Published February 17, 2014
High school is a hazardous place. There’s fitting in, competing academically, dealing with the opposite sex, avoiding bullies, and of course the risk of being executed by a psychopathic teddy bear….
If that last one sounds unfamiliar to you then you most likely didn’t attend Hope's Peak Academy, a private high school where the nation's "ultimate" students come to fulfill their potential. This fictional school is where NIS America’s “Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc,” the visual murder mystery originally released in 2010 and now rereleased for the PlayStation Vita, takes place.
Visual novels have never taken hold outside of Japan, but Danganronpa may just change that trend.
Apart from excellent graphics and a punchy soundtrack, Danganronpa (roughly translating as “winning an argument with a bullet”) develops the gameplay, allowing free movement and bringing in elements from puzzle games such as the “Ace Attorney” series, and even rhythm games like “Dance Dance Revolution”. By doing so, Danganronpa addresses the accusations of lack of interactivity that have plagued the genre.
You play Makoto Naegi, a self-described average kid, who finds himself selected to go to Hope’s Peak to join Japan’s ultimate students. When he arrives, Makoto is locked in and discovers that the school has been converted into some sort of self-contained super-prison run by a crazy robotic teddy bear called Monokuma.
Having met his 14 captives -- all geniuses in their respective fields such as baseball, programing and martial arts -- Monokuma explains the twisted rules to the students.
In short, the students are sentenced to spend their entire lives in the school. The only way to leave is to kill another student, and then not be discovered in the resultant class trial that takes place after the murder.
The premise borrows from classics such as Agatha Christie’s “10 Little Indians” and contemporaries such as “The Hunger Games” and “Battle Royale,” with twists and turns as the deadly game plays out, as the students try and outsmart the all-seeing Monokuma, and each other.
The gameplay consists of three parts:
The first is moving around the school and interacting with students on a day-to-day level as you try and work out what is going on and who you can trust. The second is an Ace-Attorney style investigation of a crime scene, where you look around for clues in preparation of the trial. Both are fairly linear work well to set the scene and move the story along.
Where Danganronpa really comes into its own is the third part -- the trials. Whenever a murder occurs, the students are shuffled into a courtroom to deliberate among themselves over who committed the murder, going over evidence and questioning various people. If they find who the murderer is, they live, and the murderer is executed. If they pick the wrong person, the murderer goes free and all other students are executed. Stakes are high.
The trial gameplay takes liberty with reality, and modes include firing “truth bullets” at incorrect statements, timing your objections to a rhythm as you kill off objections that threaten to explode, and then a game of hangman to figure out clues.
If it sounds bizarre that’s because it is, but somehow it all comes together with fast music, loud yells of “No! That’s wrong!” and constant twists to produce court cases that are fast, heart-pounding and utterly addictive.
Which is especially important as the game doesn’t always get its pacing right. The first two hours are extremely slow, with characters taking a long time to state the obvious. Also, Danganronpa moves between different tones uncomfortably. Some parts are funny and silly, others extremely dark, serious and supposedly poignant. However, it’s difficult to get behind an emotional moment when there’s a wisecracking teddy bear running around the place making sex jokes.
While the characterization of the game is very strong, Monokuma the bear is the star. The little guy is both exceptionally cute and deliciously evil. He’s as unique as the game he fronts, a character gamers will no doubt be talking about for a long time.
Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc is a much needed radical overhaul of the visual novel genre. Western gamers who have either never tried the visual novel genre, or who have been put off it entirely should take another look, and prepare to get sucked into one of the most absorbing games of the year so far.