I haven’t played a game that’s been quite as gripping as Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc in a long time. Half visual novel, half detective and court room simulator; you take control of the game’s main character, Makoto Naegi, as he attends Hope’s Peak Academy, a school for the best and brightest students in the world. Upon arriving there however, Makoto loses consciousness and wakes up in a classroom, not knowing what happened. Soon enough, he meets his 15 classmates that will live with him in the school of despair.
Hope’s Peak Academy has been taken over by an evil mastermind, who uses a remote-controlled bear called Monokuma to interact with the students. The 15 students are trapped in Hope’s Peak Academy, forced to live together forever. There’s only one way out; “graduation”. To graduate, a student must kill another student and get away with it. After a murder, the students gather evidence for the class trial and, should the correct person be found guilty, the murderer will be punished with execution. However, if the wrong person is chosen, everyone except the murderer will be executed, and the murderer will be allowed to leave the school. Needless to say, death is a common occurrence.
Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc is a Vita remake of the exceptionally long-title, Japan-only PSP game Dangan Ronpa: Academy of Hope and High School Students of Despair. It’s the first time the game has made it to the West, and the Vita version brings updated graphics, touch controls and a new School Life mode introduced in the sequel, Super Danganronpa 2: Goodbye Despair Academy. The sequel also never managed to make its way west, but NIS America decided to localise the Vita remake of the first game. Here’s hoping we get the sequel too.
Gameplay is made up of different elements, from first-person 3D exploration, 2D investigations and interactions with various rooms and objects, and then the various mini-game-esque mechanics in class trials. The game controls pretty well for the most part, although the 3D exploration is a bit clunky. You can tell the engine wasn’t really built for it and was manipulated pretty heavily to support that sort of movement.
The game operates on a time of day format similar to that of the Persona series. During the day you’ll investigate areas of the school and interact with fellow class mates as you try to uncover the mystery of Hope’s Peak. Various areas of the school are locked off, with new areas being unlocked for exploration after a class trial. Each new area bring new mysteries and, crucially, new crime scenes.
Investigations and class trials make up the meat of the gameplay, so to speak. Once a murder has taken place and the body has been discovered by three or more people, you’ll go into investigation mode. You’ll visit different areas of the school that relate to the case and interview your fellow (still living) classmates in an effort to gather evidence. Each piece of evidence you get will be logged as a “Truth Bullet” for use in the game’s class trials. The investigations themselves were pretty straightforward and not too difficult. You can’t advance to the trial or leave certain rooms until you’ve gathered all evidence, so you don’t have to worry about missing anything.
The complexity of the gameplay comes into play during class trials, however. In the class trials you’re required to use your knowledge of the case and the story to find out who the culprit is. This involves presenting evidence, arguments and counter-arguments in what are known as “Nonstop Debates”.
Here you’ll be provided with a Truth Bullet, a piece of evidence you’ve collected during your investigation, and you’ll have to shoot it at a contradictory statement another character makes (text highlighted in yellow) by aiming with the on-screen reticule and pressing triangle, or by simply tapping it on the touch screen.
Over time, these get more complex as the game throws more obstacles and mechanics at you. For example, you’ll eventually get to the stage where you’ll be given multiple Truth Bullets during a Nonstop Debate, and as well as identifying the correct contradiction, you’ll also have to choose the correct truth bullet that proves it’s a contradiction. You’ll also be forced at times to “lock-on to” someone’s statement and using that as a Truth Bullet against someone else’s contradiction.
Other aspects of class trials are also added over time. A Hangman’s Gambit gives you an incomplete word that makes up a piece of evidence, and you have to shoot the corresponding letters to fill the gaps when they appear on-screen. Bullet Time Battles are essentially rhythm mini games; you’ll have to press buttons in time with the beats, where ‘X’ locks on to a statement and triangle shoots it. Shooting your opponent’s statements decreases their meter until you win the argument. Finally, for the Climax, you’ll be asked to piece together the series of events in a comic strip format to prove who the killer is.
Messing up on any of these sections will deplete your influence meter, and when it’s all gone you’ll fail the trial. Your performance is graded, and better grades will net you more of the game’s coins which can be spent to buy items to give as presents to other students, or they can be spent in the extras section to unlock gallery pieces and movies from the game. The class trials get increasingly difficult as they go on, and while they are fun and tense, the game often does a poor job of explaining the mechanics. For example, I didn’t fully grasp how to effectively do the Bullet Time Battle until the very last one.
While the gameplay is certainly fun, the main attraction here for me was the story and the characters. Each character is elite at something, whether they be the Ultimate Baseball Star, Ultimate Idol or Ultimate Fashionista, they all have their nuances, faults and strengths. Exploring these, and indeed exploiting these when it comes to class trials is incredibly intriguing. I felt a real sense of accomplishment and engagement when I was able to recognise when some were acting suspiciously and use their personalities and actions to recognise a murderer.
The story of Hope’s Peak itself is really gripping. The premise is one that’s great for immediately pulling you in, and as the school opens up as the story goes on, the game does a great job of really reinforcing the mystery surrounding the school. It feeds you hints here and there, just enough to keep up the mystery and make you want to know more, without revealing too much. Monokuma is a great plot device in that regard, as his eccentricity and mischievousness create intense and dangerous situations for the characters. He does a great job of keeping everyone suspicious of each other and providing motives for people to kill, a theme which is central to the plot.
I also really enjoyed the music in the game. It does a great job of fitting in with the mood of the game at all times, and the entire soundtrack can be accessed and unlocked in-game by using coins in the extras menu. There’s also support for both English and Japanese audio tracks, which is excellent. I played through the game entirely with the Japanese audio, and while not every line was voiced, I did enjoy the Japanese voice acting, as I tend to in games like these.
Graphically, the game is really impressive. The art style is top-notch, particularly on the character side. The characters are drawn beautifully, each with their own very distinctive style. It’s also technically very impressive; the art style blends 2D and 3D together really well, with 2D character portraits and items in a 3D environment. For such a bleak premised game, the use of colour is really refreshing. The environment contains a lot of bright tones, with vibrant greens, reds and purples being prominent. Blood is also striking; its bright, neon-esque pink colour is a great contrast to how dark the game’s theme is.
I came away from Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc incredibly impressed. I haven’t really played a game that manages to combine some of exciting gameplay moments that you get from games like Phoenix Wright with the gripping story of some of Japan’s best visual novel games.
It’s intense, it’s fast, it’s gorgeous and, most importantly, it’s absolutely gripping. The 6 AM unlock time on my trophy for finishing the game will attest to that; I simply couldn’t put it down. It’s a meaty game (around 15-20 hours) and I’d wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone who’s looking for something unique for their Vita. Who knows, maybe we’ll get the sequel localised too.