Danganronpa is a crazy visual novel about investigating murders and holding trials that are borderline absurd. You know, like Ace Attorney!
|Console||PlayStation Portable, PlayStation Vita, PC/Mac/Linux (Steam)|
|Developer||Spike Chunsoft, Abstraction Games|
|Genre||Visual novel, point-and-click, experimental|
|Release Year||2010 – 2016|
|Purchase (PlayStation Vita)||Purchase from Amazon.|
|Purchase (PC/Mac/Linux)||Purchase from Steam.|
If you have perused the PlayStation Vita’s library or have watched anime recently, chances are that you might have heard of a series with a weird name: Danganronpa.
Sometimes spelled as Dangan Ronpa, the phrase means “winning an argument with a bullet”—which makes sense in the context of the games.
Funny-sounding name aside, the first game of the series known as Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc is one of the best visual novel games I ever played. It made its debut on the PlayStation Portable in Japan but later exported to other countries for the PlayStation Vita and Steam. While it doesn’t really sound like something I ought to recommend for October, I’ll drop this tidbit: the actual story is a murder mystery meets game of death in a kinda battle royal style.
No, but it’s certainly intense enough like one.
Well, no one said I’m only posting survival horror titles this month. Except this is technically survival. Murder mysteries work great, right? Puhuhu!
A World Full of Hope and Despair
The first thing you will notice is Danganronpa’s eye-catching art style and unique presentation. They’re very lively but also have a darker edge to them. While you won’t see this throughout the entire game, the 2D artwork overall is really good. The character portraits are expressive and dynamic, which helps augment their personalities.
The rest of the game uses a 3D environment with clean textures to navigate around Hope’s Peak Academy. This particular section looks rather simplistic in comparison, though nothing that really detracts from the visuals. The individual rooms you enter are notably busy and detailed, which helps make the game feel more alive.
Because of these choices in Danganronpa’s visual design, it’s harder to tell that this game came from the PSP era. And that’s a good thing. It makes the game feel more timeless in the long run.
Let the Games Begin!
You are a young high schooler named Makoto Naegi, an average boy with no notable talents. Recently, you have been randomly selected to attend a prestigious school known as Hope’s Peak Academy, a school that picks the most talented high school students in the world who are at the top of their field. In this case, you are the Ultimate Lucky Student—which in itself is not a “talent.”
And these fields can be anything: the ultimate pop sensation, the ultimate baseball star, the ultimate martial artist, the ultimate programmer…
The ultimate gang leader…
Yeah, apparently, there is a very prestigious school that will accept a violent leader of teenage delinquents and criminals into its fold. Because that is TOTALLY SAFE.
For your convenience, this is our roster.
But as soon as you enter Hope’s Peak Academy, you lose consciousness and you wake up and find fourteen other students—the so-called Ultimate students. Soon, you and your classmates realize that every possible exit of the school has been sealed.
Then you meet the Big Bad of the game, Monokuma. This remote-controlled bear is a sadistic and sociopathic headmaster who will stop at nothing to torment everyone and bring them despair. He gives you only two choices: live in the school forever or…
GET A FREE PASS OUTSIDE BY MURDERING ONE OF YOUR CLASSMATES WITHOUT GETTING DISCOVERED!
This premise is so batshit insane that it’s just perfect. Just think about the Ace Attorney series, except imagine when Phoenix Wright, Maya Fey, Miles Edgeworth, Dick Gumshoe and a bunch of other characters try to murder each other. Can you BEAR (hyuck-hyuck) the pain?
Without too many spoilers, I will say that Danganronpa’s premise is an easy setup for all sorts of plot twists and dynamics. And it does not disappoint. The story and characters are very much the heart of what makes this game so good. Who would commit murder, given the right motives? Who would become the murdered, having their lives cut short before they could see how things play out?
Every chapter in this game has surprising revelations and twists that end up changing how we perceive the characters. In order to pit everyone against each other, Monokuma presents specific announcements to give them a motive to kill. It’s a whirlwind of betrayal, paranoia, and consequences. You can never really tell who your real friends are or who are the people who have no qualms in murdering people as long as it buys them freedom.
