System: PS4, PS Vita, PSP, PC, Linux, OS X, iOS, Android
Publisher: NIS America | Developer: Spike Chunsoft
Reviewed On: PS4
The art of visual novels have been in existence since the early 80s; offering an interactive form of storytelling through the medium of video games. Although they have proven to be very popular in the East, their success has been very tentative in the West. My first exposure to this subgenre was through a game called Steins;Gate. I decided to forgo my initial concerns & took a chance given its acclaim. To this day, it remains one of my all-time favourite sci-fi stories.
Upon its completion, I was eager to sink my teeth into another visual novel & a particular series caught my attention; one involving the tense situation of a group of students in confined circumstances, forced under the repressed conditions & sanctions of a sadistic individual. Little did I know what I was in for.
Celebrating its 10th anniversary this year, this will be the first of a three-part review into the delightful & suspenseful series of Danganronpa. For Part 1, we’ll be delving into its inaugural entry known as Trigger Happy Havoc. Let’s break it down!
We begin this story at the prestigious school of Hope’s Peak Academy; an institution formed to help train elite students in becoming important influences and key figures in society. The school is so distinguished, it handpicks only a handful of students each year who are deemed the ultimate in their field. Think of it like The Xavier Institute in X-Men; just without the superpowers.
You play as a young man named Makoto Naegi; a typical average teenager who receives an acceptance letter from Hope’s Peak, following a lottery the school has run to pick its final student for the academic year. On his first day, Makoto suddenly falls unconscious and wakes up in a desolate classroom, in which the windows have been completely sealed shut. He explores the grounds curiously & becomes acquainted with the other students who have been accepted this year.
Their introductions are cut short when a two-tone coloured bear called Monokuma appears before them & proclaims himself to be the Headmaster of the school. He explains to our students that they are now imprisoned inside the school for the rest of their lives & vows to punish anyone who breaks his school rules...and we’re not talking about detention or picking gum off the chairs and desks. He does offer them a ray of hope by explaining there is one way they can escape the school, but there’s a catch; they must kill another student and get away with it via the form of a class trial.
The premise of this story does have quite the resemblance to Takami’s Battle Royale; putting our students against each other in a psychological game of survival. We see our characters torn between feelings of cooperation and caution, in order to avoid their own deadly fate. Over time, we begin to learn more about our characters, their backstories & how they cope within their new surroundings; both individually and as a class.
Whilst uniting together seems like a logical idea, Monokuma may be more knowledgeable than he appears and he might use his skills to isolate our students from each other, influencing them into playing his game. Will they be able to work together, in hope they can find another means of escape or will they fall into a state of despair and do what they must to guarantee their own safety? Plus, what mysteries will they uncover along the way?
The story is able to maintain an aura of unpredictability throughout as its events unravel and tries to continually escalate things with great success. It offers an action-packed story with many twists that rewards players with a sense of self-accomplishment when correctly analysing its events. However, it’s not all serious as it does blend elements of drama and comedy to balance out its serious nature. Although beware of Monokuma’s bear puns; they are just unbearable......oh look, a tumbleweed.
The unfortunate truth is that its singular storyline offers little replay value, but it’s appealing enough to play again based on its entertainment value alone. The only other negative I can note was that its themes of hope and despair were referenced way too frequently in certain key conversations, coming off a little cheesy at times. Other than that, I felt compelled to continue through each school day to see what would happen next and its ending was something I honestly did not see coming, making for an incredibly satisfying conclusion.
Outside of the traditional visual novel format it utilises to tell its story, the game is split up into different modes using a variety of gameplay styles. The first is called Daily Life, where you can free roam around the grounds of the school in a 3D format. You can interact with your fellow students & check out various areas. If you are in a period of free-time, you can choose to socialise with your fellows students. You can also give them gifts, which you can purchase using an in-game currency you find throughout the game. Choosing the right gift in a social situation can help you obtain new information or be granted skills used at specific points.
Next, we have Deadly Life. Following a key event, you will need to analyse parts of the school for clues; to try and figure out what happened. You must find discrepancies in the scenery using a point-and-click system, which will provide you with the clues you need before entering the Class Trials. These sections unfortunately felt undeviating, as you are unable to progress further until you’ve discover all the available clues. They were still fun to find, as I could buy into the aspect of playing the detective role.
