I didn’t really know what to think of Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc before I started playing it. Previews didn’t show a whole ton and most of the screenshots of the game I saw looked like pure madness. I have since booted up, played, and finished the game and with that knowledge I can tell you exactly what Danganronpa is: fucking amazing. To be less vague, it’s what would happen if you took the intrigue and gameplay of Phoenix Wright, mixed it with the social aspects and overall style of Persona 4, and then saturated the whole mess in the sadistic insanity of the SAW movies. Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc is an incredibly unique gem of a game and anyone who enjoys the things I referenced above, or just loves a truly intriguing and deep mystery, needs to play it.
So let’s start off by explaining the premise here, it’s kind of convoluted so bear with me. You are a completely average and unremarkable student by the name of Makoto Naegi and by random lottery you’ve been chosen to attend Hope’s Peak Academy. Hope’s Peak is the country’s premiere high school and only the very best of the best are allowed attend; every student must be the ultimate in their field, but enrollment at the school ensures a student a successful future. Upon your arrival to Hope’s Peak though you mysteriously black out and when you awaken you find the building transformed. The windows have been covered by thick metal plates and the front door, the only exit, has been replaced with a new impenetrable vault door; also every room has a camera in it, some with guns of a worrying size attached. It is at this point you meet the rest of your classmates as well as your headmaster, an evil little teddy bear named Monokuma, whose only goal in life is causing people despair. Monokuma explains that your life at Hope’s Peak will be an eternal one and none of you will ever be able to leave the school again, this is because you are the next best hope for the world and keeping you all locked away is just so deliciously evil. There is a way out though, a student may leave the school if they graduate, which can only be accomplished by murdering a fellow classmate and then not being found out. Any murder that’s committed is met with a class trial where the student body will try to figure whodunit. If they pick correctly and discover the murderer (referred to as the “Blackened”) then the Blackened will be punished, if they choose wrong however then everyone but the Blackened will be punished; it should be noted that Monokuma’s method of punishment is generally a sadistically creative brutal execution. And with all that in mind you’re sent off to try to find some method of escape from Hope’s Peak while constantly looking over your shoulder, not for Monokuma, but for the other students.
Despite the obvious air of distrust that hangs around you and the rest of your classmates, it is those other student that provide the pathos of this game, mostly thanks to them all being excellently written and beautifully flawed. As I said earlier they are each at the top of their various fields but don’t mistake that for them being honor students or even good people. The things at which they are the “ultimate” range from being the “Ultimate Bike Gang Leader” to the “Ultimate Fan Fic Creator” to the “Ultimate Pop Star” along with a variety of other disciplines in between. As you might imagine, getting to the tops of such varied professions at such early ages has given them all various complexes and neuroses for Monokuma to exploit and for you to try to work out. Getting to know each of these students and slowly watching the layers of their personality peel off like an onion is a truly satisfying experience. They’re all utter clichés but unlike other anime style games, those clichés aren’t their genuine personalities but rather a facade hiding something drastically more interesting. You’ll quickly pick favorites and devote your limited free time to figuring what makes them tick and really become attached to them, which makes it all the more impactful when (not if) someone dies.
The fact that someone will die (not calling that a spoiler as this game is billed as a murder mystery after all) is the only certainty when it comes to the murders and cases within Danganronpa. Those wonderfully executed characters will regularly surprise you with what they are and aren’t capable of and while you’ll normally figure out the answers to the things before the game explicitly asks you to, how things actually got there almost always manages to be a surprise. Following the strings of logic and serpentine paths of someone who is both a murder and your friend is an insanely engaging experience and more than a few times I stayed up later than I should have and drained my VITA battery while desperately trying to get to the next piece of the puzzle. Danganronpa mixes the emotional attachment inherent in the social system concept found in Persona 4 with the fast paced twist filled drama of something like Phoenix Wright and creates an experience that is just beyond compelling as a result.
