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2016-05-23

Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc Review




Title: Dangan Ronpa Kibou no Gakuen to Zetsubou no Koukousei
Original title: ダンガンロンパ 希望の学園と絶望の高校生
Aliases: Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc
Danganronpa: Hope’s Academy and Despair’s Students
Release date: 2010-11-25
English release date: 2013-06-23 (PSP)
2014-02-11 (PSV)
2016-02-18 (PC)
Developer: Spike Chunsoft
English publisher: Project Zetsubou (PSP, as a fan-patch)
NIS America (PSV)
Spike Chunsoft (PC)

From a studio that gave us the Hitler's least favourite game, comes another fascinating tale - Danganronpa - a study in murder, despair and beary ridiculous hairdos.

I have been aware of Danganronpa for a long time now, but never got around to playing it. I would have eventually used a fan-translation to play the PSP edition, but the recent release of the game for Windows on Steam finally kicked me into action, as I ran out of excuses for not playing it.

Danganronpa belongs to the same school of genre as "Battle Royale" and the "Saw" series. In other words, it is mostly interested in bringing a group of friends together, make us get to know them and then murder them with an almost George R. R. Martin-like glee. The most basic description of the plot in order to ensnare your friends into playing this game sounds like this: "A group of high schoolers start killing each other on the orders of a talking teddy bear". Now tell me, that this is not the most awesome and the most wacky concept ever!
The weirdo brigade.
Let's try again with a more serious plot description. Hope's Peak Academy is an institution, where only the brightest of the bright students go to receive their education. Not just anyone can get accepted, but surprisingly, our protagonist Naegi Makoto, who hasn't got any special talents, receives an acceptance letter. Once he actually arrives to the Academy, he faints and, upon waking up, realises that he is imprisoned in a suddenly unwelcoming building with another fourteen students. A robotic remote-controlled bear, calling himself Monokuma, informs them that they are imprisoned in the school until the day they die, and the only way to leave is to "graduate". Of course, graduating involves killing a fellow student and getting away with it in a subsequent trial (comparisons to Phoenix Wright incoming in 3... 2... 1...). It doesn't take long for the first murder to happen, and Monokuma constantly provides additional incentives he calls "motives" in order to make the killings continue uninterrupted.

Interestingly, Danganronpa is not a pure visual novel, but a hybrid of a visual novel and a first person adventure game. I wasn't aware of that fact when I started playing and it was a pleasant surprise to have some interactivity. Despite the added interactivity, Danganronpa is almost completely linear with one True Ending and one additional Bad Ending that branches from the fifth case trial. Despite that, I frequently mention in my reviews that I do not consider linearity to be a bad trait, as many VNs clearly benefit from an ability to tell a single coherent story without having to take all those "what-ifs" into account. Admittedly, the story is hardly Danganronpa's greatest strength, but about that later.
Monokuma's critique on society.
The whole scenario of this VN can be easily split into several easily identifiable segments. First, there is, what the game dubs, "Daily Life". That's exactly what it says on a tin. It's mostly slife-of-life scenes and "Free Time", when you can talk to the characters of your choosing and get to know them better. Sometimes those conversations reveal something genuinely interesting about your fellow captives, but other times they just consist of some inane chatter. You can also give people presents and receive skills you'll use in the Class Trial. Presents are obtained from a special machine which takes Monokuma coins you can find scattered around or gain during the Class Trial. That's why it pays to check every interactable object, in order to get as many coins as possible, but that's already obvious to every serious adventure gamer. All in all, I found this part of the game slightly boring, because none of the characters are particularly deep personalities. It's impossible to max out your relationship with all of the captives in one playthrough, but never fear, you can finish what you have missed during the School Mode.
True friendship prevails.
All of the characters you get to know are larger-than-life overexaggerated versions of carefully chosen caricatures. Their defining characteristics are brought to the foreground along with certain looks to accompany that. I have already mentioned ridiculous hairdos (Mondo's pompadour is a sight to behold), but the clothing and body shape also play a certain part in the crafting of the image. Despite their eccentric personalities and looks, the characters are not fleshed out that well, and there are only a few of them who act like real humans instead of being vehicles for a certain archetype. Kirigiri Kyouko is the most well defined example, who is probably the most relatable person among the cast, despite some very unneeded "I'm so mysterious" episodes. On the other end of the spectrum is Togami Byakuya, who is the most unrelatable person, courtesy of being a raging asshole, but he is still one of the most if not the most interesting member of the cast.
If that's not a slasher grin, I don't know what is.
Despite what I have just said, a relatively shallow portrayal of a majority of the captive students is not a bad thing. The game never takes itself seriously, despite the whole murder an mayhem thing, and the students are not portrayed seriously to reflect that. Despite that, they show a clear understanding of their unenviable situation and react surprisingly adequately and believably to it. Some students like Hagakure Yasuhiro sink into denial and think the whole situation is an elaborate joke. Others, like Fukawa Touko, start losing their shit and going crazy. And others, like Celestia, have some very good advices to dish out, like her suggestion of a self-imposed curfew.

