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Danganronpa: Kibou no Gakuen to Zetsubou no Koukousei originally released in Japan in 2010. The game’s immense popularity lead to various unofficial fan translations, which resulted in a large Western fanbase years before the game’s official English release.
This year, the insanity that is Danganronpa finally has made its official English debut in the form of Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc on the Playstation Vita. There are many ways to describe Danganronpa. As a game, it’s part “Phoenix Wright” with a dab of “Persona,” and in narrative, it’s The Drifting Classroom with a dash of The Hunger Games and Battle Royale. It’s schizophrenic amalgamation of various genres resulting into one wacky game that could only be a product of Japan, and I’m happy that it’s finally here.
Danganronpa at its core is a visual novel, so the game’s only as good as its story and characters. Luckily those elements deliver, and they deliver hard. The story is the reason to play this game.
You assume the role of Makoto Naegi, an average Japanese high schooler whose luck has granted him entrance to Hope’s Peak Academy, a school dedicated to refining the world’s greatest and most talented students into symbols of hope for the future of the country. Graduating from this prestigious academy guarantees success in life, yet Makoto finds himself the odd-man-out as his classmates outclass him in every way. He has no chance comparing to likes of the celebrity pop music idol, the ultimate baseball star, or the most fabulous fashion diva in the world.
However, once Makoto steps into the halls of Hope’s Peak Academy, standing out becomes the least of his problems. His mind goes numb and he blacks out. Upon his awakening, he discovers that he and his 14 extraordinary classmates are trapped within the walls of the school.
The school’s headmaster rears his adorable little head. As it turns out, he’s a talking teddy bear that calls himself “Monokuma.” However, his cute exterior offers students no comfort as he reveals the horrific nature of their peculiar predicament. Only one student is allowed to “graduate” from this high school hell, and that’s by murdering one of their classmates and getting away with it. No one’s life is guaranteed in this “killing game,” a tale of trust, betrayal, secrets and homicide. Makoto must work with his friends to resist the temptation of despair, solve the mystery of the school, and escape with as few casualties as possible.
Oddly enough, the gameplay is NOT the reason to play Danganronpa, as it struggles to discover what kind of game it should be outside of a visual novel. The game is split into three main modes of play: free time, investigations, and classroom trials.
During free time, when the school isn’t being painted with student blood, you have the option of socializing with your fellow classmates. Even the looming threat of murder can’t keep high school kids from forming friendships! It’s these sections of the game that are reminiscent of the Persona series and other games with “dating sim” elements. You pick a character to hang out with and choose the appropriate dialogue options to further your relationship with them.
You’ll collect “Monokuma coins” by exploring the school and finishing classroom trials, which you can then spend on various gifts to give your friends. Each character has a certain taste in items, so giving them the appropriate present will strengthen your bond with them. Giving them something that they don’t like will result in a waste of your time. It’s a lot of trial and error, saving and reloading, if you want to be a perfectionist about it. As you develop your relationships, you’ll wring out interesting bits of character backstory that you won’t get anywhere else in the main game.
Unfortunately, you won’t have much time to bond with your classmates, as they might end up being a corpse the next time you see them. You won’t be the one committing the murders in this game, as Makoto is much too trusting to do something like that. Instead, it’s up to you to solve the murders and identify the true culprit to keep your friends safe from harm. Once a dead body pops up, you’ll spend your time searching the school for clues. These could be anything from witness testimonies from your classmates to objects that are strangely out of place.
Exploration isn’t a very elaborate process, as its mostly cursor based. You’ll explore the school in first-person, and move the onscreen cursor onto objects of interest with either the analog stick or touch screen. You won’t have to scour every single detail of an area to find the right clues. Pressing the Triangle button will point out all interactable objects for you to investigate. It’s impossible to miss out on important clues, as the game will not advance until you’ve found everything it deems relevant to the case.
Once all the clues are discovered, the game will automatically advance to the classroom trial portion. This is where the core gameplay lies, and where it falls apart. In a world where Ace Attorney exists, I can’t help but make comparison between those games and the trials of Danganronpa. The game knows this and tries to differentiate itself by adding action elements to what would normally be simple logic puzzles. Unfortunately, it usually ends up falling flat on its face.
