Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc is like so many games you have played before, but also like nothing you have played before. This makes it a pretty unique game from the off. It does come with a bit of a warning though. You do need to like reading, as there is dialogue, lots and lots of dialogue.
Hope’s Peak Academy is a very private and exclusive school, with places reserved for the ultimate students in their respective fields, be it sports, music, fashion, programming, as long as they are the ultimate. That is with the exception of you! You take on the role of Makoto Naegi, who is average in every way, but still finds himself at this school for the ultimate.
What happens next is for you to discover, but it takes a turn for the dark and things do get very dark indeed, especially from the moment you first meet Monokuma, a sadistic and really quite disturbed bear, who has trapped you in the school, with very little hope of getting out. Very early on you are told that to get out of the school, you have to kill another student, but you must not be discovered…This leads into the main story, one which we will not spoil for you.
Monokuma really is something else, everything about him is unsettling, from his look, his general demeanor and especially his voice. It is a cleverly designed and scripted character, whose look along with his voice never make you feel comfortable around him, even though you know it is just a game character.
So what is Danganronpa then? Well, it is a little bit Persona 4, a helping of Virtue’s Last Reward, a splash of Phoenix Wright, but at the same time it is nothing like any of those games. You have elements of relationship building as you get to know the various character in the game, but you use that to then work out whether you can trust them, believe their stories and find out who the killer may be.
Conversations give you opportunities to delve a little deeper, ask questions and eventually try to place blame. It isn’t as simple as making this decision, you have to be right, if you are wrong, then things won’t go well for you, or the group. Trial and error won’t work here, this isn’t a short game where you can go and try out various things in the hope you can get the right outcome, the building of relationships, the dialogue between characters, all need to be respected, you have no choice but to take a methodical approach.
What impresses with the make up of the game, is that it isn’t afraid to push boundaries with the narrative, this isn’t a light hearted game at all. It can and does pull some emotional strings and you do form bonds with the characters, that despite their quirky designs, are actually very well rounded and believable with their own emotions and actions. In turn this also tests your own morals, as you try to work your way to an end game.
The mechanic for collecting evidence is well done also. You have truth bullets, which allow you point out area of text that can be contradicted of questioned, these are then collated as you use it to deduce your findings. Along with this there are various mini games that help you find yet more evidence, all leading to a point where you can make a clear accusation.
The main problem here, is that unlike a game such as Virtue’s Last Reward, there is only the single outcome, there aren’t any real branching paths, which does soon show that there is less choice than you’d initially expect based on the early setup. The game feels more like a visual novel, where you set the pacing yourself and learn parts of the story by your own actions.
Yet somehow it works, the writing and the gameplay balance out nicely and despite knowing you are heading down a single path, you are happy to do so. You want to know the outcome, how all the characters finish the story. It shouldn’t work, the illusion of choice whilst having large amounts of dialogue thrust upon you, shouldn’t be enjoyable as a game, but this does work, you can’t help but be drawn in, from the opening to the very end.
What Danganronpa does is show how games are evolving, that there is a space for dialogue heavy experiences and that with the right scripting, you can care about characters and care about what happens to them, much in the same way you can in a book, or a film. Yet by introducing even basic interactivity, you can feel even closer to them, making storytelling move from the passive activity is once was, to something a lot more active.
The digital age of gaming, has seen a steady influx of games like this come from their home in Japan, to the west. In days past, these would need to be imported, as the risk vs reward for publishers releasing on disc in a territory where these may not work, was too much. Now though, the translation work can be done and the games can be released digitally and the Vita becomes an ideal home for such games, as they can be taken and played for any length of time anywhere.
The themes of Danganronpa aren’t going to be for everyone, but for those who want an exceptional story that gets its hooks in, then you cannot go wrong here. Monokuma will leave his mark on you, one way or another. This is once again a fine edition to Vita’s ever impressive library.