Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc Review (PS Vita)
Whatever your high school experience was like, we doubt it was tougher than the one at Hope's Peak Academy. In Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc, only the elite of the elite get admitted. Every student wants to get away with murder, but here, that desire is quite literal. Who needs friends when they're all trying to kill you?
Invited to the most prestigious school in all of Japan by a random lottery, Makoto Naegi finds himself as part of the latest class attending Hope's Peak Academy. The first day in a new school where everyone is supposed to be the "ultimate" student would be hard enough, but things get even more difficult for Danganronpa's most average attendee when he arrives at the school only to be rendered unconscious. Makoto awakens a short time later to discover things at Hope's Peak are quite different than he imagined. After meeting the other 14 members of his class, Makoto and the rest of the remaining student body encounter Monokuma, a sadistic remote-controlled bear, who explains the only way to graduate Hope's Peak is to murder another member of the class and get away with it.
High school students pitted against one another in game to the death? It's certainly something we've seen before, but where Danganronpa puts its own little spin on things is in the class trials. You see, every time there's a murder, and there will be lots of murders, the student body takes part in a trial where every kid is both the defense and the prosecution. As Makoto, you'll spend most of your time investigating the events as the honus of uncovering the truth every single time falls on you. Though there are fewer diverging opinions as the story progresses, each class trial will put your patience and ability to solve the case to the test. Occasionally, some of the other students will help you out with some crucial evidence at the last moment, but for the most part, everyone else is working against you the whole time. Should the class get it right, only the accused (or blackened, as Monokuma puts it) will be punished. If the class gets it wrong, everyone else dies, and the blackened graduates.
Class trials are where the heart of Danganronpa's gameplay lies. Everything kicks off with the investigation as soon as dead body is discovered by three or more students. You'll talk to other students and examine the body and crime scene as you try to piece together the events leading to the victim's death. Like other games with an investigation mechanic, only certain key items or locations can be inspected, making the job a bit easier. Makoto will also not leave a room until every last clue has been discovered. Most of Trigger Happy Havoc is presented in first person, and you can roam the school's halls and explore different rooms to uncover more of the mysteries afoot. Though more of the school opens up as you progress, trekking through the school never becomes a chore thanks to fast travel options. Also the locations of key rooms and students are indicated on the map. There should never be a moment where you're lost on where to go or who to talk to next.
Facts and evidence are saved as Truth Bullets, which you take with you to trial. These aren't just figurative bullets either. During the roundtable debate, you can fire back at statements made by others, countering arguments or false statements. Each portion of the trial is broken down into a handful of slides where others are talking. Irrefutable words are presented in white, but orange statements can be challenged. However, not every statement is incorrect, and you'll have to pick the right moment to present your counter-argument. Arguing at the wrong time causes you to lose influence, which is finite, and if you run out of influence, everyone votes for Makoto to die. That's true even if he was never a suspect to begin with. It's a little odd, but there's a solid checkpoint system in place, and you can continue on completely unabated when you fail.
Where trials become trickier as they progress is in the number of obstacles you'll have to contend with when attempting to use your Truth Bullets. You've got to sight the questionable statements with your crosshair, almost as if you're in a first-person shooter. At first, the statements are out in the open, but as you progress deeper into Danganronpa, white noise clutters the screen, blocking potential shots. You'll have to shoot these doubts away to get a clear shot at countering your opponent, but sometimes you'll just flat out miss. You'll then have to wait for the conversation to come back around to that point and try again. If you miss, there's no real penalty other than waiting out another chance. Though the game is called Trigger Happy Havoc, it's not exactly a twitch shooter. The controls can be sluggish at times when you need them not to be, and Truth Bullets don't exactly fly across the screen with the speed of, well, a bullet.
Should you make it through the accusations and lies to uncover the culprit, two final mini-games await. The Bullet Time Battle pits you against the person you've caught in a web of lies in a rhythm game where you have to shoot down his or her exclamations of innocence. It's actually kind of fun, even if it is quite easy. In later BTBs, your suspect will "blind" you to the icons you're supposed to keep time with, but the beat is easy to keep up with, and the challenge is minimal at best. The final stage of every trial is the Closing Argument, where you'll have to piece together a manga-inspired recreation of the events to seal the verdict. Panels on certain pages will be left blank, and you'll have to find the right piece of the puzzle to complete the comic. This is the worst part of the trial. While the main comic panels are fairly large, and you can see what's happening clearly, the hidden aspects are contained within tiny little circles showing just one part of the complete picture. At times, it can be hard to figure out what the full picture is, and if it indeed is even part of the puzzle you're trying to complete. Fortunately, like the influence meter, if you mess up, the only real consequence is trying again from the last checkpoint.
Danganronpa also offers players a chance to enjoy what little semblance of normal student life they can between investigations and trials. These moments of daily life let you spend time with classmates, which not only offers more characterization for the rest of the cast (which appears very one-note at the start), but also lets you earn Skills for the Class Trials. Every character's social link (to borrow from the wildly popular Persona series) can be explored to give Makoto an advantage later in the game. You only have time to meet with a handful of the students throughout the entire game, and sometimes those students will die, and your progress will have been wasted. There are more than a dozen different skills to earn, but try not to get too attached to any given friend. Gifts purchased with Monokuma coins (earned by exploration or successfully completing trials) can also be given to further strengthen the bond, but it's not really obvious what characters will like what presents, and sometimes you can actually offend potential allies by giving the wrong gift.
As entertaining as Danganronpa was, there were a few narrative issues. It's a visual novel, so there's going to be a lot of talking, whether to other people or through internal monologues. That's all well and good, except there are moments that drag on forever because characters needlessly repeat entire diatribes just moments after regaling classmates with the exact same speech. Additionally, the verbosity gets to be a bit much in the late game portions, where almost all of the motivations and secrets start pouring out from the woodwork. It slows the game to an incredibly dull pace, and often saps any momentum you might have had going in regards to solving the case. Were this a console game, it would probably be more forgivable, but for a portable, Danganronpa takes an awful long time (at points) to get where it needs to go. Most disturbingly though, there are some really strange and often offensive sexual remarks made by a lot of the students. Remember, these are high school kids, and a few of the characters take things so far over the line, it's uncomfortable. Without going into spoilers, there is one character in particular disrespected quite a bit, and it's rather unsettling in that it happens and that it happens so often.
High school may have been torture for you, but for the kids in Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc, the day-to-day life of a teenager is murder. There's a great mystery at the core of Danganronpa, and solving it was great fun in spite of the game's few faults. Danganronpa might have some concepts that sound familiar to gamers at surface level, but once you dive deep into the secrets of Hope's Peak Academy, you'll find this adventure offers plenty of twists and turns to keep these tropes from getting stale.
This review was completed using a publisher provided code for Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc for the PS Vita.