As an aficionado of both murder mystery games and visual novels, I would say Dangan Ronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc for the Vita is definitely in my proverbial wheelhouse. It’s not just that popular series like Phoenix Wright and Zero Escape were influences on this game’s development; they are deliberately drawn upon for inspiration. But it was done so in a way that makes something unique that stands tall on its own merits, and even on some of its flaws.
The premise is the kind of compelling life-or-death scenario that’s great for hooking you in: Makoto (the main character) has been accepted into Hope’s Peak Academy – the most prestigious school in the country which only teaches the ultimate paragons in any given field. Makoto, however, only hold the distinction of being picked by lottery to attend.
On Makoto’s first day, things don’t go as expected; He’s knocked unconscious, locked inside the school along with 14 others, and entered into a horrific game. The rules are simple: Kill another student without being discovered and you get to go free (while everyone else is executed). But, if the other students figure out who among them is the murderer, then he or she is put to death and the rest get to continue living their locked-up lives.
The scenario seemed silly to me at first, especially when I saw the Headmaster running the show is a creepy teddy bear named Monokuma. But that opinion quickly shifted aside once the body count started…
If there’s one thing this handles well, it’s death. It’s almost like reading “A Game of Thrones” where you don’t want to get attached to characters knowing how easily they could bite the dust. And when someone does die, there’s a real sense of horrified fear, followed by deep despair.
The majority of your time in the game will be spent exploring the school from a first-person viewpoint, examining objects and chatting up your fellow detainees. Between plot points, you’ll even have “Free Time” where you can hang out with a classmate of your choice. This reveals some of their backstory and helps even the most oddball characters to grow on you. But therein lies the trap: Sooner or later someone’s gonna die, and if the victim (or culprit) is someone you chose as a friend, the event can hit pretty hard.
Once a corpse is discovered, the game switches from “Daily Life” to “Deadly Life” and you must investigate the murder. Gathered evidence is collected on a data pad for you to review, but there’s not much to solve at this step, as the game doesn’t present any real puzzles. Nor do you have to flash evidence or use items to convince a witness to spill the beans. It’s certainly a streamlined investigation process, and gets you to the next phase faster, but it has a distinct lack of challenge.
Once you’ve gathered all the necessary evidence, the Class Trial begins. This is the clear highlight of the game where the biggest plot bombs will drop. It takes the same premise of the Phoenix Wright trials, where you have to pick apart statements and present contradictory evidence, but presents it in highly dynamic and dramatic fashion.
Instead of a single witness taking the stand at a time, everyone at the trial talks back and forth in real time and with full voice acting (the rest of the game uses voices on and off). The words trail along the screen while weak points in a statement are highlighted. If you see something you can contradict, you can take aim and fire a “Truth Bullet” at the weak point to literally shatter the statement.
Each Truth Bullet is a piece of evidence, and depending on your difficulty setting you’ll be given between three to five of them for any given segment. This highly oversimplifies things, taking out a great deal of challenge. On the upside, people who just want to play for the story never have to worry about getting stuck.
The coolest feature is the Final Argument where you have to accurately recount the entire crime from beginning to end. You do this by filling in missing scenes of a comic book with a selection of pictures. When you complete the comic, you have a clear understanding of everything that transpired which is a perfect way to bring together everything you did up until that point.
However, there are also some mini-games that just seem out of place and weird. Hangman’s Gambit, for one, has you fill in the blanks to answer a question by shooting the correct letters. And a Bullet Time Battle is a straight up rhythm game with a surprising number of complexities. I assume these exist to keep players with ADD from losing interest, but they were probably the least interesting thing for me.
When the trial is concluded, there is a brief sense of joy at a job well done. Then you realize one of your compatriots must now be executed. Keep in mind that there are no cartoonishly evil characters here that you can 100% say deserve death. You might even think some of the characters were justified. But there is no room for mercy at the hand of Monokuma.
Finally, after a disturbing little cut scene involving a humorously twisted punishment, you return to your Daily Life, minus a couple of characters…
Each cycle of Daily Life, Investigation, and Class Trial opens up all new cans of worms that thicken the plot. You’re steadily fed tantalizing bits of info as to why you’re all in this predicament and who’s behind it all. In other words, I can’t stop playing until I know the truth.
One of the biggest supporting roles in this game is played by the sound. The music is alright, and not especially memorable, but it sets the mood when things are tense or just plain scary. During a trial, it shifts into a high-tempo techno beat that lends the scenes an exceptional level of intensity. And while there are some characters whose voices are intentionally silly (and a little annoying to listen to) most of them are seriously well done and deliver solid performances throughout the trials.
While Dangan Ronpa is many things, it is a visual novel first and foremost. If you are just looking to solve murders, you will be disappointed as that’s less than half of what you’ll be doing. But if you enjoy intrigue, plot twists, dark humor, and you don’t need to rigorously test your intellect, you’re going to enjoy your stay at Hope’s Peak. Just be sure to lock your dorm room at night…
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