An updated 2016 review of this game has been posted here.
Danganronpa’s apparent existence outside of Japan prior to its official release is something that confuses me greatly. Yes, there was an anime adaptation made three years after the first game’s release, but the original PSP title recieved a fan translation which was apparently something of a major hit with a certain subset of kids on Tumblr. Maybe I was just not paying enough attention to a title I never even knew existed until Zero Escape’s Director mentioned how he was buds with the Director of Danganronpa, but I guess that does not matter now, as I had a $20 bill I was willing to place into my Vita for a quirky dark visual novel that I expected to be somewhat similar to Zero Escape, but comparing the two is more than a bit difficult after going through the basic premise.
Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc Review
Platform: PS Vita
Developer: Spike Chunsoft
Publisher: NIS America
Being reductive about the lot, Danganronpa is a game about a bunch of high schoolers being imprisoned in order to play in a game of life or death, one where they can either live a communal life for the rest of their days Or the teenagers could be set free by murdering one of their so called classmates in order to be free from a group of strangers who very well may be sharpening their own knives. The latter naturally is the case, and it brings with it what one would expect, betrayal, mystery, and intrigue formed by how this creatively named Killing Game’s location of a highschool sealed off from the outside world is jam packed with secrets. With a good quantity of character development and depth to come out from the seemingly massive cast of fifteen students, a number that goes down very quickly as every convicted murder is met with a needlessly cruel execution by a three-foot-tall tri-colored robotic teddy bear named Monokuma, who is the headmaster of this school of despair.
Yes, let it never be said that Danganronpa is dark in terms of its tone, as the game is brimming with a sense of bizarre glee as it shifts between off-kilter humor, blossoming Persona-like Social Linking, and the hanging of corpses you must investigate the murder of. It runs the gambit in a way I find to be rather wise for a title whose length I would spitball at 25-30 hours despite having a rather poor sense of time myself. Although there are naturally breaks in the visual novel title tied to the game in the form of post-murder investigation Class Trials, which I would very much compare to Ace Attorney if it wanted to be occasionally be a rhythm game to what I found to be varying levels of success. It is essentially a lengthy voiced conversation where the player character, Makoto, is prompted to do a variety of timed logic puzzles that range from shooting highlighted incorrect phrases with bullets representing the truth, playing hangman where words must be shot, a bullet themed rhythm game, and assembling a wordless manga of events so the murderer may be uncovered.
Now all of these I felt were hindered by issues, some hard to tightly account for such as the player’s logic and the game’s logic needing to be more or less in sync with what the one true proper answer is. This averted in most of the shootings of words with truth, yet I felt those sections, which are the most common, had implemented a form of artificial difficulty by throwing white noise that must be shot before the contradiction may be shot… with truth bullets. Hangman was a mode I forgot about due to how quickly and easy it is with the except of a single instance that I wholly blame on the choice of word not properly representing what it was being used in reference to. The assembling of manga murders was actually rather enjoyable, but the two instances where I flip flopped the order of player inserted events felt due to how the game did not accurately depict what they represented with a small icon. While the proper rhythm game reminded me of why I am very selective with what examples of the genre I find enjoyable.
Oddly though, there is a grading system available, one that has no bearing on the actual game, but is used to gain currency that is otherwise hard to come by during the exploration sections of the game. It’s essentially a 2.5D first person investigation, but using that term similar to how it was used in reference to titles like Doom. Wherein the player must point and click through the environment, popping in and out of rooms while investigating objects and hearing comments that are rather enjoyable, assuming you don’t click every available object in the game during all six chapters to see if the Makoto’s comments. Really though, it is a simple way of giving some degree of appreciated freedom, much like the instances where Makoto may bribe his way to friendship with a group that will be mostly dead before the credits roll, receiving enjoyable anecdotes and Class Trial skills as a result.
