From the moment you fire up Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc, you know you're in for a wild ride. The opening cinematic shows a cuddly but deranged looking teddy bear shoving a bound student into a rocket, which is then launched into space. Colourful, psychedelic images provide a background to the machine's flight, before it stutters, falls back to Earth, and opens to reveal the charred remains of the bear's captive.
That, in a nutshell, is Danganronpa. Confused? Allow me to explain...
Created by Spike Chunsoft, Danganronpa is a hybrid visual novel/puzzle game, not unlike the developer's efforts with 999 and Virtue's Last Reward. Much of the game is spent talking with other characters and watching the story unfold through this dialogue, broken up by occasional puzzles - in Danganronpa’s case, Phoenix Wright-esque murder investigations.
You play as Makoto Naegi, an average high schooler invited to attend Hope’s Peak Academy, the most prestigious school in the country. Normally only open to those students who are the “Ultimate” in their craft (attendees include the Ultimate Baseball Star, Ultimate Fashionista, and Ultimate Fanfic Writer, among others), the decidedly average Makoto is invited due to winning a lottery - making him the Ultimate Lucky Student.
Not all is as it seems at Hope’s Peak, though, with the 15 newly enrolled students thrown into “the Killing Game” upon their arrival by Monokuma, the maniacal bear from the opening cutscene, who has taken over the school. With the rest of the academy’s student body inexplicably absent, the new recruits are trapped - unless they “graduate” by killing one of their classmates and eluding prosecution at a Class Trial.
Much of the game plays out as you’d expect a visual novel to, with a text driven, dialogue heavy narrative accompanied by some impressive static artwork. The plot is very linear, and lacks the Choose Your Own Adventure-style branching paths that are typically associated with the genre. This may be a disappointment to some, and it certainly hinders replayability to some extent, but it also allows for a much more cohesive and impactful story.
As things progress, bodies will be discovered, triggering a murder investigation; it’s in these that the more game-like parts of Danganronpa reside. Following a murder, you’re tasked with searching the school for relevant clues to try and identify the killer. You more or less have free reign during the investigation segments, though the game will keep from getting too lost.
Once you’ve found all relevant pieces of evidence, it’s time for a Class Trial, in which all surviving students - the killer included - have to try and figure out who’s responsible. Should the class correctly nominate a suspect by popular vote, the murderer is punished by being executed in some bizarre, horrific fashion related to their trademark, “Ultimate” ability; should the class fail, the killer is allowed to leave the school, and everyone else gets punished. Yup, the stakes are damn high.
These trials play out in a series of mini-games that, while flawed at times, use fairly standard game mechanics in refreshing, interesting ways.
Most exciting of these are Nonstop Debates, a back-and-forth between students to try and make sense of the evidence they’ve found. To get to the heart of the matter, you have to find the weak points on others’ arguments and shoot them wide open - literally - by firing “Truth Bullets” at text scrolling across the screen in a first-person shooter-like fashion.
Success will require using the right pieces of evidence at the right time to poke holes in the case, forcing the use of logical reasoning as well as dexterity. At times, vague logical connections and the slow release of Truth Bullets can force you into a trial-and-error approach, but for the most part, Nonstop Debates are one of the highlights of the game.
Other mini-games include head-to-head debates using rhythm mechanics, hangman-like games involving the shooting of letters to spell out a word, and piecing together comic panels to round up the sequence of events involved in the murder.
The Class Trials are certainly among Danganronpa’s strengths, but what really carries it to the finish is the sheer weight of its narrative.
The plot is intriguing and will have you on the edge of your seat at every turn, with top-notch writing, pacing, and voice acting making it all the more compelling. The careful balance of humour, intrigue, and downright brutality makes for an incredibly unsettling experience, with the bizarre, hilarious behaviour of Monokuma underlining his sadism in a way that resembles Heath Ledger’s Joker in The Dark Knight.
Additionally, Danganronpa’s characters are fascinating, unique, and utterly believable, and do a great job of subverting anime tropes and gender norms. Particularly impressive is how much depth and humanity the writers have been able to inject, despite the game having a core cast of some 15 people.
Rounding out the game’s narrative excellence is the way it uses the Killing Game to explore a broad range of very human conflicts and themes. The overarching story explores ideas of hope and despair, but through the varied cast, Danganropa touches on issues of family dysfunction, jealousy, self-improvement, trust, betrayal, ambition, love, lust, and gender dysphoria, among others.
Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc may have the occasional flaw, but its utterly engrossing murder mystery plot, excellent characterisation, and clever use of age-old game mechanics make it a game that nobody should miss.