The Learning Curve is a Little Steep, Joe
Danganronpa falls within the same category of games as the Ace Attorney series, mixing up point-and-click mechanics with deductive reasoning. In fact, you may notice how eerily similar they are.
I would divide each chapter up to three sections. The first section is mostly a story-based section, where you sometimes control Makoto in a first-person view in a 3D environment. In this part, you’re exploring the multiple areas of Hope’s Peak Academy in hopes of finding some clues on getting out. This isn’t so much gameplay but just story progression.
You can also enter individual areas, which will switch to a point-and-click screen with a rotatable camera. You can talk to your fellow students or interact with the environment to find clues or make observations. Pressing the Y button (or triangle button for the Vita) will show a quick overlay on which parts of the environment can be interacted with. It’s certainly a nice feature that helps getting moving along without accidentally clicking on the same objects twice.
Occasionally, the game gives Makoto some Free Time. He can go to the school store to purchase goodies from the MonoMono machine using Mono Coins, which you can get by interacting with certain objects in your environment or performing well in class trials.
The main purpose of these gift items is to give them to your classmates in a system similar to the Social Links system of the Persona series, befriending them and learning about their pasts. You will also gain Skills and Skill Points, which are only used for class trials.
The second section occurs when someone murders one of your classmates. After the dead body gets discovered by three or more people, Monokuma will make an announcement for all of the students to collect evidence and participate in required class trials. At this point, you need to visit possible areas that are part of the crime scenes and collect evidence (called Truth Bullets). This is pretty much entirely point-and-click.
The third section is the class trial itself. It is the job of all students to pinpoint the murderer (called the “blackened” by Monokuma) and convict that person. Choosing the right culprit will result in he/she to be brutally executed by Monokuma. However, choosing the wrong culprit will allow the true culprit to leave the school as a “graduate” while every remaining student gets executed.
The high stakes easily add hype to the trials, as you can feel the heavy tension and paranoia around you.
The Class Trial and the Mini-Games
Interestingly enough, the class trials consist of several mini-games that incorporate elements of different game genres.
The first and most common mini-game is the Nonstop Debate, which is very similar to the typical formula presented by Ace Attorney trials. In this mini-game, you need to use your collected Truth Bullets (or use someone else’s statement) to contradict someone’s testimony. The testimonies move forward in real-time and even include a time limit.
There is also a first-person rail shooter element to it. You need to select the correct Truth Bullet and literally shoot the yellow text (Y or triangle button) in someone’s statement to contradict them. Later on, the game will let you use someone’s statement (more yellow text) as a bullet.
Watch out for the purple text though. You need to use normal bullets to shoot those down (A or Cross button), which will give you some extra seconds to your timer. Using Truth Bullets against these will penalize you.
The second mini-game is Hangman’s Gambit, which is basically real-time Hangman with a first-person shooter element. To beat this game, you need to spell out the correct word by shooting down individual letters. However, you need to shoot the letters in the correct order of the spelling to progress forward. Otherwise, you’ll just take damage.
The third mini-game is Bullet Time Battle, a rhythm game where you need to force someone to believe in the truth.
This mini-game has a bit of a learning curve. Basically, the idea is that you need to take aim at your opponent’s statements and shoot them down to do damage against the opponent. But not manually. You can only control those actions with well-timed button presses. And you can only perform one action for each node that passes through the rhythm meter.
Sometimes, to make the game more difficult, a ribbon covers the nodes of the rhythm meter so you basically have to rely on your ability to keep to a rhythm alone.
Take aim (A or cross button), shoot (Y or triangle button), or reload (X or square button). Survive long enough and deplete your opponent’s HP.
Then when the opponent’s final statement comes in, use the correct Truth Bullet to shoot it down.
The fourth and final mini-game is the Closing Argument, which is my personal favorite. It’s a unique game where you have to assemble some manga pages by placing individual circular panels in chronological order to recreate the events leading up to the murder.
It’s a simple idea but a very effective presentation. I always looked forward to seeing this mini-game pop up in the class trials, even when it can get fairly tricky to pull off at times.
Overall, the class trials are pretty fun. Still, the learning curve can get quite annoying as the game likes to slap on more and more tutorials at your face, even after you played through half of it.
