Tuesday, 24 November 2015

Danganronpa : Trigger Happy Havoc - Review

Developer: Spike Chunsoft
Publisher: NIS America
Platforms: PSP, PS Vita (version played), iOS, Android

Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc is one of the best games I’ve played this year. It’s that simple. I could have written this opening paragraph more eloquently, made you want to read on, but there’s very little point. It’s best to simply say that Danganronpa is incredibly good.

Right, with that out of the way, let’s actually discuss what makes it so great.  

Danganronpa’s single greatest strength is its story. That, frankly, should be taken for granted. It’s a visual novel after all; placing narrative and story above gameplay conceits.

Yet, it’s the way the game manages to tell its absolutely bonkers story that makes it fascinating. You play as Mokoto Naegi, a young student whose been given the honour of enrolling at Hope’s Peak Academy; a school for the gifted. Naegi, though, has no gift, not one that he can think of anyway. In fact, his reason for being enrolled is because he’s been listed as the “Ultimate Lucky Student”. He only got a place at the school because he won a lottery. 

After arriving he’s greeted by all of the other new arrivals, all of whom are elites in one field or another. There’s the “Ultimate Baseball Star”, the “Ultimate Pop Sensation” and so on. 

Shortly after though, things take a turn for the worse. Makoto and the others find themselves trapped inside the school…with an evil robotic teddy bear. An evil robotic teddy bear that says that the only way to escape is for one of the fifteen students to kill another and get away with it. 

Cue a kind of bizarre, somewhat surreal take on the psychological thriller that’s common among visual novels. Story-wise I suppose the closest comparison would be Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors, with Danganronpa utilising a similar mystery within an enclosed environment; swapping the cramped confines of a cruise ship, for the twisting corridors of a high school.

In terms of the gameplay, it’s very much in the vein of an Ace Attorney game. Each chapter involves investigating another murder (which I’m going to try and talk about as little as possible for fear of spoilers) as you roam about the mysterious school in search of clues. Once everything has been found there’s then a dramatic courtroom battle, similar to what Phoenix Wright has to endure. 

The thing about Danganronpa is that it manages to balance everything just right. There’s some point-and-clicking to be done, but it’s never enough that it begins to slow down the plot. It’s not the kind of game where you have to conjure up fifteen different items only to have to use a paperclip lined with toothpaste, attached to a piece to string, to unlock a door or some other such nonsense. The parts that are deliberately “gamey”, in other words, are rather easy.

Yet, it’s clear they need to be. This is very much a narrative game, with all of its interactivity being in service to that.

Still, some gameplay elements creep into the murder investigations, and for the most part they’re handled really well. Clues take on the form of “truth bullets” which allow you to, quite literally, shoot down incorrect statements made by Makoto’s classmates during trials. Likewise, you’ll occasionally have to shoot floating letters in order to form a word or two that’s vital for the case. It’s all very simple stuff, at least on the standard difficulty, and, like I said earlier, it almost needs to be; you don’t want random janky bits of poorly implemented gameplay getting in the way of what’s happening. 

And it’s all there to serve a fascinating story, which, despite all the bizarre plot twists and wacky characters, is one that keeps its writing grounded with a solid focus on its characters. Monokuma, the evil robot teddy bear, brings in temptation after temptation, motive after motive, in order to drive the various students to attempt to kill one another. It’s genuinely disturbing in parts, and the strong characterization means that it’s a real emotional gut punch when one of the characters gets killed off, worse still when you realize that it’s one of your favourites that dealt the killing blow.

Danganronpa neatly sidesteps the predictable, cookie-cutter character designs that normally creep into a lot of these anime-styled games. Granted, some of the cast fit into typical moulds; there’s the snobby rich kid, the quiet girl with a nasty streak, but the writing avoids turning them into complete stereotypes and in many instances smartly plays around with your suspicions. The people you expect to make it through to the end aren’t likely the ones that actually do, it’s like watching a slasher movie but one where the roles are being constantly switched around to play with your expectations.

There’s a cute little game mechanic that lets you spend some spare time between investigations (people aren’t always killing each other) in order to get to know your classmates better. It amounts to little more than talking to whichever person you want and maybe giving them a gift or answering a question or two.

In effect, it’s like a really shallow version of Persona’s social link mechanic and it would have been nice to see it fleshed out a little more. “Level up” a friendship and you’ll get a new ability you can use during the courtroom sessions. The power-ups are all really minor though, and the whole mechanic is somewhat shallow and limited. The chance to get to know people better does at least lend the subsequent murders and trial verdicts a little more weight though, so it’s not a complete miss by any means. 

Danganronpa is that kind of game that’s really hard to define, and, the less you know about it going in the better. It’s utterly weird, and tonally straddles a very bizarre sweet spot that balances black comedy, horror and high school drama.

At its core Danganronpa is about maintaining hope in the face of overwhelming nihilism. The fact that it manages to tell such a story using a robot teddy bear with a penchant for murder and unbearable puns, that’s what makes it so darn special.


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