Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc Review
Reviewed on Sony PS Vita
How do you feel about murder? I’m not talking about a disassociated act you may read about in the newspapers, but rather I’m looking to gauge your feelings on bloody-handed, self-delivered, brutal murder. Unless we’ve managed to have a total nutjob stumble upon our humble site I’m hopeful that you’d be fairly horrified about the concept, that you’d assure me that you would never commit such an act. Potentially you’d go further, and tell me that nothing could compel you to commit such a heinous crime. Of course, because we’re more than a wee bit crazy here at Digital Fix Towers, we’d then come up with all kinds of situations and motivations in which you could be convinced to murder - forced to take another’s life to preserve your own, or to protect someone you care about, or to get something you really, really want (like Spice Girls: Greatest Hits on vinyl or something). We’re good like that. But you, annoyingly ethically moral you, you’d say that it would be impossible to create such a series of events, that there would be no way that anyone could come up with something so twisted that they could force you, or others, to murder.
And yet, this is exactly the scenario presented in NISA’s latest release on these shores, Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc. Hope’s Peak Academy is the home to Japan’s brightest students, each one the ‘Ultimate’ in their given field. Apart from the protagonist Makoto, who only makes it into the school out of sheer luck in having his name drawn out of a hat. It doesn’t take very long for Makoto to realise that something has gone very, very wrong at Hope’s Peak, and the appearance of Monokuma (a crazy indestructible robot bear. Of course.) spells disaster for Makoto and his classmates. You see, Monokumo’s only gone and taken over the school and locked it down entirely, threatening to detain everyone for life. Unless, that is, they manage to graduate. And how can they graduate? By murdering one of their classmates and getting away with it. Touché you evil little bear, touché.
You’ve probably seen some a somewhat lazy comparison doing the rounds that claims Danganronpa is part Virtue’s Last Reward and part Ace Attorney. There is a certain truth to this (and check out some of the trophy names for a nod to that effect) but really Danganronpa stands far enough apart from these two games to deserve not to be assessed by comparison alone. As a visual novel the vast majority of the ‘gameplay’ is to be found in the story itself, and if you can’t take vast amounts of text in your games then you probably should find another genre to play around in.
So then, after your enforced imprisonment begins you’re free to run around in your new daily life. These sections of the game will see you exploring Hope’s Peak in first person, searching for clues as to the nature of your imprisonment, as well as allowing you to build relationships with the rest of the student body. While some characters can appear fairly one-dimensional at first glance you’ll soon discover that the characterisations and character depths are some of the true strengths of Danganronpa. There is a certain importance to the social sim side of things – skills and skill points that you unlock through relationship progression are used at the end of each chapter in the Class Trial to various effect, and good luck getting through without them!
There honestly isn’t a weak character in the cast, and while some may stand out as stronger than others, none of them could ever be described as throw-away. Perhaps the only thing that dents proceedings a little is the fact that the title isn’t fully voiced; both the English dub and the Japanese tracks are included, and while dramatic scenes are given due attention in other places you’re left with only the flowing text to keep you company. It’s probably a testament to how strong the voice work is that we’re left asking for more, and certainly there is an upside to a handheld game having a smaller footprint, but some of the constant re-use of certain character catchphrases can get tiring quite fast.
But, you know, your mundane life in captivity was never going to last forever. Monokumo might sound cute and appear all cuddly, but he isn’t stupid, and someone who’s able to take over and lockdown an elite academy was always going to be able to come up with some rather imaginative motives to keep things ticking over. When the inevitable occurs and someone turns up dead, you’ll enter the next section of the game: Deadly Life. Here you’ll run through the school investigating, picking up clues, examining bodies and so forth. Despite text suggesting the contrary, time really isn’t of the essence here – you’re usually free to explore each of the required scenes or conversations in a non-linear way, but the game won’t thrust you into the next stage before you’ve found all the key points you need to. Pay careful attention here and you’ll begin to put theories together, and skipping through dialogue as fast as possible will only leave you confused and muddled later on.
It’s worth taking a little pause before we continue here. Some Japanese games are known for pushing boundaries with the inclusion of certain imagery – you know the kind of stuff, taking titillation from the unmentionable, the inclusion of random tentacles, the unexplainable promulgation of ‘lolis’ everywhere you look, and many, many more things besides. Danganronpa recognises that these things happen, and in some cases when you first pick up the game you may think you’ve spotted a few of them. Don’t let that put you off; Danganronpa plays with these stereotypes fantastically and never panders to them. Perhaps the best thing we can say about the game, keeping in mind the subject matter, is that it never, ever allows itself to fall into guro territory. It’s a game you can proudly play on public transport, which is always nice when your fellow commuters have got to the stage where they’re scared to look over your shoulder at the latest import.
Anyway, back to death. As we said, to graduate you’ve not only got to commit murder, but you’ve got to get away with it too, and that’s where the Class Trial comes into play. Those key points you found earlier during your investigation are now your truth bullets, which you can fire into weak points in your classmate’s debate statements as you journey ever closer to the truth. Other mini-games pop up too - a version of hangman, and an under-utilised and not very hard rhythm attack section. The proceedings are dramatic, and nailing the correct weak point with the appropriate statement usually elicits one of those hissed yeses that happen to just slip out, but if you step out of the story and examine the pure gameplay nothing really manages to set the world alight. Functionality and extra bits are added as you travel through the game, but with additional skill points and skills usually compensating for them you’ll never really find the Class Trial a challenge. Allow the story and associated revelations to wash over you, however, and all of this becomes meaningless as you hitch your wagon to the ride and enjoy every minute of the craziness in front of you.
But what about you brave heroes who played through Danganronpa back when it was released on the PSP? What’s changed here to re-pique your interest? Well, first of all, Danganronpa now comes in English, which is great, and all the visuals have been updated and enhanced to a standard fit for the Vita. Apart from the odd translation difference with the work done by ardent fans, the greatest addition is the inclusion of a new ‘School Mode’, unlocked after the main story has been completed (which should take you around twenty-five hours or so, depending on how fast you read and how naff you are at the Class Trials). School Mode is a rather spiffing little resource management game, loosely acting as an immediate prequel to the events within Hope’s Peak Academy. Even better, the mode gives you the opportunity to work through any outstanding relationships with your classmates, allowing you to progress these without having to worry about someone getting themselves murdered every five minutes.
Many times when reviewing a visual novel it feels more like coming up with a book report than trying to objectively frame your views on why pressing buttons this time was different from pressing buttons last time. With the purer gameplay elements perhaps not providing the full quality experience their potential may have promised it’s left to the writing found with the daily and deadly life sections. Thankfully the writing (and, by extension, the translation work) here is second to none, and just like a good book you’ll find it difficult to put the Vita down when you have Danganronpa up and running. It’s Japanese, it’s crazy, it’s fantastic and there’s the best bear character you’ll ever see in a game ever (sorry P4G Teddy!) – just be sure to enjoy the time you spend locked into Hope’s Peak. Oh, and don’t do anything too drastic to get out…