|System: PS Vita|
|Dev: Spike Chunsoft|
|Pub: NIS America|
|Release: February 11, 2014|
|Screen Resolution: 544p||Blood, Intense Violence, Strong Language, Suggestive Themes|
by Becky Cunningham
When Makoto Naegi, a thoroughly average high school student, is invited to the prestigious Hope's Peak Academy, he thinks he's quite lucky. When he passes out and wakes up to find he's imprisoned in the school and forced to take part in a game of death, he's forced to reconsider that luck. Thus begins Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc, the latest visual novel to come from Japan and terrorize the English-speaking world.
At first glance, Danganronpa looks like it could be a black comedy. It sports a unique pop art graphical style and a creepy-cute teddy bear mascot named Monokuma, who serves as the story's main antagonist. However, Makoto is far too earnest a narrator and the inevitable deaths of many cast members are treated with too much gravitas for even the darkest of comedies. The game is straight-up horror, and the candy coating on the graphics (even the blood is neon pink instead of red) has been carefully manufactured to make the atmosphere even more disturbing.
In a Hunger Games (or more properly for Japan, Battle Royale) type of situation, fifteen students with so-called Ultimate talents are trapped in Hope's Peak, with no way to see or access the outside world. Security cameras and television monitors are everywhere, and the mechanical bear Monokuma tells the students that there's only one way out. If a student manages to kill another student without being found out by his or her peers, that student becomes “Blackened” and can “graduate,” or return to the outside world. If somebody graduates successfully, the rest of the students will be executed, but if a Blackened student is discovered, only that person will face a deadly, grisly punishment.
Monokuma gives the students various motives for killing each other along the way, and it's not long before people start dropping dead. Makoto finds himself taking the point in investigating each murder and uncovering the correct murderer in high-stakes class trials. As the game goes along, Makoto and his ever-shrinking number of friends begin to uncover the dark secrets behind the world in which they've found themselves trapped.
An interesting cast of characters livens up the game. They appear to be simple over-the-top anime stereotypes, but most of them have deeper elements that can be uncovered as the game progresses and Makoto gets to know his peers. The characters are intermittently voiced in either English or Japanese (your choice), and most of the performances (particularly Monokuma's) support their personalities well.
There are minor social simulation elements that allow Makoto to unlock special abilities and have in-depth conversations with the other students, but otherwise there are few choices to be made in the main game. It's quite linear, and there's no hope of saving anybody who has been scripted for death. In fact, the question of whether hope can be found amidst such overwhelming despair is the game's central theme.
Danganronpa excels beautifully as a horror-themed visual novel, but falls short when it comes to other game elements. The most important task that falls on our everyman hero, Makoto, is solving the mysteries of the various murders that occur at Hope's Peak. These mysteries are set up quite well, starting with one that is painfully easy to solve and continuing into elaborate setups that require careful examination of evidence.
It's a real shame that the game undermines these murder mystery setups by treating the player like a total idiot. Perhaps it's because Makoto isn't supposed to be particularly bright, but the way the narrative treats these mysteries causes that lack of intelligence to be projected onto the player. The satisfying feeling of solving the crimes is lost when the game's text acts like a huge red arrow, pointing at the important pieces of evidence while basically yelling, “Hey! Look at this! It's important! Get it? Get it? If you don't get it, don't worry. I'll point it out in painful detail until it gets through your thick skull!”
This trend continues during the class trials, in which Makoto gives the player such obvious hints to a puzzle's answer that it serves to deflate any sense of victory a clever player might feel for figuring things out ahead of time. Why bother chewing on a good mystery when it's basically going to be solved by rote during the class trials anyhow?