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DanganRonpa: Trigger Happy Havoc (Vita) artwork

DanganRonpa: Trigger Happy Havoc (Vita) review

"On one hand, some of these murders are utterly heinous. On the other hand, the blood is hot pink."

DanganRonpa: Trigger Happy Havoc (Vita) image

I think I've figured it out. My long-standing but recently declining contempt for point-and-clicks, graphic adventures and any game that places a higher value on narrative than interactivity always stemmed from that fact that, for a while, the standard for storytelling in this medium wasn't very high. That's becoming less and less true by the year, though. Look at Telltale's The Walking Dead. As a traditional "game," it moved sporadically, controlled poorly and ultimately fell flat. But it also told a story that made me openly weep, which no movie, TV show or book has ever done. That's something remarkable, and it's what ultimately convinced me that entirely plot-driven games can be just as impactful and as the ones where you're just shooting guys or whatever.

Our latest specimen is Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc, which Wikipedia accurately describes as a "visual novel." It's basically a playable manga, and its attempts to draw the player directly into the proceedings don't really work, frankly. But judged as reading material – which is primarily what it is – Danganronpa is rich and surprising, and kept me consistently engaged for a good 25 hours. And hey, if something works, it works.

The setup is as follows. Hope's Peak is an elite school in which students are only accepted by being the absolute best at whatever they do – so we've got the Ultimate Martial Artist, the Ultimate Fashionista, the Ultimate Clairvoyant, whatever. The only apparent exception to this rule is our hero, Makoto, an average guy who was selected at random to attend the academy and is thus designated as "the Ultimate Lucky Student." The fifteen teenagers arrive on campus only to discover that – surprise! – it's actually a fully barricaded prison camp. The self-proclaimed "headmaster" of the school, a robotic teddy bear named Monokuma, informs them that the only way to graduate, and thus leave, is to kill another student.

Now, if you're familiar with any other work of fiction based on a similar premise (I hear that something called The Hunger Games is pretty popular right now), you'll probably guess some of the details pertaining to Danganronpa's lore before they're all unveiled during the big finale. But that's okay. What makes this game unique is its methods and motives. The catch to Monokuma's rule is that a student can only graduate if he or she actually gets away with the murder. This means having a system in place wherein the kids can investigate crimes, gather evidence and hold trials, and this means that Danganronpa is a murder mystery.

Think about this situation. Fifteen adolescents are detained together. They've never met each other, they're in constant mortal danger and they all have perfectly feasible motives to commit murder. Developers Spike Chunsoft could have stopped there, but they didn't. With the possible exception of a stuttering writer named Toko, who feels a bit one-note even after a pivotal secret about her is revealed, each of the characters wrapped up in this conspiracy is colorful and three-dimensional, and their behavior is never anything less than entirely authentic. It's easy to kill characters that we like. It's not so easy to turn characters we like into murderers, and trickier still to make their rationales for murder understandable and even sympathetic.

Spike Chunsoft pulls it off, and for that reason, there are many layers to each chapter beyond simply being deliciously complex crime mysteries. Even on the rare occasions in which I caught onto a clue early, or spotted a red herring, or even successfully identified the culprit, there were always massive pieces of the puzzle that I hadn't put together. Watching them unravel was both intellectually and emotionally satisfying.

It's also impressively complicated, with the game frequently having to backtrack to earlier scenes as if to say, "See? We're not just making this up as we go along. This was totally the plan the whole time!"

DanganRonpa: Trigger Happy Havoc (Vita) image

Now, the fact that Danganronpa is so tightly written also means that it must be tightly controlled. It's reliant on predetermined pieces of evidence being found in a predetermined order and presented by predetermined characters at predetermined points throughout each investigation. It's a linear narrative, and as such, the player's actual input on it is minimal. Most of the time, you're just walking Makoto from one cutscene to the next; during the trial, mini-games are thrown into the stew. I do rather like the idea of evidence manifesting as "bullets" that must be physically "fired" at statements thus forming an "argument," but the Hangman- and Bemani-style interludes are forced and unnecessary.

But, again, they're outmaneuvered by a character-driven story that's simultaneously exuberant and rather human. There's this great moment early in Danganronpa when two heavily contrasting male students – the Ultimate Moral Compass and the Ultimate Biker Gang Leader – develop a heated rivalry, decide to settle their differences with a contest to see who can stay in the sauna the longest, and come out in full-on bromance. It's silly, and yet it rings weirdly true. Spike Chunsoft clearly understands that a person's darkest impulses can only be explored if we understand the person in question. The students of Hope's Peak don't have a long run, but the writers have successfully captured the most important aspect of social life in school, which is the feeling of having grown up alongside others. That makes it all the more potent when your friends start, y'know, stabbing each other.

What also helps, though, is that Danganronpa is too witty and too stylish to ever become oppressively bleak. And that's important. On one hand, some of these murders are utterly heinous. On the other hand, the blood is hot pink.

And on a broader scope, the material here is positively morbid, but damned if it's not a hell of a lot of fun to watch it all play out.

That leads into one of Danganronpa's recurring themes, which is despair versus hope. That sounds hokey, but it's well-placed. Monokuma – who, despite being abhorrent on every level, fancies himself a Joker-esque lovable psychopath type – drops the word "despair" at every corner. He's a proponent of it. While I won't spoil his exact motivations, it's clear from the outset that he's genuinely evil and takes unmistakable pleasure in the misery of others. He's placed children into a situation wherein the only outcome is to either kill, die, or spend the rest of their lives cut off from the outside world and in constant fear. It is, for all intents and purposes, a hopeless scenario, just as Monokuma wants it to be.

And yet, despite all of this, the students of Hope's Peak come to develop friendships and care for one another despite having every reason to live in perpetual wariness. Some of that trust is tragically misplaced, of course, but that's just the thing: If we regress into vessels of cold, unbiased logic, we rob ourselves of what makes us human, and we rob the world of what makes it ours. Danganronpa is a grim experience, but it's uplifting to see these people – the ones who last, anyway – refuse to abandon hope. I can't spoil where it's all headed, so you'll have to believe me when I say that the game's finale ties its themes together in the most perfect and heartfelt manner that I could imagine.

And you know what? I have no doubt that you will believe me. I take slight issue with Danganronpa being such an incessant tease, with the game often being frustratingly slow to dole out the juicy details, but if you're committed enough to make it through the first couple of hours and deep into the shocking first murder, you'll understand just how well Danganronpa rewards patience. From there, it's smooth sailing atop the rich character development and heart-stopping reveals that you can consistently count on. I'm not even usually into this sort of thing and I can't wait for the next installment.


Suskie's avatar
Community review by Suskie (March 28, 2014)

Mike Suskie is a freelance writer who has contributed to GamesRadar and has a blog. He can usually be found on Twitter at @MikeSuskie.

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