If you're looking for some mystery, you've just hit the jackpot.
A unique mystery-style visual novel built upon school life, Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc puts you in the shoes of Makoto Naegi; an uninteresting young man who has (through the luck of the draw, quite literally) earned himself a place in an elite school called Hope’s Peak Academy.
This academy promises all graduates life-long success, but upon arriving at the school everyone passes out instead. Waking up, Makoto and the other students who’ve been invited quickly realize that they’re trapped inside – lifelong success quickly turning into lifelong imprisonment. Where other games are about leveling up, saving the world or simply getting something you’re searching for, Danganronpa takes the route where your only real goal is to survive.
Waking up and getting acquainted with the other students, a strange black and white bear-bot headmaster named Monokuma shows up and lets them in on their fate; they will all be trapped inside Hope’s Peak until a student kills another and gets away with it – and even then, only they’ll be able to leave. Various incentives are given to motivate the students to kill and before long you’ve started your first investigation into a death on the premises – the real meat of the game (other than the story itself) coming into play.
Investigating is the first step after a murder and allows you to gather the evidence you need for the trial. Investigation involves using your cursor and a keen eye to find things that are out of place or suspicious among the classrooms and statements of your fellow students. These found clues (combined with testimony from other schoolmates) are what make up the brunt of your trial fodder. Without clues and testimony from the environment, you wouldn’t be able to build the full picture of what’s going on and figure out what to do next.
Trials are broken into sections; including the portion in which you shoot down “evidence” using “truth bullets”, a hangman section to uncover hidden words, a rhythm section to do battle with quick-talking adversaries and a comic-book-paneled “Closing Argument” section where you’re meant to lay out the “crime”. These sections sometimes repeat or change order depending on the trial, though they’re mostly all included once they’ve been introduced through progression in the game.
Moving on to who you’re trapped in there with, the other students are as varied as they come; no personality or character trait is left out at Hope’s Peak and every niche seems to be filled by a student – which makes for both quick friendships and quick rivalries. The majority of the student body is filled with people who are outstanding at what they do, each student having a title that starts with the word “ultimate”; the only one who doesn’t really seem to fit this pattern is Makoto, though due to his winning the lottery for a place in the school he’s often referred to as the “ultimate lucky student”.
The students you’re trapped with play a role other than just suspicious characters though, as you’re able to interact and learn about them to gain advantages you can use in the trials. Each character has a “report card” which you fill in as you learn about them through interaction during free time (a block of time dedicated to exploration and interaction). Upon reaching a certain point with the character you’re interacting with, you’ll be given a skill to use in the trial phase, which you equip right before you enter. These skills take skill points (which are also awarded through interaction) and as such only a few can be stacked at a time depending on how many skill points they take up each. This is another clear area where the Persona influence and familiarity is felt; this system resembling Persona’s social links in many ways.
The headmaster (and seemingly mastermind) of the school situation is also quite a character – especially considering he’s a ying-yang-esque psychotic bear. Monokuma (literally black and white bear in an English/Japanese melding of words) is a half-white, half-black bear with tendencies to be either good or evil depending on which side of his body he’s showing you most of. He’s the one who seems to run Hope’s Peak Academy and definitely has something to do with why you’re locked in the school with no way out. He’s also the enforcer of school rules – so don’t get on his bad side or he won’t hesitate to show you he’s in charge. However, unlike the social aspects reminding me of Persona, this little guy does not – he’s the polar opposite of Teddie/Kuma in Persona and it’s quite obvious from the beginning. That said, he’s also a hell of a character, a great addition to the story and an integral part of the whole experience; he’s great for completely different reasons than Teddie is, and that’s okay with me.
The controls for the game are fairly simple, giving you a few options to work with depending on the situation. Moving around the school is done in first person, with both motion of the player and the camera view controlled using the analog sticks. Interaction with objects/people is done using the “X” button, while the triangle button is used for a quick check of what can be interacted with. When talking to a student, you will also encounter reaction words, which can be activated using triangle. These reaction words are there for you to use to get more information from the student, and activating them will often make Makoto ask them to expand on the idea.
When in trial mode, “truth bullets” (little phrases which disprove/prove statements given by others, based on clues and evidence) are shot at suspect statements using the triangle button, while “white noise” (phrases meant to get in the way) must be dealt with using “X”. You move the sights of the “gun” using the analog stick, slow down time (called concentrating) using the right trigger and select important statements for use as temporary truth bullets using the left trigger.
The graphics of the game are fairly simple and for the most part look quite good. There are some areas in which “jaggies” (jagged pixel lines due to a lack of antialiasing or low resolution) are present, however most of the game is very clean looking and crisp. The style of the game is 2.5D, putting flat images on a 3D environment (if you don’t believe me, change your view a bit – the characters are paper thin from different angles). This style actually works quite well and allows for more easy selection of objects which would otherwise be obscured by bodies, a good choice from an aesthetic standpoint.
Audio is very pleasant, with some very catchy additions to the soundtrack. In particular some of the trial songs are quite up-beat and catchy, something I don’t mind listening to over and over again. As for the character voices, I chose the Japanese voices for my play-through and they were quite good. Aoi’s cute little “でも” (Romaji: “de mo” – the Japanese equivalent of “but…”) made me smile a little every time she spoke – a quality that I find quite endearing for a video game. Falling in line behind Aoi, the rest of the cast’s voices were also quite good and fit their characters well – though I’m not sure if that holds true for the English option. That said, choosing Japanese I didn’t find one issue or thing I disliked about the sound effects, voices or music.
There are some issues with the game, though they’re much less prominent than the great things about it. The jaggies, the lame hangman mini-game and the “white noise” aspect when people are talking during a trial are pretty good examples of things they’ve done wrong here. Though these aren’t big nagging issues, they are things that detract from the style and flow of the game – and as such I thought I should warn you.
That said, the game itself is fantastic. It pulls you in much like Persona would, rooting its story and characters deep in your head. This is the game you’ll struggle to put down to eat, play every spare minute in the break room at work and lose at least a day of your life to in total (my play-through was just shy of 24 hours). It’s not a short game or meant to be played in bite-sized chunks, so make sure when you sit down with Danganronpa you’ve either got some time or a strong desire to get yelled at for not doing your work, paying attention at school, or whatever it is you’re trying to slip some play-time into. This game is both addictive and amazing, a combination that’s more likely to hook you and not let go than one that allows you to put it down.