Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc
- Street Date:
- February 11th, 2014
- Reviewed by:
- Brian Hoss
- Review Date:1
- February 10th, 2014
- Game Release Year:
- PS Vita
- NIS America
- Spike Chunsoft
- ESRB Rating:
- M (Mature)
Digital version reviewed. The review is spoiler-light. Spoilers are limited to the beginning of the game, but some may wish to skip the highlighted spoiler section altogether.
Hidden beneath the well-known genres that dominate the North American video game landscape is the occasional gem from such obscure origins as the Japanese mystery visual novel genre. Case in point, 'Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc.' 'Danganronpa' was originally developed by Spike Chunsoft and began life as a PSP title in Japan in 2010 before sprouting a franchise full of sequels as well as manga and anime adaptations. 'Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc' is the remade original title, now localized by NIS America for North American Vitas.
The Game Itself: Our Reviewer's Take
On the surface, 'Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc' is a mess. For one thing, it's unconventional from a mainstream point of view. Whether it's Telltale's 'The Wolf Among Us' or Quantic Dream's 'Beyond: Two Souls,' the moment that a game falls outside of the FPS, third-person action, platformer, etc. umbrella of mainstay game designs, a large part of the audience walks away. Add to that challenge a game design that really originated on the PSP and elements, both subtle and extreme, that are lost in translation, and the game has some serious obstacles to overcome right out of the gate. Fortunately, players that can stick with the game through its first chapter (and first trial), may just find a new favorite and the very definition of cult hit.
Warning: Spoilers Ahead
With that in mind, let me explain the set-up for the story. Playing as Makoto Naegi, you are naturally curious about your new school, and anxious about your first day. It seems that despite your humble, average student origins, you have been chosen by lottery to attend Hope's Peak Academy, an institution renowned for taking the nation's best and brightest (ultimate students) and giving them the schooling necessary to ensure a grandly successful life. There's just one problem, after showing up at school by your lonesome and passing out, you awake to find the facility has been transformed into prison confining you and you and the other fourteen students.
At the behest of a sinister bear (named Monokumo, or Monochrome, due to his explicit visual characteristics) and his many visible means of violence, such as mounted surveillance turrets, you are informed that the new goal of Hope's Academy is to instill despair. The only possible hope of escape for any of the students is through murder. The student must successfully murder one of the other students and avoid conviction by majority vote in the subsequent trial. The stakes are high, for if the wrong student is convicted, all the surviving students will die.
Naturally, this little blurb only touches on the entire mystery of the game and the various interpersonal relationships that Monokumo exploits to prevent any notion of safety or escape.
Note: End of Spoiler Section
Which brings us to the gameplay, which breaks down into three discernible phases. There is Free Time, when the player can explore the expanding campus, and choose which students to get to know, which is followed by the restrictive investigative phase, where the player must gather clues, both of the kind that register as inventory items (Truth Bullets) and of the more abstract kind necessary to navigate the mysteries and move the game along.
Both Free Time and the investigative phase have a similar feel. The player navigates a 3D environment looking for clickable items and other characters, who are all 2D, to engage in conversations. Though the game has several means for condensing this gameplay, I was compelled to maximize each opportunity, always looking for more medals, presents, clues, and details. There's something of an unseen event timer, which at times requires that a list of things be done/found before the game moves forward and at other times (like Free Time) only lets the player do one or two things (out of a dozen possible things) before moving forward. This part of the game borders on an adventure game feel, but the it's really only preliminary. The game's trials are the clear main event.
Once a Trial starts, the lazy wandering gameplay is exchanged for hyperactive, minigame filled trial arguments. The game is clearly aware of the 'Phoenix Wright' series, with even a specific character aping Phoenix Wright, but the tempo for these trials is extremely high. Though there are different sub aspects and variations that the game progressively adds, the player's primary responsibility is to use those accumulated clues as Truth Bullets to shoot down specific arguments. In a rapid fashion, students exchange arguments and statements back and forth. As their words float by, the player must cycle to the correct adjudicating Truth Bullet, aim, and shoot the argument down.
