“The next semester is about to start. Starting today, this school will be your entire life.”
After over a three year wait, Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc has finally found its way to America and Europe! A visual novel style Adventure game at its core, Danganronpa mixes in influences of other genres including Rhythm and Role-Playing Games. The game revolves around the themes of hope, despair which encompass a most dangerous game that leads to murder mysteries. But is this game truly worth all the hype, or is there a reason why it almost stayed in Japan‽
At first glance the story of Danganronpa is a simple one. On the first day of his new school, the protagonist Makoto Naegi takes his first steps into Hope’s Peak Academy. With rumors of the school only accepting the best of the best, Makoto can’t help but doubt his own abilities to excel compared to the others. However he quickly learns that this is the least of his worries after finding himself waking up in a strange and empty classroom. With steel bolted windows and cameras everywhere, he can’t help but hope that it is all merely a prank or strange dream. The dream quickly becomes a nightmare however he and his fellow students meet their new “headmaster” Monokuma. A whimsical sadist, the seemingly stuffed bear introduces himself and informs them that they are all trapped within the confines of the school. Their only means of escape is to graduate, and the only way to do so is by murdering a fellow student…
Despite the main concept being nothing but doom and gloom, the game initially has a surprisingly upbeat band of characters. While not exactly the most silent protagonist, Makoto Naegi serves as the player’s eyes and ears in the game. He is hopeful despite his current predicament and tries to see the best in people, despite how foolish it may seem to the others. Very early in the game Makoto meets Sayaka Maizono, the Ultimate Pop Sensation. She serves as one of the game’s few beacons of hope, choosing to spend most of her time with Makoto searching for ways to escape rather than ways to kill behind everyone’s back. In addition to Makoto and Sayaka, Hope’s Peak Academy includes about fifteen other students held captive by Monokuma. Each one is unique and surprisingly very memorable and not simply throw-away characters as expected from the murder mystery theme.
The game gives a fair deal of attention to each character without breaking the tension of the main plot. Each of them is at the school because of their own “Ultimate” skill whether it be for programming, fashion, or simply being a prodigy. As the game progresses and Monokuma continues to “motivate” his students, some are able to handle it better than others. In fact it is friction between these characters that thickens the tension between murderers. Every time two students are alone together, the player might not be able to help but assume the worst. When a death does finally occur, it might happen in the most unexpected way. Even with all the excellent foreshadowing and foreboding placed within the game.
As with most visual novels, a majority of the game’s graphics are made up from a collection of high quality CGs. These range from character renders talking in a skit-like fashion to wonderful event pieces at the game’s more memorable moments. It is all done in an anime-esk style, particularly that of many modern series. The style is heavily influenced by “pop art”, bring bright and colorful characters to the dark subject matter. With this style, times of peace look optimistic and full of life. Any other time however, this contrast shows how dark something, even if seemingly innocent, can truly be.
Outside of the 2D CGs, the game also features a 3D environment. The only time this is really used however is while the player walks around the halls of Hope’s Peck Academy. These 3D areas actually blend in amazingly well with the 2D characters. Danganronpa uses an interesting design mechanic in which the 2D character renders found within the 3D environment sway side to side as the player moves. This creates an illusion of 3D as the character will always face the player no matter where they move.
Though they don’t appear very often, this visual novel does contain cut scenes. Without spoiling anything, these appear at the most climactic moments of the game while death creeps over the school. It is these moments that truly show Monokuma’s true nature the best. Perhaps the very best part is that even in motion, Danganronpa stays true to its soon to be iconic dark pop art design.
As the game begins, it does so just as one might expect a visual novel to. The first moments of the game are made up of a collection of CGs, voice, and text that are progressed through with a simple button input. Within the first few minutes, the game introduces the point-and-click control mechanic. There is something familiar about this style of gameplay, though the game does still have a way of making things feel fresh. This is due to the game’s way of borrowing gameplay elements from other genres. It wouldn’t be incorrect to say that Danganronpa plays like Shin Megami Tensei: Persona, Persona 4, Phoenix Wright, and even Hatsune Miku -Project DIVA-. Though it never attempts to play like the four of them at all times.
Shortly after introducing the art of the point-and-click, Danganronpa allows the player to begin their exploration of the
dungeon high school. This all plays out in first person as the player makes their way through narrow hallways. Those who’ve experienced Persona, Persona 2 or Etrian Odyssey will feel right at home. While roaming the school, it is not uncommon to run into one of the other members of the student body. This can lead opportunities to fill “report cards” and get to better know each character. This is not only a way to further develop said characters, but also unlocks abilities to be used later on during the trials.
At the climax of each chapter begins a class trial. This requires the player to use clues found through the chapter in combination with skills learned by befriending other students. During the trial all of the students will try to solve the mysteries surrounding them. At times when things don’t quite add up, this is down by using “truth bullets” to fire at the student’s words themselves. Its not always as easy as it sounds however. Sometimes instead of using already found clues, the player will have to use the students’ own words spoken in trial against them or other members of the student body. In addition to using “truth bullets,” the player will also be required to play “hangman’s gambit” which is a fast paced game of hangman and finally an interesting rhythm portion that would not feel entirely out of place as an early degment of Project DIVA f. Throwing these different gameplay elements without warning makes these trials somewhat nerve-wracking. Considering it is a trial, players may begin to feel a bit of the same hope and despair as Makoto and his fellow students.
Unexpectedly, one of the game’s greatest strong points is its original soundtrack. The tracks range from upbeat and cheerful to eerie and melancholy, all without ever feeling out of place. Monokuma’s odd theme was especially excellent, making his plush appearance unsettling even early in the game. As the game’s themes are hope and despair, these tracks each seem to fit in the grey areas. Even the happier of tracks still help build tension like the calm before the storm.
Like most NIS America games before it, Danganronpa offers players the chance to play the game with either English or Japanese voices. The dub does a good job at bringing Hope’s Peak Academy to the an English audience. Many of the voices will likely sound familiar to those who’ve played other NISA games in the past. Likewise, fans of subbed anime may also find that the original voices found in the Japanese audio may also ring some bells. Either way the player can’t really go wrong. Best way to decide on dub vs sub in this case is as easy as comparing the voice behind Monokuma. Either way the actors do a brilliant job at bringing the wolf in sheep’s clothing to life.
All in all, Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc is a fantastic game that will amaze any who give it a real shot. Even with true adventure games being a dying genre outside of Japan, this is not a game to be missed. It is truly one of the first must own games for the PS Vita! The game constantly keeps things fresh and players on their toes with constantly changing gameplay mechanics during the trials. Everything about the game, from its suspenseful story to constantly changing gameplay modes, does a fantastic at keeping its audience just as captive of the students of Hope’s Peak Academy. HEY! HEY!! LISTEN!!! gives Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc 9 doughnuts out of 10!