Once you’ve collected all necessary clues, you and your fellow students will enter the final gameplay section; the Class Trial. Here, you must consult with each other in a court-style trial, in a similar fashion to the Ace Attorney games, with your goal being to piece together the event accurately and of course, find the culprit. The trials use a mix of gameplay elements. Its primary style showcases our students conversing in a debate on the situation. At certain points, you will be asked to find a contradiction in someone’s claim. This is presented by having each student’s comments appear on screen as sentences. Your clues are turned into “Truth Bullets”, which you must target & fire at the sentences on-screen, which you believe the clue correctly contradicts their claim.
As you progress, things will get more difficult with additional sentences you must clear away first before firing at the correct contradictory statement, adding additional Truth bullets for you to choose from & an ability to absorb a clue from another person’s statement to then counter-argue someone else’s. There are also mini games that last a couple of minutes, although their variety is very limited and were a little basic. Near the end, you’ll also be asked to piece together the event into a comic book strip, painting a the full picture of what happened.
Finally, you will be asked to choose the culprit and ensure they are proven guilty, unless they cave and confess beforehand. There are two meters you have as an aid and as lives. You have a concentration meter that can be used to slow down what you see on-screen to help execute your actions. You also have a reliability meter which will decrease each time make a wrong choice. If this is depleted, you’ll be forced to restart the trial.
In the re-release bundle (Danganronpa 1.2 Reload), there is also a bonus mode called School Life, which is unlocked when you complete the game. This removes punishments and trials, as you work to collect and craft items to satisfy Monokuma’s requirements, in creating backups for him. This allows you to explore social links, which you may have not progressed in the game’s main mode and offers a fun management style challenge.
Overall, this segments and features were simple at points, but they were still enjoyable. One thing I noticed was that if my mind slipped on the details its story, I was more prone to making mistakes during the trials. It was refreshing to see this level of thought-provocation and felt I had to find out the answers for myself, rather than just being spoon-fed the story.
On the flip side, I felt the game wanted to open up as more than just a visual novel, only it felt too linear to break through as such. This may possibly be due to the hardware limitations on its initial release for the PSP; making my PS4 copy appear more like a re-vamped port. It certainly showed potential, but it’s almost as if the studio played it safe by opting for these particular choices in gameplay.
The game uses a typical presentation accustomed to visual novels; using a range of still images, either complete or rendered in a 3D setting. Outside of the storyline segments, rooms were often in a fixed 3D format where you could pan the camera to search. The hallways played out in a typical free roaming 1st person fashion & the trials were in a fixed presentation format. None of these styles negatively impacted my experience.
There are also a small number of animated cutscenes. These still kept our characters movements and expressions limited, whilst adding extra detail. Whether it be rendered graphics, stills or cutscenes, all of them were incredibly vibrant and make the scenes feel rich and alive.
The characters were well designed, all looking unique and with varying types to depict their different emotions, but again their facial expressions and movements were fixed. Plus they are not rendered in 3D, appearing more like cardboard cutouts which felt a bit creepy at first, especially when you move around and they just stare and follow your movements. That being said, it was a unique presentation style that grew on me as time moved on.
In terms of voice acting, I played using the English dub and found the efforts of the cast to be very enjoyable. Special note to Brian Beacock’s performance as Monokuma, as I felt he played this role perfectly and truly brought out the crazy personality of this short-tempered bear. For the Japanese dub, I've heard favourable remarks, however it would be unfair for me to express an opinion as I've not played it enough with this enabled. As for the music, it can best be described as quirky. There aren’t any tracks worthy of note from myself here, but its distinctive melodies fitted well in its relevant places.
To summarise; the presentation was unique yet appealing.
Upon reflection, I thoroughly enjoyed this game. Its presentation style was simple yet unique and it offers a compelling and suspenseful adventure that enthralled me from start to finish. Its premise will inherently peak your curiosity; to find out what will happen next, how things will transpire and if anyone will survive. There wasn’t a moment in my 25 hour playthrough where I lost interest and more often than not, I felt compelled to play an extra hour or two, to the detriment of my sleep or daily tasks.
Unfortunately, there's no denying it linearity and simplicity in places despite its attempts in variety, but it still offers a sense of fun & challenge that makes you utilise your skills and rewards you accordingly. People also may be put off by its style of presentation or gameplay; seeing it as just a novel played out in the form of a game. If this is your perception, I hope my opinions on its positives help to convince you otherwise. If anything, the story alone is potent and entertaining enough to be worthy of your time, especially if you are a fan of the survival and mystery genres.
Trigger Happy Havoc is a prime example of how visual novels can be a superior storyteller when compared to other subgenres in gaming. When I completed it, I was able to take a moment to bask in its glory and wanted more. This did happen with its sequel, but we'll get into that another time. While it may only be a game you play once, it’ll certainly be a journey you won’t easily forget.