Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc has a fine balance of story and gameplay. At its heart, Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc is a visual novel about solving murders, and yet it also becomes a trigger happy game that mixes critical thinking and accuracy. It’s a strange duality, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc is about hope and despair, and while it may seem hokey the designers have perfectly executed every aspect of the game’s design to reflect this. The events that transpire take place in the world’s most elite school, Hope’s Peak. From the outside, the school is a tower of hope, taking the students who are the ultimate at what they do (swimming, clairvoyance, affluence, programming, writing, etc.) and training them for guaranteed success.
But all of the ostensible glory nearly vanishes when Makoto Naegi, the only average student to be invited to the school, steps through the school’s threshold. What Makoto finds is a school that features a state-of-the-art equipment, all beautifully rendered through hyper-stylized color palate similar to Killer 7 or Persona; however, the school is filled with bolted up windows, surveillance cameras and gun turrets—all of which are poised to prevent the teenagers from leaving the school. Naturally, they grow anxious, and Monokuma, the antagonist that is the most sadistic teddy bear ever, issues an ultimatum: the students must live a communal life together unless they graduate. How do they graduate? By killing a student and successfully getting away with it. This is when the school and its students begin to reveal their inner darkness.
With no choice, Makoto befriends the ultimate students, each of whom he has researched extensively; yet, they all seem to be hiding something about themselves. The ultimate baseball player, for example, doesn’t even enjoy the sport—he wants to be a singer. The ultimate pop star ostensibly carries a cheery disposition, but she claims that she’s had to do some unpleasant things to get ahead. Nobody is who they seem to be, and that makes them all possible suspects for the following murders.
Makoto is friendly as a protagonist, and he constantly runs into the other students in the hallways. Makoto can hang out with whomever he chooses. To gain favor with his peers, he can collect Monokuma coins by examining his environment, and he can spend those coins on presents. Players will want to spend time with as many of these students as possible. From a narrative standpoint, they’ll gain better understanding of their classmate’s perspective. From a mechanical standpoint, they’ll learn passive traits that will help them in the class trials. But what it really does is provide players hope that will soon be squashed by despair.
The fun ends (for the characters, anyway) once Monokuma provides the students with a motive. In the first chapter, he gives each a customized video—for their eyes only. This triggers a murder, and then the real game begins.
From here, players can explore the school in first person. In the hallways, they can move around freely. In the classrooms, however, players remain stationary, although they can rotate the camera to explore the room for more evidence. Each classroom has a certain amount of examinable items, which you can see by pressing triangle. Of course, players will want to speak with the other students, as their testimonies will come under scrutiny during the trials. At times, I felt like the game would hold my hand for too long, but I enjoyed how each murder was unique, and I had no problems exploring each crime scene thanks to the intuitive UI.
After players finish collecting evidence, which is usually determined by how bored Monokuma is, they move to the circular trial room, where the most unorthodox trials take place. Trials are broken up into several sections. The main portion of the trial is discussing each piece of evidence via debate. Each section is timed, and Makoto must find the discrepancies in his peers’ arguments—otherwise, he’ll wrongly take the blame, and he and all of his classmates will die. To find these discrepancies, Makoto has a gun in which he shoots truth bullets (the pieces of evidence you’ve collected) at the highlighted text that may or may not be a discrepancy. White noise will get in your way, so you have to shoot those before you can detect discrepancies. By missing your shots, you lose time, and by hitting the wrong statements, you lose health. If you lose enough time and health, you and your classmates become executed. If you don’t shoot any discrepancies, Makoto will give you a hint and you resume the exact same discussion. It’s an interesting mechanic that stresses both critical thinking and accuracy.
But there’s more to the trials. Eventually, players can switch between truth bullets, and they can highlight another student’s statement to create their own truth bullets. There are other components to the trial as well. There’s a minigame called Hangman’s Gambit, in which it is a glorified game of hangman except with guns. Players will also debate a single student in a rhythm game. Finally, players recreate the events by creating a manga, filling in the missing panels with the correct events.
Once the verdict has been determined, the gang votes for the guilty person, and Monokuma executes them. Being the sadistic teddy bear that it is, Monokuma creates each execution with machinery that operates on Loony Toon logic, except unlike the cartoons, these characters die permanently. Each execution is equally zany as it is disturbing, and they all perfectly allign with the balance of hope and despair.
It’s difficult to point out any concrete flaws. Perhaps the game presents too much dialogue, which becomes very evident within the first chapter. I say this because it takes at least 2 hours before the main conflict arise; however, all of that time is spent learning about your classmates, which is appropriate for a murder mystery story. There are also a few choices (there’s one that’s integral to the story that I won’t mention) that are presented as a choice, but the game will end up choosing for you, which makes me wonder why they existed. And finally, I had trouble understanding how to work certain aspects of the trial, as I could understand the directions. The game throws a lot at you, and it’s important that you learn how to play the game correctly; otherwise, you can expect to see a lot of repeating dialogue.
But for each day I played the game, I stayed up until 6:00 in the morning after promising myself I would only play for an hour before I went to bed. Daganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc mixes features that may seem absurd on paper; however, they blend wonderfully together to create an enthralling experience. If you decide to pick up this game, then you should expect to not get any sleep before you have to go to work.
This review is based on a digital copy of Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc for the PlayStation Vita provided by NIS America.