While the PS Vita release of Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc marks the debut of this particular franchise in the West, it’s taken a while for the series to be translated. This particular title is actually a remake of a 2010 PSP game, which has since received a sequel that’s still exclusive to Japan.
Having sunk a good amount of time into this game, I can guess why NIS America chose to localize it at this point. In terms of plot, it’s reminiscent of other titles from its own developer Spike Chunsoft, namely 999: Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors and Zero Escape: Virtue’s Last Reward, while its gameplay can be compared to Capcom’s popular Ace Attorney series.
Seeing how both those titles have become sleeper hits over here, it makes sense to try releasing a game that acts like a bizarre fusion of the two. That’s probably not the only reason, as Danganronpa, for those looking for a game with an engaging plot and well-developed cast of characters, nails those elements with little trouble.
Makoto Naegi, a high-schooler who describes himself as average in every way, serves as our main playable protagonist. The story starts with him being accepted to the prestigious Hope’s Peak Academy high school via lottery, but his first day hardly goes smoothly, as he is promptly knocked out and wakes up to find himself in a mysterious structure identical to the school, but with all exits sealed, windows covered in metal and all contact to the outside world cut off.
He’s hardly alone, as over a dozen other fresh students find themselves in the same situation. After initial introductions, the main conflict is established along with the primary antagonist, a robotic teddy bear calling himself Monokuma. Though he refuses to directly explain his motive, he establishes what the rules are to be from now on for all his captives. They can either choose to live the rest of their lives in this isolated building, or they can choose to murder each other.
Whenever someone is killed, the always-observing Monokuma will initiate a trial among the survivors where everyone will discuss the incident and attempt to uncover the culprit, who is referred to as the “blackened.” If the real culprit is discovered, Monokuma will execute them, but if our characters pin the blame on the wrong person, he will execute everyone but the blackened, who will then be allowed to walk free.
Though the students initially act disgusted by the concept, it’s not long at all before death starts to rear its ugly head. As the story unfolds across multiple chapters, Makoto will get to know his fellow students better as well as play detective to uncover the truth behind each murder that occurs.
I obviously can’t go into further story details without getting spoiler-heavy, but I’ll just say that after the introductions and setup are done with, the plot really takes off and doesn’t ever lose momentum. The first chapter alone throws some heavy, expectation-defying twists at you, and besides each individual murder mystery being gripping and tense, the game does a good job of gradually establishing and building up ongoing mysteries that last beyond each deadly individual verdict delivered by Monokuma.
It helps that the cast of characters is so diverse and well-written. While Makoto isn’t the most interesting protagonist, his colleagues make up for it. They each have unique personalities and conflicts within, and it’s entertaining to simply witness them clash with each other as frustration and paranoia inevitably rise.
Monokuma himself is also a great villain. His cutesy voice and design intentionally clashes with the horrific actions he carries out, but it’s obvious that he greatly relishes in the pain he’s causing. In fact, he often manages to make genuine jokes out of some of the terrible situations he forces our cast into. I couldn’t get enough of him.
As far as how the actual gameplay works, it’s generally divided into a repeating pattern of three sections. The first allows you to freely navigate the school environment, which is fully 3D, despite the cast always being portrayed as 2D sprites. Here, you have a limited amount of time to spend, which is used up by interacting with your colleagues of choice. Through these conversations, you can both learn additional background information about the supporting cast as well as unlock abilities tied to them for later portions of each chapter by increasing your friendship.
While I would say that this is my least favorite portion of the game due to its lack of tension and plot development, it ends up having a pretty good point since it helps you get attached to your comrades. Not all of them may be friendly to you, so you’re probably going to end up picking favorites, which makes it hurt even more when someone you like is murdered or found guilty – which, given the number of deaths, I guarantee will happen several times.
The second portion of the game, and typically the briefest, is an investigation-styled component. The controls and interface are the same, allowing you to navigate a cursor with a thumbstick or make use of the Vita’s front touch screen to investigate environments, but as these take place in between each murder and trial, instead of character development, they’re used to find evidence and clues that might help you determine the current culprit.
Most of the clues are generally easy to find, and the game does a great job of minimizing potential frustration with two simple mechanics. First, tapping the triangle button will cause circle outlines to appear on every interactive element onscreen. Another nice feature is that typically, once you enter a room full of clues, Makoto won’t leave it until you’ve found everything you need there, helping you keep better track of where you need to be and what’s left that you need to find.
If all this sounds interesting, it generally is, but admittedly, these sections are more reliant on reading text than actually playing them. If you just want a good story, that won’t be too much of a problem, but players interested in more intense gameplay should either look elsewhere or force themselves through these instances for what are easily my favorite parts of the game: The trials.
Each chapter wraps up with a trial where the surviving cast reviews everything that has happened to force each case’s killer out of bluffing, and much like a certain other attorney-based series, they offer many of the game’s best moments. Revelations that turn everything you thought about each case on its head are common, and the culprit is rarely obvious (save for the very first case, which contains a clue far too obvious that the cast doesn’t catch on to until its conclusion).
Numerous new gameplay mechanics also appear in the trials, and continue to be added or enhanced as the game progresses. The primary component has you play and replay individual group conversations to point out contradictions with evidence you’ve collected. Again, much like Ace Attorney, but with some interesting twists. The game gives you a preset batch of specific evidence items to use, or sometimes even one item, but later on you can select highlighted statements in a conversation and use them on another line, adding an extra layer of strategy.
Other mechanics include an end-of-case recap that has you filling in manga-style panels with specific pictures to put together Makoto’s final hypothesis, and even a rhythm minigame, where you break down specific partners who refuse to admit or agree with something irrefutable. The former isn’t as fun as it could be, due to some sections being a little unclear and requiring some trial and error, but the latter works for the brief sections it appears in.
For a good portion of the game, voice acting and dialog are delivered in a manner similar to such titles as Fire Emblem: Awakening, where expressive but static character portraits deliver text-based conversations as short voice clips play that sum up their feelings.
This leads me to another big positive with the trial sections: They’re all fully voiced. It helps that the voice acting is fairly strong too, with the possible exception being the cold and calculating student Byakuya. His voice probably sounds emotionless on purpose to fit his personality, but it’s still a bit out-of-place compared to the rest of the cast.
Being a PSP psuedo-remake, don’t expect to be blown away by any of the graphics. The 3D environments are nothing special, and while the character emotions and designs are good, they don’t animate at all. Also, I found one of the character designs, for a masculine, muscle-bound female student named Sakura, distractingly out of place every time she popped up. Her design is exaggerated enough to fit in some sort of comedic anime or game, but not in a story like this that commits to being dead serious for its vast majority.
Despite those issues, and its simplistic gameplay outside of its trial sections, Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc is still a success due to its solid writing and genuine tension and surprises. I sunk much longer play sessions into this game than I typically do simply because I was dying to see what would happen next and what the secrets behind each mystery were. I suspect that most gamers, if they’re willing to give such an unorthodox-sounding game a chance, will feel the same way.
This review is based on the PS Vita exclusive, which was provided to us for review purposes.