Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc

Danganronpa is a combination of the Japanese words “dangan” and “ronpa” – which translate as bullet and refutation respectively. Together with the subtitle “Trigger Happy Havoc”, it would be reasonable to assume that this title is some kind of anime-themed shooting game, but without a single gun in sight Danganronpa is best described as Phoenix Wright meets Battle Royale meets Persona 4.

Makoto Naegi considers himself to be the embodiment of an average student with no exceptional skills or abilities whatsoever. Through a lucky lottery draw he is invited to study at Hope’s Peak Academy – a school renowned for accepting only the most elite students. Shortly after arriving on his first day Makoto loses consciousness, and when he wakes up he is at an unfamiliar desk. With the windows sealed, the external doors barred and security cameras tracking their every move, Makoto and fourteen fellow students find themselves trapped in a mutual killing game which is explained to them by their “headmaster” Monokuma – a half-black, half-white robot bear with a openly sadistic personality. He informs the students that the only way to escape the school is to graduate – which means killing another student and avoiding discovery during and event called the “Class Trial”. If successful, the murderer is set free and all the other students will be killed, but if culprit is discovered and found guilty, they are met with a fatally elaborate punishment.

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While most initially agree to resist Monokuma’s machinations, each of Makoto’s classmates is an ‘Ultimate’ who comes with their own ego and personal issues. In this vibrant cast there are some who are obviously inclined to earn their freedom through blood, but there are no guarantees and Danganronpa quickly establishes that no-one is above suspicion during the first case.

The game is divided into three distinct modes – School Life, Deadly Life and Class Trial. During the first mode Makoto and company are free to explore, and there are some ‘Free Time’ sections where players can indulge in some Persona-style one-on-one socializing – with the action unfolding in a typical visual novel fashion. Alternating between serious and comedic, School Life is engaging in its pacing of events and building of tension – especially as it’s only a matter of time till another classmate is mudered.

Once a body is discovered the game switches to the Deadly Life investigation mode. With the Class Trial looming Makoto must gather “Truth Bullets” by searching relevant scenes and conversing with fellow classmates/murder suspects to collect clues and pertinent facts. There is no Free Time during this mode, and like Phoenix Wright the game will not advance to the next phase until all the clues have been uncovered so there is never any threat of missing something vital. This intrigue leads Deadly Life to feel engaging while still being quite safe.

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When all the relevant information has been gathered Monokuma initiates the Class Trial, and the true version of events will be revealed via four different mini-games. The Non-Stop Debate will be familiar to Phoenix Wright veterans as Makoto must use evidence to disprove contradictions or half-factual statements. These make up the bulk of the legal battle and are interspersed with the occasional Hangman’s Gambit and Bullet-Time Battle before the Closing Statement. The first two are named quite literally as they are a game of hangman and a button-mashing bullet-time event respectively. The Closing Statement adds an interesting final element to the case as players are required to re-assemble a short comic strip of the events in question. Any missteps cause a loss of influence, and when that is depleted Makoto is found guilty of the crime – which forces the player to start over. This is a rather odd fail state as Makoto is often nowhere in the frame for the killing – but the game is quick to throw players back into the fray to correct their mistakes.

Visual novels generally struggle for game play hooks as they are at heart simply vectors for a story. The various courtroom mini-games keep the trial engaging and tense, and they continue to gain interesting dimensions as the game progresses. Danganronpa’s other hook – the Free Time socializations – add a welcome diversity to the story and allow for greater insight into the motivations of the other characters. It can be hard to maximise the relationship with some characters before they find themselves as an exhibit or the unsuccessful defendant in a trial, but after completing the main campaign a secondary mode with a focus on these social links opens up and makes for an fun time-sink.

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The 3D environments are interesting – especially as the anime-style 2D characters are positioned in rotatable rooms like cardboard stand outs. Overall Hope’s Peak is a visually interesting place, but it’s hard to understand why such effort was put into creating a first-person free roaming environment as as most of the story is told through visual novel-style dialogue and the introduction of a fast-travel system makes standard exploration a little redundant.

This is the least of Danganronpa’s enigmas though. Far better are the series of intriguing murder-mysteries – all of which are wrapped in the larger questions surrounding Monokuma’s identity and the true nature of the school. Driven by its mismatched cast, Danganronpa seeks to keep the player guessing until just the right moment, and while it gives enough clues to build solid suspicions it makes sure the truth is never quite what you’d expected. It’s a fun ride, and although the final case concludes with more of a whimper than a bang it’s easy to recommend to all and a definite must play for fans of the Phoenix Wright games.

Danganronpa 2: Goodbye Despair is also out now for the Vita so look for it’s review in the coming weeks.

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