What would you kill for? This is one of the questions that drives the narrative of Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc. A scary conceit that makes for an entertaining story. This narrative, combined with stellar gameplay, makes Danganronpa an excellent Vita game. It makes a few missteps over its twenty plus hours, but it serves as an interesting take on the visual novel and detective genres.
Danganronpa takes place in the prestigious Hope's Peak Academy, a high school for the best of the best of the best. The cast of Danganronpa are Hope's Peak Academy students, which include the ultimate author, the ultimate pop star, the ultimate swimming pro and even the ultimate fan fiction writer. It's a varied cast full of eccentric characters; most are well written and intriguing but a few are inconsequential or irritating. You play as Makoto Naegi, you have no real talent and are remarkably unremarkable. The only reason you are able to attend Hope's Peak is because the school decided to take on a random normal high school student, making you the ultimate lucky student.
Danganronpa takes a bit to get going and a while to grip you. There's a lot of explanation to get out of the way but ultimately this frees things up to get more interesting later. This slow build up may put you off at the start, but the positive effects of getting things out of the way upfront makes it worthwhile in the long run.
Of course, life in Hope's Peak isn't as nice as Makoto expected. As you enter the academy you pass out, then wake up later in a boarded up school controlled by a strange teddy-bear-like villain who called Monokuma. It is then revealed that you are stuck in this school for the rest of your life, unless you can get away with murder. Murderers who aren’t caught are allowed to escape, while the rest of you are punished with death.
At its core Danganronpa is a detective game. Due to Monokuma putting in certain rules, and providing explicit motives, murders start to happen and these crimes have to be solved if you are to survive.The first step is to find all the evidence you need. This process is pretty streamlined and rather easy. It tells you what rooms you have to search, or who you have to talk to, and if something is relevant to the case it will be classed as a truth bullet (more on that later). At this stage there's no real puzzle solving, it's just working your way through areas in order to see what counts as evidence. It's not a process that you will get stuck on, but it is a stimulating one, as you will start to piece together the case in your mind. After all, you will need to work it out later and this segment gives you an opportunity to get to familiarise yourself with the evidence.
After you’ve gathered all the evidence a trial takes place. This process is made up of a number of minigames, all based around you using evidence (and your puzzle solving skills) to work out who is the guilty party. The multiple activities make for a novel take on the genre, but the main one does have similarities to how cases work in Phoenix Wright. The link being that you use evidence to object against specific statements. The characters in the court room start to speak and certain phrases pop up in orange text, which indicates that they are susceptible to objections. You as the player have a truth bullet (a piece of evidence) available to you and you have to fire this at the orange text it contradicts. Having specific pieces of text pointed out (as well as a specific piece of evidence) makes things simpler than in Phoenix Wright, but it’s not too simple (as you still have to work out which of the multiple available statements it could apply to). The end result is something where you feel like you are solving a case, but that also something that feels like an action game (due to having to fire bullets at words). This makes for an exciting and cerebral experience that surpasses other games in the genre.
Slick presentation in the trials makes Danganronpa feel fluid and exciting. Aiming a reticule to shoot down statements,which fall apart as you make your objection, looks really cool and always feels satisfying. The game also does a good job of layering in mechanics over time so that the trials get more difficult and engaging. It gets to the stage where you have multiple truth bullets available, but only one of them contradicts a statement. Later trials make things even more complicated. In some your provided truth bullets are actually irrelevant, what you need to do is pick out one of the orange statements and use it as a new truth bullet on a different statement that it contradicts. The game never tells you when this is going to be the case, but working out when you have to do this is very satisfying and never too difficult. Another added mechanic is distracting white noise, which manifests itself in purple text that pops up, obscuring the statements on screen. You can aim at them and press a button to dispel them to gain extra time, or press where they are on the back touchpad. However, if you hit them with your truth bullet more time gets added on.
Every minigame has time ticking down, but on the default difficulty you never have to worry about it. You always have more than enough time, but the addition of the timer does add an artificial sense of urgency, which adds to the experience. Another mechanic which does this same thing is a life bar, shoot a truth bullet at the wrong statement and you lose some life. Lose all your life and you have to retry the minigame with full life returned. There’s no real consequence, and you have enough life that you will rarely (if ever) get to this stage. You don’t really need to worry about losing or failing, but the possibility does add to the atmosphere.
When you aren’t shooting down statements with truth bullets, there are other activities. None of these are amazing in their own right, but they are used in moderation and add a nice amount of variety to the proceedings. The stylish presentation carries over into each of these also, making trials exciting and enticing.
The class trials are the standout portions of the game, and the mostly cleverly written parts, providing multiple ‘a-ha’ moments where things suddenly click. This isn’t always the case though, sometimes the small description on the truth bullet isn’t enough and it isn’t clear which statement it should apply to. These are rare occurrences, but they cause slight road blocks where the game’s phrasing seems at fault rather than your detective skills. There are also times where the game is too obvious. The first trial is a perfect example of this, there’s a clue which straight away reveals the culprit but in game characters don’t pick up on this for ages. Moments like this aren’t common, but when they crop up they do frustrate.
The overall narrative is another great part of Danganronpa. It does get a bit ludicrous at times, and some twists will roll eyes rather than blow minds, but it’s mostly great. There are some well written, interesting characters here and the game gives you ample opportunity to spend time with them. Inbetween story moments, investigations and cases, the player has some free time which they can spend talking to whoever they wish. This builds up friendships á la Persona 4 and completed friendships give you skills you can use in the trials. On the default difficulty these skills are somewhat irrelevant, but deeper insight into these characters is reward enough. There is also a gift giving mechanic, but the interface here needs some work.
Overall, Danganronpa is a really fun game with a well told story full of mystery and revelations. It’s not the most impactful or memorable of tales, but it is well put together and very entertaining. The story does get a bit too ridiculous sometimes, but the excellent trials more than make up for this. This all adds up to a great game that will keep you glued to your vita for hours on end.