Dystopian future stories are a dime a dozen. Alternate futures where transhumanism is the norm, technology woven into the fabric of the soul of humanity and then some are certainly appealing to a broad audience. Psycho-Pass, from writer Gen Urobuchi, presents another one of those frightening futures inspired by the works of Mamoru Oshii and Philip K. Dick.
The core premise is that, as per usual, technological and medical advancement have leaped so far ahead that each individual's mental state (or psycho-pass) can be quantified via cymatic scanning to determine whether a person is capable of committing potential crimes. Those with a higher number (crime coefficient) are labeled as latent criminals are sent to treatment accordingly. If, however, there is no hope for rehabilitation (according to the technology that governs society's law - known as the Sibyl system in Psycho-Pass) then the only means of enforcement is execution. The police force assigned to take care of wrangling potentially latent criminals and protecting the peace are the Public Safety Burea's Criminal Investigation Division. Those charged with dispensing justice are known as Investigators and Enforcers. Investigators are those with clean psycho-pass readings (acceptable hues as they're referred to in the show and the game) who are to manage latent criminals turned Enforcers. They make use of weapons known as Dominators that are coded to a specific individual's DNA to carry out their jobs. Scan the perp, stun them or kill them, it's all up to Sibyl system to decide.
It would all be fairly boilerplate for a dystopian tale of evil technology gone awry if not for the fact that Japan is noticeably prosperous under the system. Society at large willingly lives under the judgment of Sibyl and people take their mental health very seriously. A citizen's aptitude for prospective careers is also determined by this system, placing people accordingly. It's all very orderly yet the citizenry and, more importantly, the people who enforce its laws believe in the system. Urobuchi, who has a bad reputation for tossing in ultra-violence with little regard for its effect on pacing or tone managed to walk a thin line with the original season of Psycho-Pass. It featured a dynamic but ultimately irredeemable villain, a duo of protagonists that were likable and interesting, and the fascinating technological nightmare of Japan. Why spend this time talking about the original property that Psycho-Pass: Mandatory Happiness is based on? It is essential to understanding why this visual novel, courtesy of 5pb and NIS America, is such an interesting aside from the main throughline of the original animated series.
The player is given a choice at the very beginning of the game after an initial introduction to the antagonist, a hacker named Alpha, between an investigator (Nadeshiko Kugatachi) or an Enforcer (Takuma Tsurugi). The path taken to multiple endings doesn't deviate heavily from case-to-case (presented in a similar manner to the way the show was handled) aside from some key choices known as Turning Points (as denoted by a large icon in the upper right-hand corner of the screen). Nadeshiko is a new Investigator who seems apt for the job considering her seeming lack of emotions, her keen eye for detail, and her serious deductive reasoning. However, she doesn't have any long-term memories about who she is and mostly defines herself by her Sibyl produced personnel file. Takuma, the latest Enforcer added to the PSB roster, is far more relatable compared to the cold logic of Nadeshiko. He tends to seek a peaceful resolution via rehabilitation of potential criminals before firing off a shot from his Dominator. He's also intensely loyal to a fault and seeking to find a person who he lost long ago.
The villainous threat facing the PSB over the course of Psycho-Pass: Mandatory Happiness is a bright-eyed hacker by the name of Alpha. His role is made apparent immediately but, sadly, he feels a bit derivative of the series main villain, Shogo Makashima. Shogo, who sought to bring down Sibyl by corrupting those around him and acting like a sadistic puppet master, made a lot of valid points regarding the very idea of being controlled by technology in such a way. He represented the fear, writ large, of transhumanism and worked to tear society apart at its foundation. He challenged the series heroes, Inspector Tsunemori and Enforcer Kogami, even introducing doubt into the hearts and minds of those who believe most fervently in the system they represent. He was the most interesting character on the show and yet its most irredeemable. Alpha felt like a far more stripped down version of Makashima. His goal, akin to Shogo's, was to remake society as he saw fit though Alpha wished to do so by making everyone happy. This "Mandatory Happiness" involves driving formerly sane citizens to brazen criminality and turning the very medical system that keeps society ticking along against itself for his twisted reasons.
