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.
A robotic bear named Monokuma has kidnapped Makoto and the newcomers and sealed them away from the outside world. The students must stay and live in perfect solitude — but the first to kill a classmate without getting caught will be set free. Everyone left behind dies in their place. Makoto and the others must figure out how to escape while avoiding the ever-present temptation of taking the easy way out.
What may make or break the game for some people is the way it mixes surreal humor and seriousness. Similar to Phoenix Wright, it's a game about murder being perpetrated on (and by) wacky cartoonish characters. The cast gets sillier and more self-aware as the game goes on, and that contrasts with the increasingly grim murders. The tonal backlash can be amusing or off-putting, depending on your limits.
However, DanganRonpa is an entertaining and engrossing cartoony murder mystery. It is quite good about doling out plot twists and snippets of information just enough to keep you wanting more. There are a few shocking twists and clever bits of misdirection that keep the story entertaining. Perhaps more important is that the cast is enjoyable. Most begin as stereotypes, but as murders occur, the surviving cast members develop more personality to compensate. By the time you reach the later chapters, you have a small but distinct cast of characters, most of whom are memorable and, if not likable, at least enjoyable on their own merits. It also hits harder when a character who is likeable meets a brutal death.
There are a few duds here and there, though. A few survivors feel like one-note characters instead of growing into a role. One character even makes a meta-commentary about how he's devolved into such a joke character because his "personality wasn't as developed in the early chapters." They're there to be funny instead of advancing the plot, and sometimes, they feel out of place when they're being goofy during tense moments. Likewise, a few murders are too simplistic. There are a lot of twists and turns, but they foreshadow the actual culprit too much, watering down the actual murder-solving. This isn't entirely bad since the process of figuring out "how" is often as fun as "who," but it can drag down the investigation when you have to sit through the protagonist wondering who the murderer is when you'd already figured it out ages ago.
The core gameplay is by the book. Each chapter starts with a "Daily Life" segment, where you walk around the school, investigate rooms and talk to characters. Movement is done entirely in first-person view. Inside a room, you use the analog stick or touch-screen to select an object or person to investigate and use the shoulder buttons to rotate the camera. The Triangle button instantly highlights any object you can investigate. Select an object, and you'll get a pop-up of information. If you've played Phoenix Wright or Virtue's Last Reward, you know what to expect.
Most of the Daily Life segments are on strict rails. You have to go to certain places, see certain events, and follow the story as it progresses. The exception to this are the Free Time moments, which allow you to talk to any (surviving) cast member. After spending time with them, you can give them a present. If they like it, you unlock a short story segment and a special skill to use in the Trial segments. Poke around the environment for medals that you can exchange at the school store for presents. The more medals you spend, the greater your odds of getting a new item.
The medals and presents feel like a tacked-on mechanic. It involves doing well in a trial segment and shoving coins into the vending machine for a couple of minutes. Then you make friends by choosing earmarked presents for a character and giving it to him or her. It pads out what would otherwise be a simpler mechanic. There would be no significant difference if you could spend time with people without giving them presents, except that you'd spend less time shoving medals into the vending machine.
Once a murder occurs, the game switches to Deadly Life. It's exactly like Daily Life, except you search for clues. Each clue you find is saved as evidence for later, and once you've found all the clues, you move on to the trial section. You argue, present evidence, point out holes in testimony and put together clues. The title's major difference from Phoenix Wright is that it combines solving mysteries with action-based minigames.
Arguing in court is done by various characters shouting arguments at one another, with the words superimposed on the screen. Truth bullets represent the pieces of evidence you have. If you find a contradiction in someone's argument, you shoot it with a truth bullet by aiming at a target or tapping the Vita screen. If you are right, it shatters the argument and ends the discussion. If you're wrong, you lose health and have to try again. As the game progresses, this gets more complex. You can equip skills that make it easier to hit the target, reduce the white noise, allow you to slow down time, or various other factors. All of this is in addition to the clue-solving mystery aspects of the game. You must figure which piece of evidence contradicts a testimony but aim it properly to hit the target through the obstacles.
The other minigames are similar. You must figure out missing letters by shooting them as they fly around the screen, play a rhythm-based minigame to shoot down an argument from the opposition, or choose evidence while on a strict timer. Everything is designed to encourage fast-paced gameplay and add tension. Perhaps the coolest but least tense is Closing Arguments, where you piece together comic book panels to describe how the murder occurred. None of the minigames are very difficult, so you shouldn't feel deterred even if you're not a fan of the action genre.
The trial segments are a mixed bag. Not every trial is good, but enough of them are fun enough to face the challenge. The positive is that the trials add a sense of intensity and urgency to the debate process. On the other hand, the mechanics are not very fun. They add an extra layer of abstraction to what is otherwise a simple mechanic, and none of the minigames are engaging enough to make that abstraction worth it. Having to time your "shots" to hit an enemy's argument feels meaningless when the most interesting part is choosing the correct truth bullet.
DanganRonpa shares the same problems as a Phoenix Wright trial, where you are occasionally blindsided because you presented a piece of evidence that felt right but wasn't exactly what the developers had in mind. For the most part, the trials are fast-paced, and it's deeply satisfying to shoot down a murderer's arguments and back them into a corner.
After you finish the game you unlock a silly additional mode, School mode, which is set in an alternate "What if?" version of the plot, where the murder game never occurs. You either have characters clean, gather or rest. Any activity drains a character's HP, and they need to rest to replenish it. It's a balancing act between getting the most out of a character and keeping them healthy. You can use collected items to craft robots or make consumables to heal characters or improve their stats. At the end of each day, you can take a trip with a character or spend free time with them, just as in the main game, right down to unlocking skills and skill points. These skills carry back to the main game if you want to replay it. School mode is unlikely to hold your interest once you've exhausted your time with each available friend, but it's tough to complain about anything that adds value to the game.
DanganRonpa has an unusual visual art style. The game is basically framed as a pop-up picture book. All the characters are flat, 2-D sprites, and each environment "pops" into existence as you enter. It's different to look at, but it gives the title a lot of personality. The character sprites are large and colorful, and that really sets them apart.
The simplistic paper-doll visuals are carried by the soundtrack and voice acting. In particular, the game offers a choice between Japanese and English voice acting, but both do the job. There are several standout characters and several who feel lackluster but never bad. The only character I felt was poorly cast was the English voice for protagonist Makoto. He isn't bad, but he sounds like a squeaky-voiced teenager working at a drive-in. It's appropriate for the character, but when he tries to get dramatic, he sounds like he's a second away from his voice cracking.
If there is one annoying thing about the voice work, it is that the title isn't fully voiced. Important scenes and the trial segments have full voice acting, but for every other line, the character shouts one of a few canned phrases. It gets annoying very quickly when the same character talks a few times in a row and spouts the same phrase over and over.
DanganRonpa: Trigger Happy Havoc is one of the most distinctive murder mystery games on the market. The interesting characters, unusual aesthetic and action/puzzle fusion make it unlike anything else. In the end, it still scratches the same kind of itch as Phoenix Wright and other visual novel games. It's an enjoyable romp with a cast of silly but likeable characters, and the title straddles the line between serious and ridiculous. It doesn't always work, but it works often enough to keep you engrossed in the game. It has its share of flaws, and the action-based gameplay doesn't benefit the game much. If you're a fan of visual novel games or are looking for a Sony system equivalent to the Phoenix Wright series, DanganRonpa hits the target.
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