(PlayStation Vita Review) Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc

Developer: Spike Chunsoft
Publisher: NIS America
Genre: Visual Novel / Mystery / Adventure
Players: 1
ESRB: Mature
Reviewer: Marcus Way

Overall: 8.5 = Excellent

Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc is the latest visual-novel-style investigative adventure title from genre mavens Spike Chunsoft. Gamers in North America might not be familiar with the studio, but there’s a good chance that some of the titles from the respective catalogues of developers Spike and Chunsoft might ring a bell; as separate entities, the two have developed everything from Dragon Warrior to Fire Pro Wrestling. Chunsoft recently made a splash stateside with the Aksys Games-localized releases of their visual novels 999: Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors in 2010 and its follow-up Zero Escape: Virtue’s Last Reward in 2012. It so happens that Spike was busy working on their own visual novel around the time of 999, Danganronpa. Released for PlayStation Portable in 2010, Danganronpa hit the ground running and has since spawned a sequel as well as various manga and anime spin-offs. Four years after its original release, the now-combined studio has teamed up with NIS for a North American release, and genre fans have a reason to celebrate.

Shortly after arriving for orientation at Hope’s Peak Academy, an elite high school for the nation’s best and brightest, seemingly ordinary student Makoto Naegi loses consciousness. He awakens to find himself trapped inside the school along with 14 other students, each representing the best in their field. No one knows what’s going on, nor do they know one another. Finding himself surrounded by ultimate students, Makoto quickly realizes he is out of his depth as the only one who was admitted out of luck—after winning a lottery—rather than because of his talents. Things take a turn for the worse when a bizarre mechanical teddy bear named Monokuma informs them that they will remain imprisoned for the rest of their lives, unless they can get away with murder. They will be provided with everything they need to live, if they choose to not harm another classmate, but they will also be constantly monitored and isolated from their friends and family. That is, of course, unless Monokuma becomes bored, in which case the students might find themselves compelled to kill from time to time. But this is being a game, there are rules, and even Monokuma has to follow them; well, it can bend them from time to time, but possessed bears tend to get away with that kind of stuff. As long as the students follow the school’s regulations, which restrict where and when they can access the various floors and rooms in the academy, and are able to survive the post-murder classroom trial, they are free to go. If they fail, they die. Even worse, they all die if the other students fail to convict the correct person (the Blackened). Needless to say, while Monokuma is tickled at the irony of a school named after hope being filled with despair, the others aren’t amused.

Given that Monokuma is eager for blood, and has all manner of means to rile up his captives, it doesn’t take long for the first student to be murdered. But determining the guilty party by studying the evidence alone won’t be enough to piece together the puzzle, and therein lays the problem. Despite there being a murderer amongst them, most of the students, and Makoto in particular, seems more interested in escaping than killing, and the general consensuses is that they have a better chance of surviving if they work together as friends. Trying to pick out who is genuinely looking out for their fellow classmates and who is out for themselves becomes only more difficult as everyone gets to know one another. Fortunately for players, while Makoto might not be the ultimate programmer, moral compass, or novelist, he is quite keen, and it’s the combination of his indomitable spirit, determination, and eye for detail that will allow them to see through the lies and convict the Blackened.

Getting to the bottom of things requires not only getting a read on the other students but also a lay of the land. The flummoxing investigation and chaotic trial segments are buffered by free periods in which players can explore the open areas of the school, interact with objects, and hang out with classmates. The school is navigated using a first-person view, while characters and objects flip into view as painted cardboard cutouts once an area is entered. Everything looks colorful and detailed, but the world is a touch surreal with slightly off architecture and where nothing has a depth of more than a few inches, which becomes noticeable whenever the camera is shifted to the right or left. Players can find interactive objects by either moving the on-screen cursor around until it changes or immediately highlight all of them simultaneously by hitting triangle and entering observation mode. Most objects have a small descriptor which will either flesh out what it is, how it relates to the case, or Makoto’s inner feelings at that time. Frequently, checking out objects will earn players a Monokuma coin, which can be used to acquire trinkets from a machine at the school’s shop. When talking to other characters, Makoto might get a chance to learn a little more about them and their thoughts by reacting to certain highlighted words; choosing to follow these leads is pretty much a given, though some conversations won’t proceed unless the characters are further engaged and those key words ignored. Many of these interactions are saved and filed away for later perusing prior to or during trials, and the game does a good job of ensuring that players have followed all lines of inquiry for that area or conversation.

Speaking with classmates can also lead to stronger bonds of friendship. Becoming chummy not only opens up new dialogue, but it also rewards players with new skills and skill points. The items attained from the school’s shop can be given as gifts help to accelerate the process, but they have to match the person; for example, giving the ultimate swimmer a pair of glasses that allow the wearer to communicate better with spirits would be a waste, while they would make the perfect gift for the ultimate clairvoyant. Free time is limited, however, and the story does require that characters die, so there is some risk involved in missing out on a skill by not spending enough time before they are impaled a thousand times over. This combined setup of a high school, archetypical characters, and limited time to build relationships is very reminiscent of Persona 4, but that series’ Social Links are far more robust than the bonds Makoto forms, and that can be a disappointing, given that these relationships hint at more but end up serving as a vehicle for a few extra chat sessions and skills. Such limitations aren’t surprising given that the game must follow a narrower plot by design, but that’s exactly the kind of mechanic that could open the series up to a wider audience and give them greater depth.

