Over the past several years, the visual novel and adventure game genres have exploded in popularity. Thanks to powerhouses like The Walking Dead, Phoenix Wright, Virtue’s Last Reward and the lesser known but equally impressive Saya no Uta, gamers have been treated to a series of titles that have helped redefine and solidify a set of genres as more than simple niche experiences. That being said, where does NIS America’s latest outing, Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc, fit into the equation exactly? Does it carry the torch, or does it extinguish the flame altogether? It’s time to find out.
Danganronpa is a game that’s been anticipated by fans for a long while now. As such, this could be one of NISA’s most desired games in the year 2014. But there’s good reason why this obscure Japanese game has been the topic of conversation since its initial PSP release back in 2010 — it’s not the typical visual novel, nor is it the typical adventure game. This is a combining of the aforesaid types of titles, with the aim of giving players a product that is both uniquely compelling and wholly immersive. It’s Dangan‘s narrative that really highlights this philosophy with a certain degree of marksman-level accuracy. Trigger Happy Havoc takes place at a top-tier high school named Hope’s Peak Academy, which only accepts talented “Ultimate” students of the highest caliber in various fields of study and interest each year. Players assume the role of one Makoto Naegi, a completely average student equal parts optimistic and naive, whom is selected in a drawing and chosen to enroll into Hope’s Peak as the “Ultimate Lucky Student.” Meaning to say, Makoto has not been picked for the same reasons as his peers; he lacks virtually any type of impressive credential and his academic resume is lackluster to boot.
Nevertheless, when our fair Makoto arrives outside the gates of Hope’s Peak on the morning of his first day, he suddenly passes out and awakens locked inside the school. It’s here that he meets fourteen other new students who are in the same predicament as he, except they each have actual talents. Upon their getting to know one another, an insane, robotic bear named Monokuma shows up on the scene and informs the group that they will be imprisoned in the academy for the rest of their lives. There is a caveat, though: if a student should murder another student and not be caught, they are free to leave on their own accord. Thus, the stage is set for an epic whodunnit tale that rivals all the drama and twists of an episode of Law & Order.
At the very heart of Trigger Happy Havoc‘s 30-hour adventure is this wild plot. It’s what the players will spend the most time thinking about — it’s also one of the primary gameplay mechanics. What that really means is this a visual novel at its core. Because of that, the bulk of the experience is made up of reading text as players talk to their fellow classmates and potential murder suspects to gather information. In this regard, the game is clearly heavy on character development. In fact, the cast of personalities and their truly diverse characteristics are what make the game such gold. On the surface, the roster doesn’t seem so impressive; after all, there are all kinds of tropes on display ranging from the elitist genius, to the angsty nerd, to the airhead female athlete, to the obese Otaku who loves figma and all things anime. But beneath that superficial coating of paint are genuine motives and backgrounds that players will learn about over time. The game has a wonderful way of turning stereotypes on their head and making players recognize their own pre-conceived judgments of certain “types” of people. In that regard, Danganronpa does an effective job at outlining the typical high school cliques and how overt labels we wear based on a set of interests is not always indicative of who we really are. In other words, beneath all the murder and horror-based elements of the narrative, there’s an actual message to take home — and it’s a good one at that.
Unfortunately, Danganronpa‘s thematic undertones and story pacing aren’t always top-notch. The game starts off strong, with an intriguing prologue and a killer (no pun intended) first chapter that has players solving their first of many student murders. This first chapter is so meticulously crafted, that it’s hard not to almost immediately fall in love with the game. This first case is most impressive because it gives players all the clues they need to solve the crime on their own, without being too obvious about how exactly things have gone down and who is the one responsible for the killing. Regrettably, though, not all of the cases are like this. Because the first chapter is so mesmerizing, the rest of the game seems unable to reach the heights set by that initial investigation. Perhaps the biggest gripe with each of the cases, even including the opening one that we’re raving about, is that players will see the twists and turns coming from a mile away. And for the times that they aren’t able to predict future events, it’s only because the developers have not given the player all of the information necessary to solve the case in their own ahead, before taking things to trial — which is where gamers actually solve the murders themselves.
As previously mentioned, this is a murder-mystery game, and as the premise states, the characters are only able to earn their freedom if they kill someone else. This Battle Royale, Hunger Games style makes for remarkable storytelling, most of the time anyway. When a murder happens in the game, players are given a certain amount of time to go around and gather clues. This is where the second aspect of the gameplay shows itself. When folks enter a room in Danganronpa, they are given free reign to look around. They can use the Vita’s touch screen or analog stick to roll over key areas of the environment and/or crime scene to gather hints as to how the murder happened; but while it would be great to be able to search every nook and cranny of a given locale, it’s not exactly possible in Danganronpa. There are only a handful of items to examine in each area and these are given to the players if they simply press the triangle button at any time in their examination of a scene. It would have been more interesting had the developers not given players an easy-out in this regard, instead forcing folks to manually scour the area with no help. It would have put a heavier emphasis on exploration if nothing else. Even still, some (and perhaps most) will want to only experience the story. For those gamers, this system will be a welcome addition, as it allows folks to cut through the BS, gather the necessary tips, and move on to the story and character segments.