Mistakes decrease an influence meter, and if depleted, it's game over. Of greater consequence though, is that no matter how many clues I had (and I was thorough) or how obvious any one clue seemed to make the culprit, there was always much more to be revealed during the trial. The convoluted nature of the trial resolutions can be frustrating, especially after lengthy times between trials. Still, the game kept me hooked throughout.
Initially, the mysteries are confined to the events of a given evening, but as the game goes on, the scale grows. We're talking 'Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty' growth, or at least in that direction.
With so many conversations, cutscenes, trial phases, tropes, etc. the game has a lot to balance. There is some humor in the game as well as some very dark content. For instance, each game day is followed by a Monokumo nightmare, and the villainous bear is oddly effective at both the occasional funny one-liner or self-deprecating remark and cutting endorsements of brutal adolescent murder. Somehow though, touches like the game's use of pink blood and exaggerated environment details (boom boxes on the walls for speakers) help the game feel like a different experience.
Both the investigations and trials are individually a little longer than I would like, but I chalk that up to being used to shorter and simpler American mysteries. The game executes well where works like 'Battle Royale' have gone before and with better realized characters.
The Video: Sizing Up the Picture
Here again, there are huge challenges for the game. The 3D environments are extremely basic and there are no in-game 3D characters. Nevertheless, the PSP origins mean small areas. And yet, the colorful 2D characters, who lead a list of items redone since the PSP, look stunning. Important cutscenes and stills used to punctuate some transitions also look very good. The UI, menus, and the various incarnations of the Trials are sharp and in some cases very impressive. The Trial section where you recreate the murder through comic book panels is another highlight.
While environment pieces like the washers in the laundry room look to have been painstakingly drawn to reflect a false depth, the pixel art style presents could stand some extra detail. In short, the more time spent in the hallways versus in the trials, the less good the game looks.
There is a mix of styles in the various character designs, with a few intended outliers. Animations are very simple, and often exaggerated, yet the result is cohesive and a boon on the OLED Vita.
The Audio: Rating the Sound
NIS America very wisely has included the original Japanese language track along with the new English one. The shame though is that once a language is chosen, it cannot be changed except by starting a new game. Though I didn't care for the player character's English voice, the rest of the cast acquitted themselves well.
More disturbing for some is the proportion of text-only dialogue to voice acting. Each character has a staple of audible phrases to go along with long text conversations, and unlike stepping back to a 1990's game, the overall effect works. I had a voice in mind for each character and could skip through their dialogue at my pace.
Though the game could be played without audio, it would detract from the experience too greatly for me to recommend. Speakers work well enough, though the ultimate biker gang leader tends to yell "piece of shit" with some regularity.
While sounds, art work, and cutscenes can all be unlocked with medals, there is one piece of significant extra content to keep the player involved after completing the story proper. While I wouldn't expect to want to replay the game again for some time (like years), I won't be taking it off the Vita anytime soon. In fact, it's one of the better games to play piecemeal, as it's easy to click on and off and still keep playing, and load times are nonexistent.
HD Bonus Content: Any Exclusive Goodies in There?
The aforementioned significant piece of extra content, which I don't wish to spoil is the biggest bonus piece. Dual-audio tracks are appreciated, but the missing toggle is an oversight. The game has several optional touch controls, as well as the ability to warp using the map that have been added which some players may enjoy. Collecting presents and medals is quite the distraction. There have been key chains and other bonuses in the past, and there is a Limited Edition for this version, which is likely hard to find and is not being graded here.
When you break it down, the ingredients that make up 'Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc' can seem like a mishmash that shouldn't work. The whole of the experience, however, is a refreshing blast, and that's due to more than just the extraordinary setting. The PSP underpinnings make for some unfortunate limitations, but the game's ability to continual introduce story and gameplay twists keep the experience humming along. Though it's hard to keep capitalizing on something that worked so well the first time, it's not at all surprising that the game is a cult hit, and I'm hopeful that at some point in the future an existing or even all-new sequel makes its way here.
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