Like any good book, a visual novel works best when portable. Whether it’s lazing by the beach like a ridiculous Kindle commercial or snuggling up in bed by a light, hours are whiled away flipping pages–virtual or otherwise–waiting for that next turn in the plot. Having the ability to take the story anywhere is part of the magic. Does anyone really want to be tethered to a television when a lot of reading is required?
Many might not deem a game that relies on mountains of text to be worthy of being called a “game,” yet the genre is a growing one. And it has especially seen a surge on Sony and Nintendo handhelds. Following the critical success of Zero Escape: Virtue’s Last Reward, NIS America, Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc is a packed story sure to give visual novel enthusiasts a tale worth playing.
Hope’s Peak Academy is a school for the best and brightest in the world. Only elite students who are the ultimate in their field have a chance of attending. The Ultimate Baseball Star, the Ultimate Pop Idol, the Ultimate Novelist and more all gained admittance into Hope’s Peak. As for Makoto Naegi…well, he isn’t great at much. Instead he becomes the Ultimate Lucky Student by being chosen in a raffle to attend the prestigious school.
For Makoto and the 14 other students, their dreams of serving as the nation’s future are quickly shattered. A robotic bear named Monokuma declares himself headmaster of Hope’s Peak and tells the students they are trapped in the school for the rest of their lives. The only hope of “graduating” and living outside of the school walls is to kill a fellow student and get away with it. A class trial will take place to determine who the guilty party is. If the students reveal the true culprit, that person is executed. If not, the guilty is set free and the rest of the students are put to death.
This dark premise fuels the murder mystery scenario of Danganronpa. Before the first murder takes place, the game focuses on giving players an initial feel for the student body and their primary mannerisms. It is a slow but necessary start before the true drama unfolds.
Much of Danganronpa’s excellent plot and writing comes from the unique personalities of each student. Stereotypical high school cliques and tropes are made even more exaggerated and believable when placed in this horrific situation.
Danganronpa often plays with black comedy yet never takes it too far. Monokuma serves as both tormentor and a large source of humor. Rather than being blatantly laugh out loud funny, his dialogue pokes fun at the students and prevents the game from being too heavy-handed.
Class trials have a tough job of holding up how the murders unravel themselves. It’s here that players should always maintain surprise, vindication and reality when the truth comes to a head. The game throws its share of red herrings to lead players off the true scent. Solutions aren’t as easy as they seem but they aren’t always improbable. Character’s motivations for committing murder range from evil spite to sympathetic justification.
Having a game flesh out so many interconnecting threads is a relief. Since story is the most crucial element to a visual novel, it’s important that players don’t feel cheated when “turning the page” and happening upon a revelation. But Danganronpa does have a tendency to hold players’ hands during investigations. Rather than leaving players to search the school for clues, the game will often force them to stay in one room until everything is discovered or intentionally lead them to the right location.
If the writer’s don’t want you to stray during a particular moment, you won’t be able to. Part of this is likely to help with the natural flow and progression of the story but it can sometimes take away from the intrigue of feeling like Sherlock Holmes.
Setting aside the murders, players will no doubt take joy in solving the many truths hidden inside of Hope’s Peak. Locked doors and temporarily inaccessible floors give another level of purpose. Not only is it another element of the story, it creates a lore for the game’s world that frequently has players filling in their own blanks.
Would it be surprising to hear that gunplay is one of Danganronpa’s primary gameplay mechanics? While it might seem odd, the concept of shooting down arguments isn’t all that strange a term. The first stage of gameplay begins during investigation mode. Here players will search the scene of the murder and any other relevant areas for clues. Tapping the touchscreen on characters and objects will add them to the player’s handbook as Truth Bullets–evidence to be used during the trial.
Investigating a murder allows plays a period of time to gather their own thoughts about how a murder unfolded and who the potential suspects are. Assumptions will obviously be made but it adds suspense to the inevitable trial.
The problem with investigating is the process is extremely straightforward. Trying to exit a room before every clue is discovered results in the game forcing you to stay until everything is seen. A few sections task players with selecting a section of the school to investigate but they are rather straightforward as well. Investigations would have been the perfect opportunity to incorporate puzzles into the game. These dialed-back sequences need something to make players feel more like a detective rather than a point-and-click fanatic.
Class trials are the true meat of the action. During Nonstop Debates, students go back and forth throwing accusations at one another and it is up to players and Makoto to make sure the real truth is discovered. Typical discussion involves where the body was found, what seems to be the murder weapon and which student was where. Their statements appear as words on the screen and players are given a certain amount of time to solve each section of the trial. At the start of each trial section, Truth Bullets are loaded into the player’s “gun” to be shot at words that appear in orange, which represent contradictions or incorrect statements.
Not every Truth Bullet applies to a certain statement, however. Easier difficulties load less Truth Bullets into the gun, which makes things easier to refute. Harder difficulties require players to really think about what evidence applies to what statement. Incorrectly shooting down a statement will result in a loss of health but “focus” can be used to slow down statements, making them easier to shoot.
This idea of gunplay creates a sense of drama and tension. Not only are players on a time limit, but they must use their wits to think of what is the correct truth. Sometimes the game can be a little obscure in what it asks of you and the right answer for the game isn’t always clear, even if it makes sense otherwise.
Other elements are included during Nonstop Debates, which force players to eliminate white noise to get a clear shot at a statement or save a student’s statement as a bullet for contradiction. A mechanic called Hangman’s Gambit asks the player to shoot down letters to spell out a clue but its use is a little odd. Bullet Time Battles act as a sort of rhythm game where Makoto is involved in a one-on-one debate with another student. Players time presses of the X button to lock onto statements, then hit Triangle to shoot them down. It takes some getting used to but can be fun. Closing Arguments ask players to create a comic, depicting how the murder took place. They fill in empty spots in the strip with pieces of evidence.
Together, all these elements make for a compelling court drama. While the Nonstop Debate is the most engrossing piece of gameplay, the others are suitable. Players who prefer a game that gives them options, Danganronpa might not be their cup of tea. Specific evidence is required for specific arguments and there isn’t much divergence. But it puts the player on an exciting track and careens them towards satisfying results.
Graphics & Sound
Most of Danganronpa’s visuals have received a boost in resolution from the PSP due to the power of the Vita. Cutscenes lose a bit of their quality but otherwise, the game is crisp. Graphics aren’t a focus of Spike Chunsoft’s work and many pieces of the school can feel pretty bland. Character art is drawn with an excellent hand and every student is completely unique.
Players who want to spend several hours fully wrapped up in a murder mystery with a touch of high school drama will love Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc. Even if gameplay isn’t always necessary or entirely fun, the intricate story alone will sink its hooks into players. There’s even an additional mode to be played after finishing the game which allows players to spend more time getting to know every student.
As bizarre as its name and premise can be, Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc is another unique title in the Vita’s library.