Court is now in session. Or review, I suppose.
Anyway, Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc is one of those titles that’s really hard to gauge until you actually play. Simply reading a general synopsis doesn’t really reveal just how bad the situation is for these characters. Looking at it from the outside you may think: “No problem! Plenty of games feature teens in dangerous situations but they always make it out okay.”
However, once you enter the world of Hope’s Peak Academy you begin to understand the true depths of despair. These 15 students are trapped in a building completely cut off from the outside world. Barring their super talents and skills, they are still just regular humans who are helpless to not only the cruel and wicked Headmaster Monokuma, but to each others own base desires.
If no one commits murder to become a “Blackened” one and attempts to graduate (meaning escape) from the academy, then every student will be trapped forever and unable to ever see their loved ones again. And if someone does cross that line, they will either die or condemn all other students to die in their place. Defying one of the strict guidelines will also result in instant death and constant surveillance ensures that nothing goes unpunished.
This is the true horror these students face. And this is the horror you must face while playing this game.
Normally, Danganronpa plays out like a visual novel with the protagonist Makoto advancing the story through simple dialogue. He is also able to move around the campus by actually walking, which is refreshing for this kind of game. This first section is called “Daily Life” because, ignoring the fact that you’re all trapped in a school with a murderous teddy bear forever, it’s the more laid-back part of the game.
There’s also Free Time, which is exactly what it says on the tin. During this mode, Makoto can bond with other students and learn more about their lives before this forced imprisonment. It’s similar to Persona 3 and 4‘s Social Link system, in both bonding and that Makoto gains benefits that aid him later on.
In this case, however, the hero acquires skills specifically for the inevitable courtroom battle. Just like Social Links, the hero may be prompted to answer a question about the student, whether it’s about something he’s been told already or general knowledge trivia. You can also give gifts to the students you’re building relationships with, which makes it easier to max out their link.
This happy, carefree section can’t go on forever and the “Deadly Life” section is when reality comes a-knockin’. When a student is murdered by another (and not “punished” by Monokuma), a Class Trial will be set for a few hours later.
Meanwhile it’s up to Makoto and the other students to investigate the crime scene and gather evidence to prepare, lest they judge wrong and are “punished” themselves. This section plays very closely to the Ace Attorney series, in regards to examining crime scenes and speaking with possible witnesses.
Unlike the easygoing (gameplay-wise) nature of the everyday life and even investigations, courtroom battles play out completely differently. It begins with a Class Argument in which every student speaks up about the murder, possible causes of death and crime scenarios.
Class Arguments also occur throughout the rest of the trial and it’s your job to pinpoint which phrases contradict any of the Truth Bullets (bullets of evidence Makoto gathered during the Investigation stage) your “gun” possesses in its cylinder. Yep you heard that right. Your job is to literally shoot a bullet and break that pesky phrase in order to present a counterargument.
Beware though, because this segment is timed and if it runs out, you automatically lose the case. If you screw up and pick the wrong phrase, the protagonist takes damage and if he runs out of health, kiss your case goodbye. (As a note, even though you can’t save during certain parts in the trial, if you do fail you’ll only have to repeat the last area that you failed in. Pretty fair, yeah?)
At certain points, the hero may also be prompted to present one of the Truth Bullets to answer a question about the crime or be prompted to shoot down letters to form a word relating to the investigation. These are also timed and come with the same repercussions. Players have a choice to either use the analog sticks and buttons or simply the touch controls in this segment. In my own experience, either method works fine but the touch screen is a bit more precise and therefore my preferred way.
Once you and the other students argue enough, the truth will become clear and you’ll soon be headed toward the final parts of the trial. First is an interesting rhythm mini-game, which occurs if a student (perpetrator or not) completely refuses to listen to reason.
You must tap the X button to match each dot that reaches the center. This targets a statement shouted by the student. On the next beat you must hit Triangle in order to break it and damage the student. If you wait too long, it’ll blow up and Makoto takes damage. I think you get what happens when he takes too much damage. It’s also possible to target multiple statements, which deals more damage to the enemy. The trial concludes with a Closing Statement that summarizes what was established during the trial. This section calls upon your powers of pure memory, so pay attention to everything.
This is when things get twisted. Remember that parallel I made between Ace Attorney and this game? Well, this is the point where those similarities irrevocably diverge.
After the true culprit is determined by Makoto and voted on by the other students, the “Blackened” is immediately taken away to be executed and you and the remaining students get front row seats to a gruesome and graphic murder.
The 3D graphics aren’t anything to write home about but the 2D artstyle, especially the high quality art found in special scenes, has a really distinctive look that adds to the already distinctive game. You’ll also notice the use of pink blood, which was originally a censorship method but became a trademark of the series. I’m glad the color was kept because it adds yet another disturbing layer to the insidious mood.
Players may notice the music as they explore the school and delve deeper into the story, and it’s a real stunner. Composed by Masafumi Takada, the composer from the No More Heroes series, each piece is incredible, perfectly created and matches every scene.
As a bonus, unlike the simple phrases uttered by students during “Daily Life” and the first part of the “Deadly Life” section, the entire class trial is fully dubbed. It may sound like an average add-on but in fact this one aspect catapults the unfolding drama to cinematic levels. Personally, I enjoyed the dub cast but if you’d like to bring a little more Japanese into your life, the game lets you choose either language at (almost) anytime.
Danganronpa is borderline sadistic, whether it be the horrible punishments Monokuma can (and does!) bestow upon the students, slowly watching each student break under the stress, the victims of murder or even the trials and death of the perpetrators themselves.
Everything is designed to carefully create a perfect and continuous cycle of hope and despair, from the atmosphere to the character development to the pulse-pounding Class Trial segments to the constant threat and the act of murder and betrayal that permeates every aspect of the game.
Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc is a visual novel that seems to do the impossible — it features an excellent cast of unique, flawed and sympathetic characters and a wonderfully addictive story that literally keeps you on the edge of your seat. Visual novels need more games like this; ones that make you feel invested, engaged and most importantly, challenge the genre in new ways.