In the world of DanganRonpa: Trigger Happy Havoc, Hope's Peak Academy is the most prestigious high school. It accepts only the "ultimate" students who far surpass regular high school students. You have the ultimate baseball star, the ultimate martial artist, and some more esoteric skills, like the ultimate fan fiction writer. Our hero is Makoto Naegi, an average boy who is selected for Hope's Peak via a lottery that dubs him the ultimate lucky student. Moments after arriving at the school, Makoto passes out — and awakens in a strange new world.
Hope's Peak is sealed away from the rest of the world. The doors and windows are barred, and the majority of students are missing. Naegi awakens with 14 other students, who are also there for their first day of school. They are being held prisoner by Monokuma, who appears to be a bright and fluffy teddy bear. He claims he's holding the children hostage for their own good, and they should live a nice, quiet life at school. If one of them murders another student without getting caught, he'll let them go. There can only be one survivor, and any students who fail to identify the correct culprit will be executed. It quickly becomes clear that the malicious bear is pushing them toward murder and mayhem. The 15 students work together to find a way to escape before Monokuma's evil schemes doom them all.
The game is divided into two segments. The early portion is called the Daily Life segments, where you can explore the school. Much of the school is blocked off at the start, although Monokuma gradually unlocks new areas. You gradually advance the plot by talking to fellow students. You'll also poke around the environment for special medals that you can exchange at the school store for presents, which are randomly generated items from the vending machine. Each time you buy a present, you have to spend more medals for a chance to get a present you haven't gotten before. Think of the trophies in Super Smash Bros.
Every so often, you'll run into a stretch of story where nothing much is happening. During these free time segments, you can spend time with one of the 14 other cast members. If you give them a proper present during that time, you'll become closer friends, and that yields two benefits. It gives you more information about the characters, and Makoto levels up as he spends time with people, so he'll gain new skills or skill points.
Everything turns around when a murder occurs. Once one student murders another, Monokuma gives the surviving students a chance to identify the killer or die. At this point, Daily Life becomes Deadly Life. In Phoenix Wright adventure game style, you are given a limited amount of time in which to scour the environment for clues about the murderer. This involves talking to other students and poking around the environment. Much like Phoenix Wright, the game won't advance until you've found all the relevant plot information, so this part of the quest is more about puzzling out the crime and building character. Eventually, the trial is called and you get to solve the murder.
Trials in DanganRonpa are a bit different from those in Phoenix Wright. You have to present evidence, but it takes place during real-time, fast-paced action sequences. Monokuma isn't interested in a fair trial. You're forced to rush through the reasoning and decisions. As the various cast members argue, their words fly across the screen. Occasionally, a word or phrase is highlighted.
Now comes the tricky part. Each piece of evidence is turned into a "truth bullet," which you can fire at the highlighted word by tapping the screen or moving the crosshairs and firing. You have a limited amount of time to do this, so you have to be quick. It sounds simple, and in our demo, the first case was largely a tutorial, but it gets more complex. Depending on the difficulty level, you'll have different amounts of truth bullets, so you'll have to determine which bullet is right for which phrase. Some phrases are red herrings, and some truth bullets are unnecessary. Unlike Phoenix Wright, you've got to be quick on the draw when considering the evidence. Each wrong choice or miss drains Makoto's Influence bar. If Influence hits bottom, the game is over.
There are other minigames that you need to play while presenting evidence. One involves selecting flying letters to spell a word that has something to do with the mystery. You've got to figure out what is missing or what you're trying to spell out, "Jeopardy" style, to solve the mystery. Another involves playing a rhythm-based minigame where you must "shoot down" an opponent's wild arguments with simple button presses before you can use your truth bullet to break open their argument. Another challenges you to pick the proper evidence to shoot down an argument, but it's strictly timed, giving you only a few moments to consider what you might need. It's quite a different feeling from the leisurely problem-solving in Phoenix Wright, but the clues seem a bit simplified to make it easier to pick the right one in a hurry.
There are also multiple difficult levels for the action and "logic" elements, making it easier to customize the game to your twitch-skill preferences. As mentioned above, you can also unlock skills and abilities by palling around with other characters, and that can improve your capabilities in these sequences. Finally, there's a concentration ability you can use that temporarily slows down time but takes time to recharge, so you must balance using it with the risk of having it unavailable when you need it. (For those who want a challenge, there are also trophies for finishing the trials without using concentration.)
We only got to experience the first chapter of DanganRonpa: Trigger Happy Havoc, but it is shaping up to be a game that murder mystery fans will lap up. It combines the surreal atmosphere of Virtue's Last Reward with the crime-solving gameplay of Phoenix Wright and adds a touch of its own twitch-based action gameplay to boot. The characters are a likeable cast of weirdoes, and the mystery clearly has layers upon layers, so there's a lot to be excited about. If you're a PS Vita owner looking for a different take on Phoenix Wright, or you enjoy murder mystery visual novels, DanganRonpa is exactly what you need when it hits shelves this February.
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