Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc Review

By Shawn Collier on March 13, 2014

By their nature, adventure games often have something of a one-track mind, leading the audience on a linearly focused journey to the finale. Each core event is scripted with little variation and the gameplay exists only to expand on the characters and environments to build up the story further. That isn't to say this is a bad thing, as many of these games have an excellent narrative which engages the player. Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc differs from this norm though, as it's is an adventure game that pushes outside these boundaries. Fear lurks around every corner in the school walls inside which the game takes place and everyone inside is fearful of their fellow neighbor. The twist is that instead of just being a fly on the wall, you get to go on investigations in an attempt to find out "whodunit".

You play as high schooler Makoto Naegi who's been accepted to the prestigious Hope's Peak Academy. It's a school that only accepts the most talented "Ultimate" students in various fields each year, so it's a pretty big deal. Ironically enough Naegi only ends up at the school thanks to a raffle drawing as the Ultimate "Lucky Student". Once he enters the school gates, he suddenly loses consciousness and awakens hours later to what appears to be the school gym alongside the other 15 "Ultimate" students from the year's picks.

Not that long after a maniacal remote-controlled teddy bear named Monokuma appears, he lets them know they're trapped in the school. There is a way to escape, though, you just have to murder a fellow student and get away with the crime in exchange for the deaths of all of the other students.

As far as gameplay goes, the game is split into three phases: daily life, free time and deadly life. The first, daily life, plays out like your typical adventure game as you go from area to area and talk to the students to advance the plot. Similar to the Phoenix Wright series' investigation segments, you move the cursor around the rooms to investigate particular items or to talk to the students nearby in an attempt to learn more about the school you've been imprisoned in. After a certain period of time, the game switches to the second phase: free time.

This mode allows the player to roam the school and build up their relationships with their fellow classmates. It's quite similar to the Social Link feature found in Persona 3 and 4 whereby any available student is up for grabs. It's up to the player to choose who they want to spend time with and that means people will have varying experiences. Befriending characters will give some interesting backstories, but the true purpose is to gain more skills and skill points for the next phase of the game, deadly life, where the class trails take place.

Sometime during the daily life segment Monokuma reveals one method or another to entice kills, whether that be something about the person themselves or an object meant to encourage the next would-be-killer. Once at least three people come across a dead body the investigation phase starts. The goal here is to amass enough clues to get an idea of who might have pulled off the murder in the form of "truth bullets" which are used later during the class trial.These sections could be quite tedious without a proper script, which in NIS America's case was pretty well done for the most part. The script makes their responses some very convincing, sometimes even using this to their advantage to have the killer throw off the player's perceptions of the case at hand. Danganronpa also wisely makes these segments concise, but thorough, so it doesn't overstay its welcome. However, at the same time it never feels rushed.

All of this leads to the real meat of the game: the class trials. Just like Phoenix Wright, slinging false accusations will end with your undoing, but time also acts as your opponent. There's four distinct investigational styles that make up the trials: Nonstop Debates, Hangman's Gambit, Bullet Time Battle and Closing Statement. Each of the phases becomes progressively more difficult as the trial moves on, so it makes for a great challenge.

Nonstop Debates start off each of the trials and they involve the player attempting to find contradictions in specially highlighted phrases spoken by the other students. If they do manage to, they can then shoot them down using the Truth Bullets gathered prior. These segments open up a bit as additional mechanics flow in such as "white noise" which interferes with your ability to shoot the bullets. Other mechanics also enter into play to try and increase the difficulty later on in the game.

Hangman's Gambit is used selectively when there's a specific word or phrase that's key to the current discussion. A few letters will be revealed at the start, with the rest of the letters needing to be shot down similar to how the truth bullets were fired earlier. The trick here is that these letters appear and disappear and tend to move as you're aiming at them so it becomes a game of figuring out the word/phrase, while still leaving enough time on the clock to shoot down the necessary letters. The game only employs this sparingly so it doesn't feel overdone.

Bullet Time Battle is probably the most unique phase as it occurs when a student outright denies a claim aimed at them. These segments may feel quite challenging initially as it takes the shooting mechanics from before and mixes that with rhythm-based gameplay. You press X to target the statements that pop up and Triangle to shoot them down. The twist is that not only do you have limited number of bullets that need to be periodically restocked, you also have to time your button presses with the music.

Later on opponents make this even harder as they can speed up the tempo or even hide the bar entirely forcing you to rely on their sense of rhythm to prevail. And course this is all timed and you have a limited amount of health, so you can't stretch it out in an attempt to win via attrition. This segment of the trial is perhaps the best, as it really shows off the tension that's taking place and makes you feel like your life is truly on the line.

When the trial ends, you get the closing statement. At this point, you are charged with reconstructing the murder timeline in a manga-style format. Of course there's more pieces than panels available so it's up to the player to remember the case and pick the right pieces, something which is easier said than done.

As far as graphics go, Danganronpa uses a nice mixture of 2D and 3D graphics, with 2D being used for the characters and 3D for the environments. There's a neat cardboard-like mechanic in particular used on the characters and this is also present when you enter rooms. The music, which is composed by Masafumi Takada, is also excellent at accompanying the scenes at hand.

Final Thoughts

Danganronpa manages to merge adventure games together to create a style that gets rid of the linear nature of going from set piece to set piece the genre is known for, while still driving the game forward. While the subject matter can be seen as quite mature, those who are old enough to appreciate it will find a lot to love here. Fans of the genre should without a doubt pick this up, but anyone else who has a Vita and got burned on other adventure games which were too slow for their liking.

The investigations and class trial segments do a lot to break up the monotony the genre is known for.
Unique art style really pops on the Vita's OLED screen.
Excellent localization by NIS America.
Some of the characters feel overly cliched at times.
Due to how the genre works there isn't a huge amount of replayability after beating the game.
Even with its additional gameplay mechanics, those who hate the genre won't be converted by the game.
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