Once a body is found by at least three students, an investigation period is initiated. This is the main time when players walk about the school, investigate the crime scenes, and try to find out as much as possible. There really isn’t a risk of missing out here, as the story will only progress once certain triggers are met, and these always involve Makoto establishing the facts necessary to work through the trial. The trials themselves have a surprising number of action-oriented elements. The items of interest that are discovered during the investigation period are loaded in a symbolic gun and fired as truth bullets at certain statements within sentences during timed arguments. Whenever a contradiction is spotted within one of the scrolling sentences, players must aim a reticle over the highlighted portion and fire in time for their rebuttal to hit and shatter the comment. Random thoughts and comments will also scroll across the screen to block the counterarguments, but these can be ‘shot’ and destroyed for extra seconds on the counter. Depending on the round fired, players are penalized by either having seconds added on the clock, if they fired a regular bullet, or cause a loss of confidence and take a hit to their health, if they fired a truth bullet at an incorrect statement. Some comments can be taken as a replacement for a stocked truth bullet if a classmate slips up during the trial and none inventoried counter the contradiction. Makoto can give himself a leg up during arguments by focusing his attention to the point where time slows down, which makes it easier to avoid random statements and ensure a hit when the right comment scrolls across. Other modes will kick in throughout the trial as well, including hangman’s gambit, where players must shoot letters to fill in the blanks to form a word before a timer expires, and a rapid fire one-on-one argument where players must rhythmically time their button presses to lock onto a flurry of comments, fire, and reload. The skills gained by making friends allows for a wide variety of benefits throughout these modes, including reloading two bullets at a time during one-on-one confrontations and extending focus time.

Most of the trials have a closing argument in the form of an unfinished comic that must be filled in with icons in order to formulate an ironclad timeline of events and lay out the entire crime. Both the comics and contradictory comments can be uneven at times, however, as the animations that buffer the comic icons after placement and the dialogue that buffers the comments can often fill in fairly wide gaps, causing the right selection to be apparent only after other, equally solid options have been chosen. For example, the comic might have icons of an open door and another of a closed door, and both fit the comic; it’s only by trying one and having it fail and replacing it that the panel animations reveal that the guilty party left or were just entering, even though both seem to fit fine within the layout. Punishment is minimal for failure throughout the trial as players are able to simply continue from where they left off, but it can be frustrating to have to work through several options within the same portion because of unnecessary ambiguity.

Ambiguity isn’t limited to trials, either, as a sort of vagueness lingers throughout the game and remains through the end. The writing is unquestionably a highlight, thanks largely to some great work on NIS’ part, and the dialogue is far more natural than in other similar titles, such as 999. But while 999 had a sloppy setup and strong finish, Danganronpa has the opposite problem. It’s nowhere as uneven as Chunsoft’s earlier offering, but the natural dialogue and great timing give way to a repetitive and hazy final act that isn’t as strong as the rest. Stories that rely on a twist frequently fall into this trap, as the mystery offers either a great setup or a memorable finish, but managing to accomplish both is a problem for even the most skilled writers. Danganronpa takes the easy way out, and for all of the snappy, funny, and touching conversations and interactions that precede the final trial, players are hammered with the game’s theme ad nausea by an irritating Monokuma and a final reveal that is the definition of anticlimactic. The final trial is by no means bad, and at this point the story is rolling along nicely enough where it won’t sour players on the game, but it is the weakest of them all.

The developers weren’t quite ready to see players off after the last trial, though, as a what-if mode opens up: School Mode. This is a pretty unique side story that takes the form of a time-management game. Here, players must allocate rooms and tasks for their classmates, either searching for items, cleaning, or resting. Monokuma requires that they build duplicates of himself because of the number of them destroyed in the original story, of which the characters have no memory. Each copy is themed and requires different parts, so players must collect the ingredients and build everything necessary within the given timeframe, without having anyone collapse from exhaustion or letting the school get too dirty, lest a character be out of action for a while or a day be wasted. Free time can be spent either building new relationships or furthering the main story’s interactions—the latter brings up a funny note explaining that the conversations about escape and murder might seem odd given the setting but to just go with it. New relationships have dialogue unique to this mode, and these can be furthered by using free passes to another character on a trip in another part of the school. These outings have actual dialogue choices to choose from, and gifts can again be given to win people over. School Mode manages to be addictive despite its simplicity, and it’s great to be able to experience conversations that were missed due to character deaths. In all, this makes for a great way to see everyone off.

Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc is an interesting take on the visual novel, mixing elements from procedural investigative mysteries and high-school-inspired adventures with a touch of the surreal. An excellent localization by NIS America sees a class of archetype characters come to life with a lot of humor and more natural reactions than in other entries, such as 999. The introduction of relationship-building mechanics ends up being more tantalizing than fully realized, but it offers an exciting jolt in what could’ve been a more by-the-numbers release. The lackluster final trial and various ambiguities that pop up throughout the trials, which are more of a nuisance than anything else given the game’s liberal continuing policy, are the only sour notes. Fortunately, a neat post-game time-management mode that opens a new what-if scenario helps to end the experience on a positive note.

(This review is based on a copy provided by the publisher.)

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