Danganronpa is what happens when a writer drinks a bit too much and binges The Hunger Games series and Battle Royale in a night. Fortunately, child murder seems to be pretty entertaining, as it turns out, and Danganronpa is no exception.
Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc is the first in what has actually become a really huge franchise over in Japan. There have been three video games (with a fourth on the way this year), three mobile games, two anime series and way more novels/mangas than my brain can deal with. The reason you may never have heard of it here is because so far, the first two games are the only ones released in the states and they both had their original launches on the ill-fated Playstation Vita. Probably not the best financial decision. Thankfully, because Japan is finally realizing that Steam is a thing and the three people who played the games on Vita said they were good, both games recently received re-releases for PC, OS X and Linux.
So I hear you asking, “Crosstix, what the hell is this game?” What? Can’t you tell from that incredibly obvious title? Seriously, I want you to take a guess, here. Trigger Happy Havoc… It’s probably a shooter of some type?
WRONG! It’s a visual novel, obviously! Hey, at least it’s better than Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Summoner: Raidou Kuzunoha vs. The Soulless Army.
Anyway, the premise of this game has you starting off as good ol’ average kid Makoto Naegi as he starts his first day at Hope’s Peak Academy, a school for all the child prodigies of Japan. Everything’s sunshine and rainbows as Makoto expositions his way through the door, explaining how he cyber-stalks all the kids who go here. You’ve got Leon, the Ultimate Baseball Player, Sayaka, the Ultimate Pop-Star, Mondo, the Ultimate… Bike Gang Leader? Maybe just an oddity. There’s also Hifumi, the Ultimate Fan-Fic Writ- Okay, what the hell, guys? This cannot possibly be the best Japan has to offer the world? Well, Makoto is impressed so I guess that’s enough for us. He goes on long diatribes about how intimidating it is being around all these great folks but he just got in because he won a lottery, making him the Ultimate Lucky student.
Nothing says “lucky” like being selected for a sick murder game! All is not what it seems in Hope’s Peak Academy as the students all pass out as soon as they walk in the gates and wake up with the school sealed in ridiculously overblown fashion, with a Fallout vault door sealing the entrance, metal plates covering all the windows and mounted guns everywhere preventing anyone from trying to leave. As if that weren’t enough, the kids are met by a teddy bear named Monokuma who says he’s the school’s headmaster and they all get to live in the school forever unless one of them can get away with murder!
The story takes all kinds of twists and turns from there so I won’t go into too much detail. Most of the story was fairly easy to deduce but it did have some great moments and the way it played with genre tropes was masterful. See Danganronpa is nothing if not self-aware. It never tries to take itself too seriously and constantly makes in-jokes about other games in the genre such as Phoenix Wright, Zero Escape and others. Hell, even the Steam achievements/PSN trophies make reference to similar titles with names like: “The Game Hungers”, “Nine Coins, Nine Purses, Nine Bears” or “Despair’s Last Reward”
It’s the humor and the constant playing with genre tropes that keeps Danganronpa interesting throughout its long playtime. While some of the game’s lore became obvious over time, the cases were always unpredictable, at least for me. See, while some of the gameplay is done becoming friends with your fellow captives, a la the Persona games, the real meat and potatoes comes from the murder cases where you have to participate in a class trial, logically figuring out who murdered your fellow classmate. If the majority determine the culprit correctly, that person is brutally executed. If they get away with their crime, they get to walk free from the school and everyone else is killed in their place.
The cases work a lot like the Phoenix Wright games where you are given some time to investigate the crime scene, find evidence and talk with your fellow classmates to figure out what happened. The trial then starts and you have to argue your side to figure out who did it. While it’s obviously inspired by Phoenix Wright, I would say it actually far surpasses that series. Instead of just being asked questions every once in a while or having to present the right evidence to contradict a statement, cases are made up of timed mini-games that take those base ideas and make them into active, timed games. Sometimes, you have to present evidence to contradict a statement, as in PW. Except now, evidence is loaded into a metaphorical gun and while people keep talking, you have to ‘shoot’ the correct statement with the corresponding evidence. None of the mini-games I would really call “fun” but they keep the game going at a brisk pace that keeps the tension high.
The downside to this is they seemed to be a bit more conservative about what they thought players could deduce. I never found any of the cases to be particularly hard, usually determining the full events before the trial even started. In Phoenix Wright, I would often feel just as flailing as the titular character but in Danganronpa, the only struggle I ever felt was trying to figure out exactly what option or word the game wanted me to pick. It’s frustrating to know the problem in the statement but have stupid Makoto not know how to present it properly. Ugh. On the other hand, it was nice having a setting that actually justified the simplified court system. Whereas Phoenix Wright just ignores legal rules or regulations, Danganronpa actually makes sense since your goal is really just to convince your classmates of something by any means necessary. Although, I’m still very confused what they are actually presenting when they show evidence. They don’t pick it up and they don’t have cameras but everyone seems to be able to see their evidence when they talk about it… Psychic powers, perhaps?
The gameplay also starts to feel very repetitive by the end. Danganronpa is long for a visual novel, taking me about 35 hours to complete it, and I definitely was feeling the length by the end. It’s not that the story stops being interesting but the game falls into an obvious formula by the end. A lot of the time, too, is taken up by your conversations with the other students that never felt interesting to me at all. While the overblown stereotypes were funny and interesting in the context of the story, I never felt a need to get to know any of them on a deeper level and the few I did never felt like they had any kind of payoff for my time.
The developers made an effort to include reasons to come back to Danganronpa after the main story ended. A separate mode called School Mode unlocks after the game is completed that gives you more time to get to know all of your classmates completely but it throws in too much padding to be interesting. On top of getting to know people, you have to play out 50 days of schooling where Monokuma constantly asks you to build things and find items with very little reward. Since the character’s backstories really aren’t all that interesting and the reward of 200 coins feels pointless unless you still need to buy some concept art or movies after the fact, this mode is really not worth the time investment.
Danganronpa is seriously screwed up. No doubt about that. Child murder along with a talking bear making light of the whole situation. That being said, it’s actually a pretty great example of what visual novels can do when they are aware of the cliches of the genre. If you are interested in a good story punctuated by some fun but not-too-hard logic puzzles, Danganronpa is a good choice.
Danganronpa is on Steam for Windows, Mac OS X and Linux for $30 or, if you bundle with Danganronpa 2, it’s $53.98. I have 35 hours clocked in Steam playing at a fairly leisurely pace and this is, in no way, a sponsored review.