Platform: PS Vita
Developer: Spike Chunsoft
What could inspire high school students to murder each other in cold blood? Fear? Financial gain? Honour? Despair?
This isn't a rhetorical question, because you'll have to work it out for yourself -- then prove it beyond all doubt -- to avoid grisly death at the paws of a sadistic robot teddy bear. After average student Makoto Naegi blacks out on the first day of attending his new school, he wakes up confined within the academy's walls for all eternity with his new classmates, who are offered only a single way out: commit a perfect murder, then get away with it. Surely the students will see the wisdom in peacefully working together to solve the mystery of their incarceration... right?
If only. Halfway between Phoenix Wright, Persona, Corpse Party and Virtue's Last Reward, Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc is one of the best (and most disturbing) visual novels to ever hit British shores, and easily one of the most compelling games on the PS Vita so far. If not the year so far, as long as you're comfortable with the differences between a visual novel and a traditional adventure game.
Important note: in an effort to avoid spoilers as much as humanly possible, I'm severely limited in my choice of screenshots. Be aware that the full game features graphic yet stylised depictions of brutal violence and mature themes. - Jonathan
As a visual novel, Dananronpa primarily plays out through lengthy text dialogue overlaying exquisitely sharp character portraits, interspersed with first-person exploration of the sprawling halls of Hope's Peak Academy in Makoto's shoes. We're introduced to the characters, a cast of fifteen elite students with their own unique skills, desires, personalities and dark backstories, held in thrall by the mysterious Monokuma. This robotic teddy bear-turned-headmaster is both adorably offbeat and horrifyingly insane, setting the students into a life-or-death killing game with totally unknown motives. Though somewhat heavy-handed with its major themes, Danganronpa spins a twisted, powerful and utterly engrossing yarn that you won't want to leave until its shocking conclusion, as the reasons behind your captivity are gradually revealed over 25 relentlessly compelling, harrowing hours.
Visual novels live and die on the strength of their writing. We see so many worthy games neutered by amateurish or literal translation that leads to awkward nonsensical dialogue and unnatural sentence structure, so I'm delighted to report that Danganronpa is a masterclass in both scripting and localisation. Rather than a literal word-by-word translation, Danganronpa has been painstakingly rewritten for Western audiences, leading to a narrative that successfully toes the line between quirky offbeat humour, thought-provokingly mature themes and dark despairing psychological horror, occasionally breaking the fourth wall and even skewering the games industry as it does so.
The characters are naturally the stars of the show; from vulnerable yet determined pop sensation Sakaya Maizono to the honourable musclebound female martial artist Sakura Ogami and intensely hateful yet complex brat Byakuya Togami, they're all brought to life in natural flowing dialogue, flouting traditional Japanese clichés as you discover their hidden depths over hours of play. You'll learn to love your newfound friends, even if no-one is safe... nor above suspicion.
With the characters established, Danganronpa then gradually eases you into your new high school life; an eternity of identical days that play out over and over again. You'll wake up at 7:00 with a morning announcement, stroll over to the dining hall, then spend your free time chatting to your classmates in traditional present-proffering style, or roaming the halls in first-person perspective to revel in the crisp, minimalistic art direction that's both playful yet decidedly unsettling. The day over, you'll retire to bed once the evening's recorded announcement plays out, eventually surfacing to spend yet another hopeless 24 hours in captivity. Forever.
This might sound repetitive, but in actuality, Danganronpa lulls you into a fragile sense of security that's shattered when something breaks your mundane routine.
"Something," more often than not, being gruesome, brutal murders. After all, the only way out of the school is to kill a classmate, then get away with the crime.
These shocking atrocities are depicted in unflinching grisly detail, and planned exquisitely. Everyone is a suspect, everyone has a motive, and the intricate timelines are designed to throw up numerous red herrings, contradictions, twists and utterly appalling revelations that turn the case on its head. In all honesty, I only managed to work out who the murderer really was twice... and even then, the cases took on bizarre new dimensions that rent my assumptions asunder. Once a body is discovered, you'll interact with key objects in each room to amass evidence, interview your fellow classmates, then eventually gather together in a Class Trial to expose the killer or die in the attempt.
