away. From here on, you control Makoto in a variety of situations, most of which is simply walking around the school and talking to the other students as they try to make sense to the situation they’re in. Eventually, the students are pushed and prodded by the game’s tiny antagonist until somebody snaps, and yes, students are killed (tip: don’t get attached to any of the characters, I learned my lesson the hard way). Once a death occurs, your job is to investigate, talk to the students for clues and examine various areas of the school until you have picked up enough information on what happened.
The final part of each of the game’s chapters is a trial. Using the clues collected, you (and the others) have to deduce who among you committed the crime. This is where the game is its most interactive. As the trial proceeds, various little gameplay gimmicks and mini-games are presented to spice up what’s going on and to challenge you on what you’ve learned. You can shoot “truth bullets” at other character’s statements when you have a clue that counters what someone has said, you play a small hangman game to remember clues that could be important and there’s a rhythm game when you combat the accused as they try to shake off evidence pointing the crime towards them.
All in all, these little things keep the game from being completely non-interactive, but they’re nothing to be excited about. What’s important here is the story and the characters and the mysteries unfolding. Most of the characters are fairly flat anime types with very specific and exaggerated stereotypes and quirks that don’t typically waver, but they don’t hurt what’s happening overall. The murders themselves and how they unfold is completely intriguing and once one gets going I find it VERY difficult to put the game down. The trials are often not so much about discovering WHO committed the crime, but HOW they did it and it’s fun to follow along and try to get ahead of the game with the knowledge you’ve gathered.
The graphics are not much to talk about, character art is great (but static), but the rest of the graphics are fairly mediocre. The backdrops present themselves in a pop-up book fashion, but as you can move around and look around, oftentimes this feels awkward. But what the game lacks visually on a technical level, it often makes up for it in style. The trials, for example, spin around with all sorts of graphical flashes happening in a very over the top fashion and there are little bits of pixel graphics thrown in for no good reason other than to look cool (for example, the student dorms have little dot matrix pictures of the characters on their doors). The music, on the other hand, is great and I’ve tried to wear headphones when I could to make sure I’m not letting it all come through the system’s tiny speakers.
Overall I was extremely happy with Danganronpa. It’s hard for me to explore genres that I’m not very familiar with and more often than not, what I try to do is explore how a game will be for its target audience. Here though, the game won me over with its great little murder mystery pieces and its crazy style.
Danganronpa is definitely not for smaller children, although teenagers may find the characters and stories fascinating if they are able to handle some of the mature subject matter (murder, despair, loneliness, etc.). The game has plenty of strong language (most of it coming from one character) and plenty of strong innuendos (most of it coming from one, albeit different, character). Murder scenes are graphic in their seriousness and situation, however all of the blood in the game is bright pink (as I said, the game has a style to it and this is one of those things). –Leroy Capasso