Once players have scoured all of the key locations, that are essentially given to the player once a murder has been committed, a class-trial begins. Consequently, we arrive at Dangan‘s biggest and most game-like gameplay mechanic. The trials are long, gameplay intensive sessions that can last anywhere between twenty minutes and well over an hour, and see players utilizing an assortment of conventions to put forth facts and clear up conjecture said by various other students. At this point in each case, there is usually a suspect for one of the crimes. Because of this, the students go around and take turns reciting how they think the killings unfolded and interject found clues into the conversation. But Makoto is also part of this and so the player must present their gathered evidence, as well.
Presenting this is done in a number of systems, four to be precise: Nonstop Debate, Epiphany Anagram, Machinegun Talk Battle and Climax Logic. The most used mechanic is the Nonstop Debate, where characters automatically discuss their thoughts and opinions on the case, with potential “weak points” highlighted in yellow font. During these times, the player is armed with “Truth Bullets.” While these aren’t actual bullets, they are metaphorical in that they consist of evidence relevant to the conversation at hand. In order to break the debate and clear up facts, players must find a lie or contradiction within the aforesaid “weak points” and shoot it with a bullet containing the evidence that contradicts it. Since all of the trial segments are timed, players can silence disruptive chatter (highlighted in purple text) to earn extra seconds so that they do not run out of time and fail the trial. Additionally, a Concentration meter is also made use of — this allows players to slow down the conversation and make lining up shots easier. Naturally, these segments become increasingly more difficult in the later chapters where more weak points are added to discussions. In the latter half of the game, the trials really become challenging and put a player’s knowledge of the cases to the test. In the beginning, though, these sections are fairly easy to manage.
Still, there are a three more gameplay conventions with which players must deal. The Epiphany Anagram, a shooting puzzle portion that sees folks shooting down specific letters that spell out a clue; Machinegun Talk Battle, a one-on-one debate against another student wherein the game employs rhythm-based elements; and lastly, the Climax Logic portions which have players piecing together a comic strip depicting how a crime transpired. Throughout all of these mechanics, players must maintain “influence” among their classmates. Mess up on any of the aforementioned segments, and confidence drops. If it drops entirely, it’s time to start the section all over. Each of these skill segments are scored, which in turn provides folks with a final grade at the end of the trial. Therefore, it’s important to get things right the first time around, to avoid running out of time or life.
The gameplay variety is what sets Danganronpa apart from the competition. It’s also what makes the game shine. Not only does it serve to break up all the clue-gathering and character interaction, but the mechanics are simply sound in concept and execution. They are fun, tough and rewarding. But even when going through these gameplay-heavy slices, we found ourselves frustrated with how drawn out things were at times. As mentioned, in most of the cases, it’s clear as to whom the culprit is. Thus, having to go through conversation after conversation during the trial, with the other characters oblivious as to who actually committed the crime, is frustrating beyond words. And because the trials can drag on for the better part of an hour or an hour and a half, it can be painful to sit through text block after text block of characters putting together information that players probably put together an hour prior. To this end, and as with exploration we talked about earlier, Danganronpa’s most dastardly villain is its preoccupation with holding players’ hands. After the opening hours, one will invariably expect the developers to take the training wheels off; but they never do. This is particularly annoying because the game is already extremely linear. There are no places for deviation — this is a straight-forward visual novel with very little room for experimentation on the part of the player. The hand-holding makes this all the more obvious.
On a brighter note, Trigger Happy has been given some serious love in the production department. The graphics are beautiful, making excellent use of the Vita’s high-def capabilities by offering vibrant colors that astound the eye, character portraits that express the emotion of a tense situation and a sleek interface that is reminiscent of Persona 4. The soundtrack is also extraordinary, with music that matches the drama on-screen damn near perfectly. Speaking of aural accolades, the English dub work is praise-worthy as well. Most of the time, dubs are pretty terrible; but here, the actors clearly were given good direction, and deliver line after line of inspired work that helps nail the game’s dire circumstantial ambiance. Lastly, it would be criminal to not shower NIS America with compliments on giving Danganronpa one of the best localization jobs the game industry has seen in years. It’s humorous and clever, but also knows when to pull back and take matters seriously. Character’s personalities really come to life even more so because of the work NISA has done here.
Danganronpa is absolutely worth buying, but only if you’re a gamer who doesn’t mind reading 30 hours worth of dialogue, because this is a visual novel at its most basic level. Sure, it has actual gameplay elements during the trial sections, and these mechanics are implemented extremely well, but even still, the ratio of reading-to-gameplay is easily three-to-one. Danganronpa also takes patience — not just because the length and thousands of text block players will scroll through during their adventure, but because of how much the developers keep players on a tight leash, holding their hand along nearly the entire journey. Still, it’s hard to get too bothered by this as Danganronpa has one hell of a story to tell. It’s exciting and has an uncanny ability to leave its players slack-jawed at the sights of the unraveling plot points. After all, this is a game about a maniacal teddy bear forcing high school students to kill each other; how could it not be good?
Platform: PS Vita