However, I do have to criticize that the last couple of trials can get extremely picky on how you contradict statements in the Nonstop Debates.
It’s to the point where you have to make leaps in logic, recall small details that are not stated in the descriptions of your evidence, or figure out that you’re supposed to take someone’s statement to contradict another (but you can’t use the second person’s statement to contradict the first’s). It’s a minor annoyance that doesn’t take away from the experience, but can make things pretty tedious later on.
Ultimately, there’s quite a bit of depth in gameplay. It requires logic, an attention to detail, patience, and quick reflexes.
How to describe Danganronpa’s soundtrack? Well, imagine if they threw in the soundtracks of Jet Set Radio and The World Ends With You together in a blender.
You get a pulsing, fast-paced soundtrack with some chill ambient and horror tracks sprinkled in.
In conclusion, Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc is a game well worth playing for visual novel fans, people who liked the Ace Attorney series, people who liked a lot of visual flair in video games, and people who like murder mysteries. It’s a fun, over-the-top ride from top to bottom like a rollercoaster moving three times as fast as its normal speed.
Of course, if you’re one of those people who wanted some closure from the individual characters—especially after getting their lives tragically cut short or you just didn’t have enough free time—the game is nice enough to provide you a particular feature that doesn’t require you to start the game over.
And of course, it’s post-game content. Aren’t you surprised?
Behold! Dangan Academy ~Purely Prismatic Souls~, also known as School Mode! Dating sim.
Yeah. It’s as silly as it sounds. Can you bear it? Puhuhuhuhu!
School Mode is basically an extended mini-game that takes place in an alternate universe of the main story of Danganronpa. Here, Monokuma decides to postpone his killing game in order for the students of Hope Peak’s Academy to build him new spares of himself. But you only have 50 days to build these spares. In the meantime, no one dies and everyone is your friend. Yes, even Monokuma to an extent.
The gameplay here is mainly resource collection and time management, with an RPG element and some luck. It’s fairly easy to understand. Each character has a level for gathering and cleaning. You really need only 2 – 4 people cleaning while everyone else gathers.
Each character also has a health meter that indicates whether they’re in working condition or not. If the character is tired, you can have the character rest for the day. However, if any character collapses from exhaustion, that person will be unavailable for several days.
When you gather enough materials and create a Monokuma spare before the deadline, Monokuma will reward you with some Trip Tickets.
And then comes the “dating sim” part. Instead of spending time with friends the normal way and filling out their Report Cards, you can use a Trip Ticket to go to a specific place in the school. This will trigger a decision on what to bring up as a topic. Obviously, you need to pick the topic that the particular classmate is interested in. Chihiro likes computers and technology, Celeste likes games, Kiyotaka likes order and studying, etc.
When you pick the right topics, your relationship level increases with that classmate. Reach a max of ten hearts and you will trigger a special ending with that character when the 51st day comes—as well as receiving a strangely random “special gift” from the character.
…I guess it wasn’t called a dating sim for nothing.
In any case, it’s very likely that your first playthrough of School Mode won’t be so successful. It would be better to spend the time maxing out your classmates’ Report Cards and leveling up the gathering and cleaning skills. The great news is that you can restart School Mode as a New Game+, meaning those skill levels will carry over to the next playthrough.
Then the mini-game for constructing the Monokuma spares will be significantly easier.
That’s all there is to it. Enjoy your batshit insane Japanese visual novel. Start loading up and fire those “No, that’s wrong!” or “Sore wa chigau yo!” statements.
Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc$29.99
- The story is wildly fun and exciting, while the majority of the characters are quite likable.
- The English dub is pretty good overall, though Monokuma himself can get annoying—though that's intentional.
- The colorful and busy visuals help make the game feel more timeless, to near perfection.
- The point-and-click aspect is easy to navigate and fast-paced.
- The Class Trials are fun and fast-paced, containing quite a bit of variety on what you can do.
- The pulsing soundtrack is very catchy and really adds to the game's unique atmosphere.
- Some plot twists can be fairly predictable.
- The learning curve for the Class Trial mini-games can be steep. The multitude of tutorials also gets really annoying.
- The later Class Trials can be very picky on how you need to contradict statements during Nonstop Debates.