Discussions play out as “nonstop debates,” timed scenes in which various characters give their thoughts on a case. The discussion plays out in real time, though you can fast forward through them to get to the relevant parts. You’re only given a set amount of time to debate, so you’ll have to do a lot of fast thinking.
Makoto wields his evidence in the form of “truth bullets,” metaphorical bullets with which he uses to “shoot” at the false testimonies of his classmates. Witness statements are represented by onscreen text, and you have to manually aim your “truth bullet” at the contradicting text in order to object to their inaccuracies.
It’s a novel idea at first, but as the game goes on, the process becomes more and more convoluted. Sometimes you’ll have to shoot down “white noise” that covers up contradictions before you can use your truth bullet on them. In the beginning, you’ll start off with only one bullet in the chamber, but eventually the game will give you multiple pieces of evidence to choose from. The game then has you create new evidence by extracting it from witness testimonies and using it as ammo. This requires going through the same dialogue multiple times: once to extract the evidence from the statement, and many more times to find the corresponding contradiction and shoot at it. There are many ways to fail here: shooting at the wrong statement, using the wrong evidence, or simply shooting and missing your target altogether. Each failure results in starting the debate from the beginning, forcing you to go through the same content over and over. The fast forward feature helps, but it’s annoying when you know exactly which statement you need to object to, but have to wait for it to come up again. These debates, despite their flaws, are probably the strongest part of the classroom trials. Unfortunately, the game doesn’t end the weird gameplay gimmicks there.
Every once in a while, you’ll be thrown into a mini-game in order to advance the trial. This either involves a very rudimentary version of the “hangman” word guessing game or a frustratingly complex rhythm game. Neither of these mini-games have anything to do with using logic to solve the case. They’re just serve as temporary distractions from the debates. For example, the rhythm game has you pressing buttons to a certain rhythm, which shoots down nonsense and completely irrelevant statements such as “Shut up!” from the person’s mental defense you’re trying to break. For some reason, completing this arbitrary mini-game reveals something new about the case. However, unlike the debates in which you use the evidence at your disposal to come to a logical conclusion, these mini-games rob you of any satisfaction from figuring out the case for yourself. The rhythm game has no relation at all as to what is happening in regards to the murder case’s narrative. It’s a random mini-game that feels desperately out of place. And, just like the debates, the game piles more and more elements to these mini-games to make them more complicated.
The game continues to introduce new elements to the game before you can even get a handle on the previous ones. There’s a high learning curve to how these trials play out, and it might take you a long time before you discover the nuances to successfully make it out of a trial. It took me at least three trials before I fully understood the basics, and the game kept throwing new stuff at me even after that.
Every trial climaxes with an interactive comic book sequence in which you must piece together the events of the crime in the order that they happened. Unlike the random hangman and rhythm mini-games, this sequence acts as a fitting and satisfying murder mystery conclusion.
Failing enough times in any of these sequences will cause you to get a game over, resulting in the theoretical death of all your classmates. However, you’re given the option to immediately restart at the point of failure, with the only actual penalty being a reduction of your overall grade at the end of the trial.
Thankfully, the game allows you to select a lower difficulty if you have trouble with any of these action-based elements. Lowering the difficulty will make the game more forgiving when it comes to mistakes. However, whenever a new element is introduced, the game will act like it’s at the hardest difficulty, so you’ll still have to endure some complications for a few brief moments.
Once a trial concludes, new areas of the school become accessible, furthering the scope of your investigations, as well as the bringing you closer to the truth of Hope’s Peak Academy many mysteries.
Once you complete the story mode “School Mode” becomes available. This mode tells an alternate story that eschews all the murder and focuses mainly on building bonds with your classmates. This acts as an opportunity to unravel more information about the characters in case you missed them in the main story mode because they were too busy being dead. The other core part of the mode is a tedious resource management game, which isn’t all that compelling, so “School Mode” simply acts as a small bonus in case you haven’t gotten enough Danganronpa by the end of the game.
