Visual novels have been getting a lot of traction in the west recently, but DanganRonpa: Trigger Happy Havoc may be the most bizarre yet exciting of them all.
The premise is relatively familiar, but puts its own spin on things. Through sheer luck, a completely average high school student by the name of Makoto Naegi is invited to attend the elite Hope's Peak Academy, a high class school known for accepting only the best of the best in certain fields. These fellow "ultimate" students each have a proficiency they are the absolute best at, ranging from writing to leading a biker gang. Of course their expertise won't help them when they get trapped in the much sought after academy and are forced to play a game of death. To escape, they must kill a fellow student and not get caught, or spend the rest of their lives cut off from the outside world. And this is all arranged by a psychopathic jokester monochrome bear by the name of "Monokuma".
As this is a visual novel, you'll be doing a ton of reading. Fortunately, the writing is most definitely able to carry the game. The story comes with plenty of intense twists to keep players guessing at the edge of their seats. The cast of characters definitely helps. At first, they seem somewhat gimmicky with their personalities based solely around their fields of expertise, but they actually display a good deal of depth and even the least likable ones get pretty sympathetic. The longer you watch them deal with such a horrible situation, the more you want them to get out of it alive, and seeing your favorite character get dragged off to their cruel and twisted deaths can lead to a wide array of emotions.
This is an example of how an inconsistent tone can be effective. Having conflicted feelings based on presentation and character actions is more than appropriate when you consider just what kind of lunatic is running the show. It's uncomfortable yet humorous, claustrophobic yet wacky, silly yet sadistic; this schizophrenic mishmash of opposite tones does a great job in driving home the point of just how messed up the situation is. Cartoony deaths are treated as exactly what they are; deaths. The player is constantly reminded of the horrifying nature of the killing game, with the psychotic antagonist being the only one to treat it as a joke.
The visuals are pretty standard as far as visual novels go. Dialogue is told through mostly static images of the characters, which outside of portraits, are represented by models akin to cardboard cut-outs. The anime designs are over the top, a stylistic choice that fits well with the overall presentation. The occasional CG cutscenes are well-directed and visually appealing as they do their best to hammer in the despair-filled situation the students have found themselves in.
As a rather atypical example of the genre, DanganRonpa pulls in more styles of play beyond just scrolling through text or clicking on objects. At certain points, the player can explore the halls in first person. Most of the time, this is just a means to get from one room to another where you can look at objects or chat with characters, but sometimes certain students like to hang around outside of the rooms just waiting for the player to talk to them.
Of course, the unique genre-blending does not end there. The meat of the game lies in the trials. The player will be no stranger to how over the top the presentation can be by the time the first one rolls around, but these courtroom classes take it even further than that. The comparisons to the Ace Attorney series are somewhat apt to these portions of the game, but even Phoenix Wright would feel intimidated by the pure enthusiasm of the murder-solving students. Yelling is only a byproduct of metaphorically "shooting down" contradictions. As the trials progress, more functions get introduced suddenly, even furthering the already voluminous melting pot of genres. "Bullet Time Battles" occur as a tense rhythm game following (and sometimes preceding) a mental recounting of the events of the murder arranged in a manga style where the player must fill in the blanks.
Most chapters give the player some "free time", which allows them to hang out with their fellow students in order to get closer to them by talking and giving them gifts. As this is not a dating sim, getting closer to someone won't do much in terms of altering your path through the game, so don't feel too bad if you miss your chance to chat with someone. What this does do is help grow your nifty set of skills that can be used during the trial sections.
The soundtrack is absolutely stellar and a perfect fit for the stylish, over the top and intense presentation. Understandable as Masafumi Takada of Grasshopper fame is responsible for the music. Haunting scenes are appropriately accompanied by well-scored haunting tracks, humorous scenes have humorous tracks, and so on.
The voice acting is also impressive. While a few characters are a bit rough in terms of fitting their persona, each one still brings something distinct to the table. The cast may be comprised of lesser known voice talents, but they sound just as experienced as the big names.
And when you're done with the game, you can take a break from all the killing and despair in the brand new School Mode exclusive to the Vita version. This nifty stat-based simulation requires the player to "mine" materials to build things for Monokuma. Just like in the main game, you get free time to hang out with your fellow students, but this time there are no murders or executions, so the player can advance bonds at their own pace without worrying about anyone dying. School Mode is an addictive addition that can keep you playing long after the main story is over.
DanganRonpa: Trigger Happy Havoc is a thrilling despair-filled adventure all visual fans need to check out. Even those with little to no VN experience should give it a look, as its high energy presentation, likable cast, crazy story, and unique genre-blending gives it a fresh feel that is unlike anything else.
Versions tested: PS Vita
Disclaimer: A copy of this game was provided to RPG Site by the publisher.