Hello! Sarah here. Roy’s still living it up in Tokyo while I’m saddled with holding down the fort at our home base in New England. Between starting a new job, wrestling our two cats, digging my car out of the snow multiple times, and attempting to keep sane during the winter months of 2014…let’s just say he better be bringing me back some awesome souvenirs. In the meantime, he passed along a review copy of Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc since I had told him I was looking for a new game to play. And he was too busy to review it since he was, y’know, mingling with dog statues and eating enough ramen to fill a bath tub.
Knowing nothing about DR:THH except that it was a Vita (!!) game, I dove right in. What greeted me was a Battle Royale-esque character-driven story combined with stylish visuals and ridiculous action sequences. I was hooked.
The premise of Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc revolves around a group of elite students that are accepted into Hope Academy, a school with such high standards that incoming classes are gossiped about on Internet message boards. Each character has some unique ability (baseball, gambling, swimming, programming etc) save the protagonist who only describes himself as average yet incredibly lucky to have been accepted. The new group of 15 students find themselves knocked out and woken up by a psychotic bear called Monokuma, who informs them that they are to live the rest of their lives in the school, unless they can graduate.
How to graduate? Ya gotta kill someone and get away with it.
This sets the course for the game in which classmates are murdered, friends double cross each other, and nobody seems to be who they are at first glance.
For the most part, the game features visual novel style story progression. While trying to unravel the mysteries of the school, you can choose which classmates to spend your free time with and get closer to. Giving them a present that suits their character will give you extra skills that can be equipped during debates at the class trial. Presents can be bought at the school store using coins found by exploring rooms (similar to hint coins in the Layton series) or earned after a successful class trial.
Because Monokuma is a bloodthirsty little bear, he will occasionally show up to ramp up the stakes and provide incentives for students to off one another. This adds depth to the story as characters start to wonder what will drive someone to murder. It’s quickly established that you shouldn’t apply your own set of moral codes to anyone else, as something seemingly benign to you might just drive someone else over the edge.
After an “incident” occurs, time is spent searching for clues, which are logged as “truth bullets” meant to be used in class trials. Once enough time lapses and clues are gathered a trial begins, where a nonstop debate occurs between characters. You have to use a truth bullet to smash apart contradictions or weak statements made by characters, indicated by yellow text.
This system gains further complexity as you progress: multiple bullets can be loaded, not all yellow text will be contradictions, and you can actually use yellow text to create new one-use bullets. Random “white noise” also obscures character’s statements to add to the intensity.
A pitfall of this set up is that it can be frustrating to figure out what combination of bullets and weak statements will allow you to progress. If you can’t figure it out during one round of debates then you will keep starting over with the time still running (did I mention you’re timed during all of this?). In some cases you will need to use a statement made at the end of a round of debates in order to break a statement made by a character at the beginning. This is as confusing as it sounds, and at certain points I found myself ignoring the statements entirely and just randomly trying out different combinations.
Once the trial comes to a head and the suspect is singled out, you have to cinch your case by putting together a comic book of events by filling in some missing panels. This is also timed, but feels like a nice break from the intensity of lobbing bullets of truth at sentences that fly around the screen.
You will also occasionally have to dismantle an especially disgruntled character’s statements through a rhythm game, either during the trial or after the comic book puzzle game. There’s also a hangman-style mini game where you have to target letters in order to spell out a key clue.
Overall the complexity of the trials compensate for the otherwise straightforward nature of the story, and rewards you for being attentive to small details (in other words, this is not a game for those who skim over dialog and flavor text).
Danganronpa carries an impressive range of styles, which include 2D, pixel art, 3D, and paper craft style animated cut scenes, which are especially trippy. The variation in visuals feels stylish and keeps the story feeling fresh and unpredictable. Maps and menus are clean and easy to navigate, and feels on par with Persona 4‘s interface.
The art direction lends itself well to the creepy atmosphere of the game and can switch from cute to terrifying in an instant, matching the chaotic vibes of the story.
The story is engaging. I found myself really trying to pay attention to every little thing, because even though some clues are obvious, the more subtle ones will still be mentioned in trials, which encourages the player to pay attention. The character dialog and interactions feel believable and are well localized and translated, which is important when every sentence counts.
Danganronpa‘s themes range from comedic to thought-provoking, and despite the numerous characters, it isn’t difficult to keep track of who’s who because of their unique personalities and interactions.
I recommend this game for people who enjoy dark humor, murder mysteries, and are a fan of use-yer-noggin’ puzzles. It’s great for people who like to take their time with games and really explore all aspects of a title (and this game rewards you for doing so). I wouldn’t recommend it for those who like to blaze through games – not that Danganronpa would let you, anyway.