What would you think if you were offered to attend the “ultimate” academy? How could you possibly turn down a place that, upon graduating, guarantees ultimate success? A school that only accepts the best of the best, the “ultimates” among the populace. You simply wouldn’t, and neither would Makoto Naegi, the main character of this particular adventure. Makoto is as average as they get, so much so that he even says average would find him boring. Yet, the game begins with him standing at the gate of Hope’s Peak Academy, the academy for ultimate people. The man with “Ultimate Luck”, won the opportunity to attend this prestigious academy with a new class of ultimates. Things are really looking up for Makoto, that is, until he falls unconscious in the main hall, only to end up in a class room with security cameras and giant metal plates blocking the windows.
Makoto wakes to pure confusion, not entirely understanding what is happening to him. In his mind he tries to justify his situation as much as possible, clinging to the slightest of reasonings. He decides to proceed as instructed in his acceptance letter to the gym, where he meet the other ultimates for the first time. Their happy introductions are cut short when they realize they all had a similar experience. Matters get worse when Monokuma, an initially unassuming teddy bear, tells the students that they will never be able to leave the academy, unless they murder another student…and get away with it.
Despite the precarious situation the characters find themselves in, the game starts out surprisingly light hearted. For a short while you almost believe that things are going to turn into your classic high school adventure game. Then someone gets murdered. That’s right, and even though you know it is coming, you may even guess who it is going to happen to, it comes as a huge shock. That, in itself, is a huge achievement. Trigger Happy Havoc does an excellent job of ensuring that you are in the same mindset as Makoto. When the murder hits and you are thrust almost immediately into trial preparations, the stress hits you just as hard as it does him. It keeps you in the moment and connects you to the game on a deeper level as a result. It is also the nature of the Interactive Graphic Novel that leaves you with a sense of helplessness that further enhances this effect. Oh, and just when you think you finally have everything figured out, the game provides various twists and turns that completely throw you off. You really don’t understand anything the game doesn’t want you to know, until it wants you to know.
Regarding trials, they are used to reveal the “blackened”, the perpetrator of the crime. Before the trial, you must gather evidence to prove who the killer is. Selecting the wrong killer means everyone but the blackened dies, and the blackened goes free. Exploring the scene of the crime in addition to talking to the other students will open up further opportunities to gather evidence. Some clues are more obvious than others, and some can give away the killer almost immediately, but even with that knowledge, a lack of evidence won’t get you far enough to even convict them. There are also clues that will attempt to misguide you, clues that point to one person, when in reality it is another entirely, despite how convincing they may be.
There is a pre trial phase where you can equip skills gained from building relationships during free time. Once you enter the trial, you have to successfully complete several different phases. In the first phase, you use the Truth Bullets you gained while gathering clues to attack statements made by your peers. This sequence gives little pause, but can be repeated at the cost of precious time. Sometime you will have to choose from multiple bullets with L and then match it with the correct statement among many. You can hold R to enter a concentration mode that will allow you to take a bit more time to hear what someone is saying. This particular phase happens several times, each time providing different statements and different bullets to attack them.
The second phase, called Hangman’s Gambit, is similar to the word game hangman. You shoot down letters to complete the word at the bottom of the screen, justifying the current argument. The third phase requires you to choose specific people, events, or other clues to solidify your argument. Many of these instances come as a result of new realizations from the trial that will often challenge what you think you know, Again, a major skill of the game. This phase is also repeated and is used to lead back into the first phase, now focused on a new set of evidence. The final phase is a rhythm based mini-game that required you to press X and Triangle to the tempo of the battle. Simply line up the passing dots at the bottom of the screen and press the alternating buttons to destroy counter statements from the guilty party. This phase feels a bit out of place and is poorly explained in its tutorial. The trial builds a great sense of drama, only to conclude with a rhythm game with flashy backgrounds. The finale of the trial is a reconstruction of the events by placing them in the correct order in a comic style sequence. Then comes the gruesome execution sequence where the blackened finally pays for their crimes. On one hand, these scenes look great, from an artistic standpoint, on the other hand, it is hard to really enjoy a scene where someone is being brutally tortured to death.
As the game progress and you take part in more trials, new mechanics are introduced, depending on your difficulty. White noise, for example, placed garbage text in front of critical statements. They can block your attack against a statement and must be destroyed. An especially excellent addition allows you to take the same critical statements you are attacking and use them as truth bullets to attack another. Occasionally your loaded bullet just doesn’t point out the contradiction, but someone else will make the statement you need to attack the guilty party properly. This forces you to pay careful attention to what is being said and to if your evidence is up to snuff. Some additions border on annoying, but as a whole they help to make each trial more challenging than the last, from more than just the complexity of the crime.
Between murders, you have free time which is used to interact with the other members of the school. This is where you break through the ultimate exterior and learn what really makes people tick. You have a limited amount of free time though and cannot talk to everyone, every time. After speaking to someone in free time you can give them a gift. Depending on their reaction to the gift, you can further boost your relationship with that character. Gifts are acquired from the Monokuma machine at random in the school store using coins earned by exploring and completing trials. The chance of getting a repeat gift increases as you play, but using more coins decreases these chances, meaning subsequent gifts can become more expensive if you want a better shot at getting them.
Initially, I found myself talking to the girls…you play as a high school boy, what do you want from my life? I chose to stay away from certain people, the fanfic creator, the biker gang leader, the uppity gambler, the jackass affluent, because they were people who I would not gravitate toward in real life. I played it safe, like I would in the same situation. However, as time went on and the friendships I was building were being cut short, I expanded my horizons out of desperate need. Getting close to just a few people would achieve nothing more than leaving me alone in the long run. It was because of this that I grew fond of many of the character I originally shunned.
