Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc – review

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Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc is a ‘visual novel’ which, in case you didn’t know, covers games such as 999 (which one trophy even references) and its more famous sequel Virtue’s Last Reward; and, to an extent, Persona 3, 4, & 4 Arena. Danganronpa gleefully cherry-picks ideas and features from all of these titles as well as several others, not to mention a movie or two. All the more surprising then that it not only stands on its own two feet, but stands proud.

The basic outline of the plot will be familiar to most, even if they’re not quite sure why. Hope’s Peak Academy is home to the best of the best, students admitted only by invitation. Each student is the ‘ultimate’ in some way – the ultimate baseball star, the ultimate gambler, the ultimate swimming pro, and so on. The player is dropped into the shoes of Makoto, the ‘Ultimate Lucky Student’ who was invited by sheer chance through a lottery. Naturally something goes wrong very quickly, and it’s not long before we have fifteen high school students trapped in Hope’s Peak with no hope of escape; unless they kill.

The villain of the piece makes his/her/its appearance very early on. The teddy bear prominent in the marketing material is Monokuma, the sadistic and unpredictable bear (actually a remote-controlled robot) who rules over the students’ lives. As ridiculous as it sounds, the writing is strong enough to make this perfectly acceptable in the world of Danganronpa. Monokuma gives the students a simple but twisted choice; spend the rest of their lives in Hope’s Peak, or take the only way out that he offers – murder another student without being discovered. The initial motive of simply being able to return to their normal lives is soon joined by another and so, of course, the first body appears not long after.

The strange messages on the blackboards don’t help you figure out what’s going on. OR DO THEY??

There are cameras in the school (almost) everywhere you turn, meaning whoever’s pushing Monokuma’s buttons witnesses each and every murder. When a body has been discovered by three or more people an announcement is made, and an investigation takes place amongst the students until Monokuma declares it’s time for the ‘class trial’ – where he/she/it will sit in to confirm if the guilty party has been found out. The catch – and it’s a biggun – is that if the murderer is discovered then they, too, are killed. If not then everyone else dies, and the killer (referred to as ‘the blackened’) will ‘graduate’ and be allowed to leave.

Intentionally or otherwise, it’s often clear who the culprit is almost as soon as the investigation has begun. The real challenge though is gathering and using evidence to prove it, providing the exciting prospect of an interactive episode of Columbo. It’s impossible to miss any vital evidence – the game won’t let you leave a room until you’ve seen/heard everything necessary – but don’t let that fool you. You’ll need to constantly pay attention and even rack your brains from time to time if you want to progress.

It’s worth mentioning at this point that although the guilty can often be quickly identified once a murder has taken place, there is never any obvious candidate for either murderer or victim between cases. The writing is very good. Each and every character has their own eccentricities, and is given a decent amount of dialogue. Everybody has their own unique identity and, should you convince yourself that you know who will play what role in the next murder, there’s a very good chance that you will be completely and utterly wrong.

The class trial is essentially a collection of minigames split up by lots of dialogue, but not at all in an offensive way. Pieces of evidence or people’s statements are your ‘truth bullets’ which you literally shoot into highlighted words and phrases of on-screen text as people are talking. It’s a theoretically simple case of matching the right truth bullet to the right lie or misconception to steer the trial in the right direction. Though there’s a time limit you can constantly replay and retry these sections – but that doesn’t get away from the fact that you need to actually think. Make too many mistakes and, of course, you fail.

Monokuma is a cruel, memorable villain.

Elsewhere in the trial you’ll shoot letters as they appear to spell an important word you’re under pressure to identify in Hangman’s Gambit, simply choose the right answer from a list, and choose pictures for empty comic book panels for the reconstruction. The final element, and the only one that perhaps would have been best left out, is the rhythm action game when trying to ‘break’ someone. You can at least adjust the difficulty of these sections, making them less painful.

The story is crammed full of plot twists yet always stays cohesive – which unfortunately (and inevitably) means many of these twists are neon signposted. Others however are not, with the final chapter in particular having your mind racing trying to get a grip on everything that’s happening. Throw in Persona-style chats where you gradually get closer to characters (and earn abilities for the class trials) – the person you’ve chosen to find out more about could turn up dead the next day without warning, so you prioritise who you speak to – and you have a ferociously addictive game that you’re surprisingly invested in.

Danganronpa effortlessly rises above its clearly limited budget. Always intriguing, sometimes hilarious, sometimes predictable, sometimes surprising, but always with an unbreakable grip on your attention. Important questions are still left unanswered by the end, but this is (mostly) forgiveable when you discover Japan is getting its third Danganronpa game this year. Let’s hope that the whole series makes it into English, as this is easily one of the very best games (with a neat reward for completing the story) that the Vita has to offer.

critical score 8

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Written by Luke K

He plays lots of videogames, now and again stopping to write about them. He's the editor in chief at Critical Gamer, which fools him into thinking his life has some kind of value. He doesn't have a short temper. If you suggest otherwise, he will punch you in the face.

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