While the gameplay might not be up to snuff, Danganronpa excels at style. You’ll find a mix of gorgeous illustrations, humorous pixel art, and sleek landscapes, tied together by pretty slick interface.
Every piece of art in this game is exuding with its own unique personality, which is most apparent in its character design. Just like the game itself is a mixture of various media, the characters themselves look like they’ve been ripped out of other game genres. Some characters look like your typical anime-style characters. Makoto looks to be your typical high school anime protagonist, and Sayaka, the pop idol, is the expected cute little Japanese schoolgirl (though the secrets she hide may not be as endearing). Character designs take a sharp turn towards crazy once you get to the likes of Mondo, the “Ultimate Biker Gang Leader,” who looks like a high school Yakuza thug, sporting an enormous pompadour. There’s also Sakura, the “Ultimate Martial Artist,” who looks like she came straight out of Fist of the North Star, with a muscled physique that rips through the sleeves of her sailor school uniform. Each of the 15 students has their own unique look that exemplifies their quirky personalities. The great writing manages to subvert many of the cliché tropes that you’d expect from these types of characters, making every character is memorable in one way or another. Every one of them has some sort of secret to hide, and you’ll have fun picking out the ones you love and the ones you love to hate. Becoming too attached, however, will eventually lead to despair, as you never know when one of them will end up kicking the bucket next. The game makes that very clear early on.
The game’s soundtrack, composed by video game music legend Masafumi Takada, really adds to the ambiance of the game. You’ll get stuff like poppy techno tunes to accompany your peer bonding and more dire and disturbing tracks with haunting vocals as things escalate to a more murderous atmosphere.
You’re going to be doing a lot of reading in this game, but that’s okay. The outlandish art, incredible characters and funky soundtrack make the experience an engaging one. In typical visual novel fashion, the story is presented through text boxes and static character portraits. Characters do not animate at all, unlike the Ace Attorney series, so emotion is conveyed through the constant visual changes in the characters’ emotional states. Each character has many different expressions to go through, so even though it’s not animated, it feels active enough to remain engaging. Occasionally you’ll get some voiced dialogue to go with your free time or investigation phases, but most of the visual and audible flair will come from the classroom trials.
The trials are fully voiced, and the English acting is pretty darn good, for the most part. You’ll get tons of voiced dialogue from each character, making the discussions feel like actual debates. The camera is constantly sweeping around court room, encircling the characters at their benches, giving a very dynamic feel to what’s actually just a bunch of 2D portraits standing still in one place. The music in the trials especially makes them feel fast-paced. It’s almost too fast at some points. There’s almost never a break in the action, which, coupled with the less-than-stellar gameplay, makes them somewhat exhausting. I guess it’s kind of an appropriate feeling for a murder case involving your close friends.
It’s not just static action all the time, though. Trials end with elaborate animated cutscenes that usually feature the gruesome executions of the murder culprit, assuming you’re able to identify him or her correctly. The art style here is probably the strongest in the game. It’s a nice “reward” for successfully completing a trial.
In the end, in spite of the visual novel framework, the game oozes with style and manages to present a very unique and memorable sensory experience.
Danganronpa is an extremely complex and convoluted game, but such intricacies give way to a certain charm. The incredible characters and story are good enough to overcome the shortcomings of the gameplay. Even if you can’t get a handle of the basic mechanics at first, you’ll likely be compelled to trudge through them just to move on to next crazy story beat that gets you one step closer to the truth of Hope’s Peak and the circumstances surrounding the perilous predicament these poor high school students have found themselves in. Don’t be surprise if you end up shedding a few tears along the way because your favorite character bites the dust. Danganronpa tends to cruel in that way, and it’s amazing to say that about a video game.
If you own a Vita, you’re probably hurting for good games to play on the system. Unless you really hate reading, you can’t go wrong with Danganronpa.
I give Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc a 4 out of 5.
If you end up wanting even more despair in your video games once this game ends, be on the look out of Danganronpa 2, coming out in English this fall! Just try and avoid the copious amounts of spoilers already out there on the Internet!
By Alfredo Dizon, eParisExtra