Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc Review: School’s out
Persona meets Virtue’s Last Reward meets Ace Attorney is the easiest way to describe Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc’s amalgamation. But the sum of those parts is much more — a psychedelic murder mystery with a wide enough appeal to interest gamers who play well outside the niche of visual novels.
The premise of developer Spike Chunsoft’s Danganronpa (out now for PlayStation Vita) should sound familiar to anyone who’s played other visual novels like 999: 9 Hours, 9 Persons, 9 Doors (by Spike) and its sequel, Zero Escape: Virtue’s Last Reward (by Chunsoft). Fifteen high school students enter the elite Hope’s Peak Academy only to find themselves trapped there under the watch of Monokuma, a black and white robotic bear with a twisted, fangy half smile. The windows are barred; all communication to the outside world cut off. The only way to escape, or “graduate,” is to murder a fellow student and get away with it.
The roughly 25-hour game starts off slow: Danganronpa is weird, and it has a lot of explaining to do in the opening hours. Players are first introduced to “Free Time,” a Persona-esque activity where you can roam the school freely in first-person mode and chat with whoever you please. Doing so strengthens your friendships with those characters, and giving them presents they’ll like can yield juicy details about them as well as special skills to help you later.
These parts did little to hook me, especially when all Danganronpa seemed to be was another no-escape murder game, where the characters are quick to suspect betrayal or commit it themselves. But Danganronpa diverges from this exhausted formula by throwing players into a detective role where they search for clues and try to solve murder mysteries in bizarre class trials that give meaning to the subtitle Trigger Happy Havoc.
A brightly colored trigger reticle serves as the means for interaction. You target characters and “shoot” to talk with them, or send a question mark flying to look at an object (like many point-and-clicks, the press of a button reveals everything you can investigate in a room so you don’t miss anything). The same mechanic comes into play in class trials. Players make their argument by firing Truth Bullets, or pieces of collected evidence from the murder investigation, at logically weak statements to refute them. You don’t want to be trigger happy as much as you are trigger prudent, though, as bullets fired at the wrong statements knocks down your health and influence gauges, which you need to survive.
Later case trials introduce new, more complicated elements, such as the Hangman’s Gambit, where you shoot letters that appear to spell out an important mystery word, and Bullet Time Battles (BTB), rhythm minigames where you duel a character by shooting bullets in time to an increasingly fast tempo. Closing arguments task you with completing the missing panels in a comic book retelling of the murder events. Throughout these scenes and more, Danganronpa's graphics mix and match visual styles — some colored like dark oil paintings, others bright and cheery, and a few 8-bit styled.
The class trial challenges are the best parts of Danganronpa, though they’re awfully time-consuming. Unlike other visual novels, you won’t peel back the layers of the mystery in short, five-hour bursts and then dive into another playthrough to uncover more. If Danganronpa has choices that influence the outcome or direction of the story, I didn’t notice any. Who I talked to during Free Time, or whether I got closer with a character had no effect on who committed an act of violence, died, or chose to defend or pin a crime on me. The friendships I developed didn’t seem to be of any lasting consequence.
The few decisions Danganronpa does allow you to make are only illusions of choice. More than once, I was directed back to the linear path the game wanted me to take. I couldn’t really choose at all.
I can’t complain too much. Danganronpa is worth the time, and because the cases are so complex and fit together so well, I can understand why Spike Chunsoft crafted a single intricate story rather than a bunch of branching plotlines. The curious nature of the evidence put more pressure on me to pay attention to what was happening, and I enjoyed wracking my brain to try to determine suspects and piece together clues before the class trial took place and surprised me with its own twists and turns. As I played, I grew more invested in the characters, whose personalities seemed so one-note at the beginning but became more dear and multidimensional to me later on.
I admire, too, that Danganronpa features an even cut of male and female characters, and that many of the latter defy stereotypes as much as they seem to indulge them. To call Sakura “brawny” is an understatement, but Asahina is a predictably bubbly athlete. Kyoko is the cleverest by far, but Sayaka is a lovable, pretty pop star. A couple of the other girls have surprising secrets, as well.
For a Japanese visual novel, Danganronpa keeps the perviness to a tolerable minimum (although there's a fair amount of swearing). The reading moves along fairly well except for the ending, which indulges way too much in its themes. Aside from its obvious linearity and redundant Free Time (which you can enjoy more of in the unlockable School Mode), Danganronpa is a fresh — if rather extreme — blending of different games, genres, and art styles. That eccentricity goes a long way in making it memorable.