Actually, in a few cases, the students managed to genuinely surprise me. Take Leon, the Ultimate Baseball Star, into account. Once you talk to him, he confesses that he hates baseball and would rather be a singer. If you take time to know him during a "Free Time" event, you'll learn why he wants to be a singer, and the reason for that is so... human that it immediately makes you feel closer to him. Sadly, there are such students like Yamada Hifumi, too. He is exactly what you take him to be at a first glance - a fat otaku pervert with a penchant for nerd speak. That is all he is and that is slightly disappointing. Not as disappointing as the main character, though.
Soooo average...
Our protagonist Naegi Makoto claims to be the most average person in the world, and he repeats it so many times as if to hammer it into your head. Makoto has no personality whatsoever and is reminiscent of those "in their shoes" protagonists popular with the nukige developers. He seems to be just an observer rather than an active participant in the events within the Hope's Peak. Things just happen to him, he has no agenda of his own and he always seems to be following someone else's lead. He also acts pretty stupid and that ties in with the next chapter within the game's structure.

"Deadly Life" is a part that directly follows your leisurely slice-of-life existence, and it starts with a murder. After that it's your job as Naegi to find the clues, collect the evidence and interrogate the witnesses. It's actually pretty exciting, despite the linearity of the segment, as the game won't let you proceed until you gathered all the possible clues. However, Naegi's attitude slightly sours things up. He acts completely brainless, like he doesn't understand what any of those clues mean. Even internally Naegi doesn't comment about the clues, so the game makes it seem like he is completely in the dark, and he might as well be, because it's mostly Kyouko's prodding that gets his ass in line during the Class Trials. In a way I wonder why the developers chose Makoto as the protagonist, considering he's such a non-entity - Kyouko would have made an infinitely better main character.
That's one big ass flower.
Finally, the last chapter called the Class Trial comes, and that's where all the nefarious secrets about each case get revealed. The battles are long and consist of constantly evolving minigames that are really well designed and engaging to the player. I never got bored with the Class Trials as they provided a nice challenge and finally some well deserved schadenfreude. Makoto also gets his shit together and starts figuring out the murder mystery, but that's a little too late for him, as it looks like he had just figured things during the trial, while it would have been much more believable if he figured the things out during the previous stage. Despite that, all the mysteries are very well designed - I cannot fault the game here. There are so many red herrings, foreshadowings and outright lies woven into a tight narrative that it's particularly hard to figure things out for the reader.