I spent a lot of time talking to Hina, the self proclaimed spaz and known as the Ultimate Swimmer. She was not quite what I expected. Who I assumed would be a stuck-upish jock type was actually a donut eating, vulnerable girl. She was always quick to join the side that made more sense at the time, lacking an opinions of her own. I trusted her because I believed she could never come to the conclusion to kill someone. She was almost like a blank slate, just waiting for someone to give her her reason to be awake today. However, below her ditsy nature was a side of Hina I didn’t really expect, a side that made all of the conversations that seemed to be leading nowhere make sense. It was especially rewarding to see her conclusion after my expectations had fallen so much. Then there is Sakura, the Ultimate Martial Artist, a character four times my size who I shied away from early on. Finally, as numbers dwindled, and considering her loyalty to our morning rituals, I spoke to her. She takes on the role of guardian, especially over the girls. She seemed about as likely to murder someone as she was to be murdered, not very likely. She was the first to be trusted with guarding the scene of the crime. She told tales of her struggles to become strong, and I listened in bewilderment. Why had I ignored her for so long?
With the death of each student, it is an opportunity to talk to someone new to replace the one lost, as cold as that may sound. Were it not for this, I likely never would have spoken to someone like Sakura. However, despite this silver lining, each trial begins to take a greater hit emotionally. At first, you hardly know these people, yeah they died, but my friends are still here. Then they start to go. By the end, you are sending those very friends to their death, for what? Simply because they want to live a normal life again, something we should want for our friends, but then why are we sentencing them to death? Eventually, I began to respect the elaborate schemes and almost felt sorry for discovering them. Call me crazy, call me whatever you want really, but I just didn’t want anyone else to have to die.
While in conversation, you will come across purple text known as Re: Actions. By pressing triangle, you can select the purple text which will bring up another set of dialogue. Sometimes this is just a way to get to know one of the characters better. Other times, these instances can hold crucial information pertaining to the crime. Later in the game more Re: Actions pop up, requiring you to speak to the character repeatedly to get all of the information. It is a simple way to keep the player honest and make sure they are actually paying attention to what is being said. Yellow text, which you cannot interact with, is generally related to key locations or locations and will generally pertain to the current trial investigation.
When all is said and done, you have finally finished the story and received your ending, there is still plenty to do in Danganronpa. Aside from using leftover Monokuma coins to purchase cutscenes, artwork, music, and more, you gain access to School Mode. In School Mode, everyone is alive again and Monokuma, who apparently remembers everything from the main game, tasks the students of Hope’s Peak Academy with constructing backups for him over the next 50 days. He gives you the inspiration for the design of each Monokuma backup, and you must assign different students to gather the materials from all over the school. This particular sequence plays out almost like a small mobile game and require no direct play to accomplish. In fact, you cannot even leave the dorm area during this mode. Characters automatically gather or clean whatever they are assigned and the items are used to build the Monokumas as well as other useful items. As your characters participate they must eventually rest, they also level up and get more proficient. These levels carry over to subsequent playthroughs of School Mode, which can take less than an hour to finish.
However, this is also a prime opportunity to finish your report cards for the other characters, as well as take your relationships to the next level with Monokuma supplied trip tickets. Trip tickets allow you and another character, whose report card you have completed, to go to a room of the school and build a greater bond, if you select the correct dialogue option. Certain characters prefer certain rooms and will react poorly to most options. After a bit of experimentation you will understand where to go and what to say, allowing you to unlock that character’s ending on day 51. Achieving their ending also unlocks and otherwise unobtainable item, perfect for the completionists and trophy hunters.
Danganronpa is a great looking game, especially on the Vita. Yes it is a school and it looks like a school, but each hallway and room is covered in saturated and bright colors pops into existence piece by piece in wonderful fashion. The almost cardboard cutout look of characters and some objects is actually an appreciated design choice, adding a bit of lightheartedness. It all serves as stark contrast to the event taking place in the school, with pink blood covering the bodies, wall, and floors after each murder. There are also the wonderful cutscenes that carry the same design cues, but make them feel more alive. Watching the face of a character who is about to be gruesomely executed, the look of despair, it really hits its mark. The ambient music can be cheerful at times, setting the appropriate mood for free time and other such periods. Even more moody is the music at the scene of the crime and during trials. Guitar riffs and electronic tones match the excitement and struggle of trying to put the pieces together and save your life. Voice acting is also quite good and is available in both Japanese and English. The English cast is surprisingly good, an especially important and often overlooked aspect of games like this. Sure, not every line is delivered with the same oomph of their Japanese counterparts, but the translation is solid and allows the English cast to deliver a stellar performance.
Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc is easily one of the very best games you can own on your Vita. The 20+ hour adventure will keep you entertained from beginning to end and the endearing characters will ensure that you will want to go back and spend more time with them again, despite the fact that so many will once again die. For every moment of joy the game provides, there are two moments of misery that make for such a unique experience. Despite the dark nature of the game, it is so difficult to put down and so hard to hate the characters is villainizes each chapter. Too few games can make such a dark theme such a joy to play. At a time where the Vita seems to be dominated by indie titles and Sony developed games, it is such a thrill to see a game with such polish and quality come from a third party, let alone be so good. This is the first great Vita game of the year, and come the end of the year, it may turn out to be the year’s very best.