Monokuma looms large over the proceedings, and lays down the horrifying ground rules. Should the real killer be accused and found guilty by their peers, they'll be executed in a sadistically imaginative way, leaving everyone else free to work towards solving the mystery of the school and its inexplicable lockdown. However, should the wrong person be framed for the crime, everyone dies except the murderer themselves. Your life on the line (and occasionally with Makoto in the frame himself!), these deeply personal trials continually ramp up the stakes as you struggle to prove motive, means and opportunity.
"Dangan-ronpa" literally means "winning an argument with a bullet" when translated into English, which informs Trigger Happy Havoc's most unique gameplay element. When the trial commences, your classmates bicker, argue and accuse each other in short sections of looping dialogue that continually replay as if you're stuck in a time paradox, while a clock counts down to your eventual failure and execution. The only way to break the cycle and move the trial forward is to identify weak points in your friends' logic, then select a piece of corroborating evidence you've collected, which become a literal bullet in your chamber. You'll manually take aim with an on-screen crosshair, pull the trigger and blow your classmates' arguments away.
Once you've got the hang of the underlying logic, it's uniquely satisfying to smash through the confusion with your 'truth bullets,' perhaps even more so than Phoenix Wright's legendary "Objections!" A selection of small minigames attempt to change up the pacing with varying degrees of success, but are short enough to avoid overstaying their welcome. In all, Danganronpa succeeds in bringing tense action gameplay to the visual novel experience without resorting to aggravating quick time events.
Unfortunately, both the visual novel structure and class trial gameplay have a notable downside, in that you don't have any real freedom or choice in the predetermined narrative, save outright failure. It's not really an adventure game, as you don't have the ability to truly investigate beyond interacting with preselected scenery objects, or take arguments off in different directions. On the rare occasions that you do know who the murderer is (even if its for entirely the wrong reasons), you'll still have to sit through the entire trial and mop up plenty of little details instead of confronting the culprit and presenting your own evidence.
The rational part of my mind is screaming at me to mark Danganronpa down, especially since I levelled broadly the same criticisms at The Wolf Among Us: Episode 2. But my criticisms are drowned out by the fact that the narrative, characters and experience are simply too compelling and well-crafted to ignore, rising above these petty concerns to become something truly special. As opposed to a restrictive adventure game, Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc succeeds in providing the deep relationships and powerful storyline of a visual novel, but puts your finger on the trigger where it counts. Unlike Telltale's awkward second episode, it feels complete and whole, utterly engrossing, offering two dozen hours of ruthlessly effective storytelling - on top of an unlockable 'what if?' scenario that would have been worth buying on PSN by itself.
In all honesty, I spent every day last week counting down the minutes until I could play it again. Harrowing yet uplifting, playful yet macabre, I've rarely found a game to be quite so rewarding. So long as you're ready and willing to read, to savour the experience and immerse yourself in it, Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc is one of the first truly essential games of the year. Well played, PlayStation Vita.
Now hurry up with the sequel localisation, dammit. I can't wait until Q3!
- Fiercely compelling and enthralling
- Intricately constructed elaborate murders are a twisted joy to unwravel
- Superb writing, brilliantly-realised characters and impeccable localisation
- Crisp visuals, stylish art direction and excellent soundtrack
- Unique 'non-stop debate' courtroom showdowns
- Text-heavy, lacks (but effectively disguises) meaningful choice
- A couple of weaker - if short - courtroom minigames
- A little too heavy-handed with its major themes
The Short Version: Macabre yet playful, disturbing yet uplifting, thought-provoking and intensely compelling, Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc is a masterpiece of storytelling and characterisation. So long as you're prepared for a visual novel as opposed to a full-blooded adventure game, it's a truly essential purchase, and a Vita exclusive you'll savour over two dozen rewarding hours.
In fact, it's probably my favourite game of 2014 thus far, though your personal definition of "game" may vary.