The main thrust of the narrative comes from the serialized nature of the cases with Alpha playing his role behind the scenes. The ramp up to the story's finale is full of tough choices to make whether the player goes with Nadeshiko or Takuma. Early on the choice of locations to scout out in search of a suspect can lead to very different outcomes, ultimately playing into the greater story arc. The ending achieved for each side of the story is heavily dependent on these branching paths and saving often is heavily encouraged. These decisions weigh heavily on the shoulders of our heroes by the end of the dystopian tale and the player will have to make more than a few tough choices. Some of the questions posed by Psycho-Pass: Mandatory Happiness are heavy indeed. The question of humanity, free will, the value of memories and the true connection of human contact in a world fully alienated by technology are all explored within the game's framework. Much like the show, the game goes to dark places early and often with just a few moments of levity throughout.
Is the story worth experiencing? That's the real question that any visual novel seeks to answer. Psycho-Pass: Mandatory Happiness requires a bit of homework before playing. This specific storyline takes place within the first eight episodes of Psycho-Pass's first season. It is possible to come in cold, but many of the characters and relationships established within will make little sense. That caveat alone could turn some off, but I wholeheartedly recommend not only watching season one of the anime but also diving into this side story as well. Those who are willing to expose themselves to at least the first eight episodes of the show will encounter a relevant side-story that fits well into the canon established by Gen Urobuchi and Production IG. It expands upon the world established by the show while still maintaining the tight pacing that defined it.
This is, through and through, a traditional visual novel with little to no gameplay other than occasional branching choices for cases. Don't expect the active feel of Danganronpa around these parts. Thanks to 5pb's deft direction, it is a great looking story that takes from Production IG's source material and reproduces it quite well. The art team is to be commended for not only delivering fantastic background work for all the vignettes but, more importantly, expressive characters. The genre is very static for better or worse, yet the level of expression for every character throughout breathes much-needed life into Mandatory Happiness. The base user interface is simple yet refined, and the main overlay that is present for the duration is minimalist but works well.
One of the few things here that feel lacking is the game's soundtrack. Some of the music from the show's OST is made use of but not to great effect. Every line of dialog is fully voiced by the original cast of Psycho-Pass, and Aya Endo (Nadeshiko) and Shinichiro Muki (Takuma) both do a stellar job of bringing emotional heft to every syllable. I have to admit that I wish there had been a dubbed option for the game. It might be blasphemy to say such things around the anime/visual novel crowd, but Psycho-Pass' English cast is top-notch (Robert McCollum and Alex Organ especially). Mostly a nit-pick considering the voice work is strong overall in Mandatory Happiness.
This is also one of the few localized visual novels to make its way over to the West for PlayStation 4 and Vita. It's great to see the genre getting representation on the platform and both versions run smooth as silk with nary a slowdown or hiccup that I could see. It's worth mentioning that there is no cross-save between the PlayStation 4 and Vita versions of the game, meaning that you can't take your side story on the go. The localization itself is solid as well, along with a font choice that is easy on the eyes after consecutive hours spent staring at text flying by. There are also some extra bits to unlock such as sound clips and concept art with points earned by playing a Threes-esque sliding puzzle game.
Psycho-Pass: Mandatory Happiness doesn't quite hit the dystopian sweet-spot of the original series due to a lesser villain, but all of the source material's themes are explored with gusto. The relationship between Nadeshiko Kagatuchi and Takuma Tsurugi along with their own individual side stories are worth exploring especially if you are already a fan of the show. It is a fairly short visual novel experience so those looking for a meatier playthrough might look elsewhere. Hopefully, Psycho-Pass: Mandatory Happiness is one of many visual novel releases that will make their way to consoles in the near future.
Psycho-Pass: Mandatory Happiness was reviewed on PlayStation 4 and PS Vita using codes provided by the publisher. It is coming to PC via Steam in 2017.
Psycho-Pass: Mandatory Happiness is a great visual novel that is slightly diminished by its lackluster antagonist. The iteration on the rich world developed by the original anime is solid and well-paced. A fine addition to the genre on both home consoles and handhelds.