Said characters could be very cynically dismissed as an assortment of played out anime tropes, but whereas I criticized, say, Bravely Default for having trope filled characters, Danganronpa’s are well realized and managed to captivate my interest very well for a game that more or less has its characters and storyline to have it gracefully float along. Though, I’d be lying if I said the collection of tropes that were selected work far better when combined, as it does make the cast a rather diverse compilation, which in my mind only makes the relationships and friction between characters all the more compelling. Although I would be incredibly disappointed if I had fully bad things to say about a game where you can hang out with a caricature of a Doujin author.
…Or at least that is what I could call the character, yet the translation rather obviously changed that to fanfic, in addition with a few other changes I am not too crazy about. Yes, I do appreciate when I can play something that has the ability to be serious and wacky enough for a by name Robocop mention to be fitting, but hearing a character whose name was changed casually mention Chef Boyardee and Ragu pasta sauce? That just strikes me as a needless levels localization, though the aforementioned examples were thankfully the worst, but that is simply what I noticed. When casually looking through information I stumbled onto an early fan translation that I believe to actually be a bit more faithful to the Japanese script, but complaining about that loses it’s luster when coming from somebody who played the game with English voices and gobbled up what they brought to the table.
Now, two pages in, I believe I should actually begin criticizing the story proper. The storyline progression certainly does capture the metaphorical page turning nature of a whodunit, yet I would be hesitant to say I felt like it was always punctual in pursuit of a plot that, when looking at it from afar, and not with my nose shoved up against the current events, the sequence of events strike me as a bit flippant. It can manifest things such as character death seeming far too abrupt to have much impact beyond the fact murder was committed. Along with many specifics being rather easy to predict ahead of the time, when the next hour or two are spent sprinkling details onto a conclusion the game possibly made a bit too obvious.
The murder in the fourth chapter is a rather good example of this, as the cause of death is something I immediately guessed upon seeing the corpse, but it took an entire Class Trial for the player character to reach a conclusion I found to be obvious. The ending of the game actually goes a similar route, as even beyond the spoilers hidden in the blasted premise of the game’s yet to be released spin off, Absolute Despair Girl, it is very dense with dialog and took at least three hours to reveal every loose tie the game has. While being more than a bit flippant with the explanations for what I found to be genuinely good questions to ask the revealed mastermind of the Killing Game. Heck, the how is never really explained in comparison to the why, and such a length still persists. That said, I would hardly imply that the game’s story is by any ways bad or its script is lacking, as I was captivated throughout the story. Relishing every minor revelation about the scenario, and enjoying the characters regardless of whether or not I found them personally appealing, as they were well written, which I can say about the game as a whole.
I would also compliment the visuals, even though they are fairly basic for the most part. Yes, the character portrait art is very well drawn and was thankfully done at a higher resolution than the game’s original platformed allowed for, leaving them very crisp looking. However, the backgrounds, which are composed on an eyebrow raising 3D environment composed of 2D assets that pop up and rotate with the camera, seemed to not be at quite a high resolution, and look blurred as a result. This is not the case for travelling the 3D environment of the school, which houses lights and character models that fade in at rates that I genuinely doubt were changed from the original PSP version of this title. There is also an odd decision to include a visualization of the background music in the game’s HUD, when the aspect, which I anticipated being part of some final rhythm game the title would end on while posing a keen twist, is about as useful as sections where dialog is progressed by pressing Triangle and X instead of simply X.
It’s minor details like that which are my only real issue with Danganronpa, as the game was something of a blast otherwise. I could go on about the side mode or criticize the ability to make friendships when one needs at least forty more instances than the, at best, twenty the game provides in a single playthrough. However, most of that is ignorable in comparison to a very compelling and engaging story that is just silly enough to be considered lighthearted murder filled adventure that is one of the best reasons to own a Vita… yeah, I have the shittiest grin on my face right now.
Problems very much exist, it’s just that there are too many good things that lie in between them and the far, far larger creamy center for them to be anything but an occasional distraction.