Sure, there are some things that are obvious, which highlights Makoto's bloody incompetence even more. For example, the murderer in the first case is painfully clear to everyone who can read (though whydunnit and howdunnit are a bit harder to unearth) and Chihiro's secret soon becomes clear as a day to everyone who has two working brain cells. Still, the core mysteries are hidden beyond so many veils of falsehoods that the game managed to constantly surprise me.
Oblivious Monokuma is oblivious.
Another great thing about Danganronpa is it's main villain - Monokuma, which is a contraction of "monochromatic bear". Most people probably wouldn't think that a stuffed robotic bear would make a good villain, but it's astonishing what the game managed to do with the concept. Monokuma displays clear signs of a bipolar disorder, being funny and playful one moment and switching to menacing and angry the next one. It is also a probable indication that its controller is seriously mentally unstable. Monokuma's chaotic behaviour coupled with a very fitting voice and his uncanny ability to play our characters like well oiled instruments and incite strife and dissent in their ranks, creates a memorable villain out of a funny concept.

Talking about voices, Danganronpa subscribes to a "Baldur's Gate" school of voice acting. In other words, usually only the firstword of the phrase, or even just a grunt, a giggle or a swearword, is voiced. Only the key scenes, including the Class Trials, receive the full voice acting. At first I felt weirded out by the situation, but quickly got used to it and even started to appreciate the voices. The VN actually allows you to choose between the English and the Japanese voice acting, and I feel that both teams did a good job. I personally preferred Japanese voices, but two voices especially stand out even on the English side. Monokuma's and Hifumi's English voice actors gave their all to their roles, and I frankly am hard pressed to select which Monokuma voice I like the best: English or Japanese.
The trial concludes in a graphic novel recreation of a crime.
Graphically the game looks good with one reservation. The art style is very cartoonish with the characters usually appearing as 2D cutouts in a 2.5D environment. I have never seen something like this before, but it certainly fits the whole "not taking the situation seriously" vibe of the game. Danganronpa even has some animated cutscenes, especially during the outrageous execution scenes. The reservation I mentioned is the fact that the VN is an obvious PSVita port. While the PC controls are actually very intuitive, graphically the game does look a bit washed out and low resolution. It's obvious that there were no higher res art assets than the ones used for the PSVita. I'm not a graphics whore, so it's not much of a drawback for me, but some people might get turned off by that.

At least, there are some advantages to this being a Vita port too. You see, Vita introduced a new after-game scenario, called the School Mode, which was not present in the PSP release. This mode also appears in the Windows release. School Mode is a non-canon alternative playthrough without any murders, where you can finish all those "Free Time" events you missed in the main game and get some alternative endings. You might need to play through the School Mode more than once in order to experience all the content available therein, but it might be worth it if you are not adverse to simulation gameplay.
School Mode in a nutshell.
Anyway, now that I have finished the game and look back at it, I can honestly say, that Danganronpa is definitely no masterpiece. The protagonist is a blank spot, the characters are pretty stereotypical and shallow and the main plot is pretty weak (and the ending goes for maximum WTF-polar-bear-monkey shock value), but I still enjoyed playing it. The craziness of Monokuma is always funny, Byakuya's and Touko's relationship is still a better love story than "Twilight" and all the cases were seriously making my grey matter spin counterclockwise. The game is also surprisingly lengthy.

Of course, I have to be a party pooper and end my musings with one more negative. The skip feature is the most unbearably slowest skip feature in the whole VN world. It's a good thing that Danganronpa is linear, otherwise I can imagine people rage-quitting the game due to this reason alone.

Links of Interest

Visual Novel Database
Official Japanese site
Project Zetsubou page for the PSP patch
Buy a patch compatible Japanese PSP release on Amazon.de, Amazon.com
PSP emulator: PPSSPP, JPCSP
Official NIS America's Danganronpa site
Buy an official PSVita release on Amazon.com, Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.de, Amazon.fr, Amazon.it, Amazon.es, Amazon.ca, Play-Asia 1, Play-Asia 2
Buy an official PC release on Steam
Read Danganronpa walkthrough

Final Verdict: 76%

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