I haven’t really talked about the gameplay yet but I can certainly tell you that it serves as a perfect manifestation of the reckless abandon found in the game’s storytelling. Gameplay takes places over three phases for each chapter; Daily Life, Deadly Life, and the Class Trial. When you’re in Daily Life things play a lot like a dating game but with no romance; you’ll spend time advancing the main escape narrative as well choosing to spend time with your other class mates during which you’ll have the chance to give them presents and learn more about them individually. The Deadly Life phase occurs once a murder has been committed and the body has been found. During this phase you’ll search for clues (which are awesomely called Truth Bullets) and gather information to use during the Class Trial; it should be noted that there isn’t much challenge during this phase as the trial won’t start until you’ve collected every clue and the other characters will practically led you around by the nose.
The real fun starts when the Class Trial begins as this is where most of the actual gameplay in Danganronpa takes place. The trials work on a group consensus system where rather than a traditional defense/prosecution sort of thing, all the remaining students debate to figure out what happened and then put it to a vote who they think is the murderer. These debates take the form of a surprising slew of mini-games. When you need to convince a particular person who won’t listen, you fight them in a neat little rhythm game section; when you need to bring up a particular point but can’t remember exactly what it is, the game challenges you to Hangman to figure it out; and at the end of the trial when you need to present your concluding statement, you put together a comic strip showing exactly what you propose occurred. The most common mini-game though occurs during the regular arguments and is similar to Phoenix Wright’s gameplay though significantly more bombastic. What happens is that the group will talk out an issue while you listen and when you hear an inconsistency or contradiction you will need to call it out by shooting that statement with a Truth Bullet so you can COUNTER! your opponent and then BREAK! the conversation so you can make your point. Amazingly how I just described that process is exactly how the game describes it, terminology and all.
Tying this whole insane experience together though is the presentation which has a rebellious lunacy to it that really fits the subject matter. The style of the art will regularly change from standard anime to a more stylistic over-sketched look to a mixed 2D-3D thing that seems to be made out of cardboard, bloody gory cardboard, On that note of the blood and gore, Danganronpa handles its violence in an interesting but sometimes non-committal feeling way. Weirdly enough all the blood in this game is neon pink, which gives things an interesting punk vibe and elevates the gore in artistic sort of way; despite that neat detail though the actual times you get to see people die are pretty tame overall. Danganronpa has no problem lingering on corpses but when it comes to the executions, despite them being ridiculously stylish and super fun to watch, they cut away before you see anything too brutal which feels like an unnecessary pulling of punches to me. To touch on the sound design quickly, this game makes fantastic use of good V.O. and some really unique music choices. The characters are all voiced in ways that feel appropriate and said V.O. is well used in a couple of twists I won’t ruin. The music is like the visual design in that it’s constantly changing to fit the situation. It incorporates elements of hip-hop, ska, and punk at points and blends it well into some traditional anime music. Overall the presentation just enhances the game’s manic tone and themes of betrayal, despair, and the irrationality of human nature.
I think the best way to really show how good a game Danganronpa is, is by giving an example of just how deeply it affected my mindset while I was playing. One night while I was busting my way through it and deeply engrossed in the middle of a trial, I put the VITA down so I could go to the bathroom. When I entered the bathroom, I unconsciously opened the shower curtain so I could make sure nothing was hiding in there. It wasn’t out of fear or anything but rather a dispassionate curiosity, the game had me in such an investigative mindset that even though I wasn’t playing anymore, I was still looking for contradictions and trying to eliminate any loose ends. Opening the shower curtain was just me making sure that there wasn’t any information in there that I would need later; it made total sense to me at the time but a minute later I was sitting there asking myself what the hell I just did. To put it simply, this game drew me in and did not let go until it was done, and as such I can happily give Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc a 5 out of 5 stars. If you’re a fan of Phoenix Wright style adventure games and can stand a bit of anime and sadism, then you need to play this game.