The lights are on
Your mind is a revolver. Everyone around you is muttering incoherently, clouding your focus, but with a bit of concentration, you're able to clear away the white noise. Suddenly, you connect the dots, and notice that a false statement has been spoken, and that's when you react. Lining up your shot, you load in a bullet laced with the truth, and fire. Then, the lie is shattered, and you let loose a cry of "No, that's wrong!", and command the attention of your peers. Now, it's your turn to speak, and discover the truth of who murdered your friend. This is what Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc boils down to, and it's a wonderful take on the growing (and branching out) visual novel genre.
"OBJ-I mean-NO, THAT'S WRONG!"
Dangan (弾丸) translates to "bullet", while ronpa (論破) means "to defeat in an argument". As I mentioned before, your mind in Danganronpa is a revolver: you fire Truth Bullets at your opponents' lies in order to discover the truth behind the murders that occur at Hope's Peak Academy. Danganronpa takes obvious inspirations from the Zero Escape (999 released a year before the original title) and Ace Attorney series, but it distances itself enough to be its own unique experience that fans of these series should not complain about these similarities. It feels like its own unique take on the idea of several people being trapped in one place, under the threat of death, and also on the idea of courtroom battles. The twists work completely, and make Danganronpa one of the best games available for PlayStation Vita.
The game centers around Class 78 of Hope's Peak Academy, a revered school in Japan, where only students that are "Ultimate" are allowed. These students range from the expected like Ultimate Programmer and Ultimate Writing Prodigy, to the odd like Ultimate Fanfic Creator and Ultimate Clairvoyant. The diverse cast is one of Danganronpa's strengths: the characters are able to relate because of their situation, but also clash over varying ideals and interests. I enjoyed some characters more than others, but they ultimately are all developed well enough to stand out from each other and contribute to the story in their own ways. The protagonist, Makoto Naegi, as the "Ultimate Lucky Student" (as he won a random lottery to attend Hope's Peak), acts as a good player character because of being relatable to the player, and because of his focus to survive while not giving into despair.
Besides the cast of high school students, there is the main antagonist Monokuma, a black-and-white bear who acts as Hope's Peak's "headmaster". He constantly entices the students to murder each other, but his vulgar and murderous attitude is balanced by how much he acts like a cartoon character. He will literally pop out at random times, when you least expect it, to either berate the students for doing something, or explain something they don't understand. I may have enjoyed Zero III from Virtue's Last Reward more, but Monokuma has his own quirks that make him memorable. I sort of wish that he was involved with the Class Trials a bit more, but this is a minor complaint.
The death situation that the students are in is tied to the Class Trials: the only way for anyone to leave Hope's Peak is to kill another student, and then get away with the murder. Doing so means that everyone but the killer themselves will be subject to execution. However, if the killer is found out, then they will be executed, and everyone else lives. This creates a tense situation, as not only does someone have to kill another person outright, but they also have to deceive everyone from their actions, and leave behind everyone else to die. The Class Trials are conducted by the students who are still alive, including the true killer, and are presided over by Monokuma. They are composed of various mini-games that are performed to try and find out the true killer. Some are more enjoyable than others, but I ultimately had the most fun during the game's Class Trials. One downside is that each of them can be competed in less than two hours, some under one. This may be because I'm used to the slower, more methodical pace used by the Ace Attorney series, but ti ultimately did hinder my enjoyment of the game a bit: I was always itching to get to the next trial, but then it ended so quickly.
The various mini-games you perform during Class Trials are called Non-Stop Debate, Hangman's Gambit, Bullet Time Battle, and Closing Argument. Non-Stop Debate is where you will spend most of your time in Class Trials: statements will flash across the stage, and you must shoot a Truth Bullet at phrase that isn't true. The game does a good job of ramping up the difficulty over time, and only a couple times did I get really frustrated with this mechanic. Hangman's Gambit is the least inspired of the bunch, and has you shoot letters in order to form a word that Makoto needs to recall. My favorite one (that isn't Non-Stop Debate) is Bullet-Time Battle, but it is the most confusing of the bunch as well. It's just a small rhythm game where you shoot Truth Bullets in time with the tempo, but I always got caught in the moment and swayed to the music. Finally, Closing Argument has you lay out a comic strip (that is about 75% filled already) detailing the entirety of the crime. Each of these mini-games is fun, but there's a bit of a learning curve to them that created frustration on my end.
She's smiling. Of course she liked it.
When someone hasn't been killed, in the aftermath of a trial, you will have what is called "Free Time", which is where the game becomes a bit like the Persona series. You're given the opportunity to explore Hope's Peak, and spend time with the other students. Doing so can help you unlock more abilities for use during the Class Trial (such as having more influence, which is your health, or more powerful attacks during Bullet Time Battles). Ultimately, this part of the game was my least favorite, as I was just itching to get back to the Class Trials, and "spending time" with other students amounted to exchanging a few words (not as many as when you level up a Social Link in Persona). Also troubling was that because some students die, you don't know who you should spend time with first. Of course, this does lead to more surprise on the player's part, and warrants a second playthrough, but I felt a bit cheated at times.
In the end, Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc ends up being a great game that distances itself from other similar titles like Zero Escape and Ace Attorney, but it also stumbles a bit in its execution. The story is superb, but the short Class Trials ultimately make the experience feel underwhelming compared to longer games of the same genre. This doesn't mean that Danganronpa can't compete with those other titles, but simply that you shouldn't except it to as great as those games. If you are a fan of great storytelling and character development, though, you should give Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc a try.
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