A conglomeration of Battle Royale, Clue, Atlus’s Persona series, and Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney, Spike Chunsoft’s Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc intriguingly commingles the school-set murder mystery and whodunit-courtroom-trial subgenres to create an original experience that works as both an interactive visual novel and point-and-click puzzler. Initially released across Japan for the PSP in 2010, Danganronpa is likely to be swallowed whole by fans of 999: Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors and Zero Escape: Virtue’s Last Reward, games that thrived off distinctive character-building passages and unpredictable storyline developments. While the game’s narrative setup and cast of characters is far from groundbreaking, what makes the game stand out from its brethren is the manner in which tension gradually mounts and unanticipated conclusions are reached.
Players assume the role of Makato Naegi, an average academic specimen who, by sheer serendipity, is selected for enrollment in the prestigious Hope’s Peak Academy, the game’s enigmatic setting. Alongside Makato is a collective of eccentric undergraduates, all of who are famous for one particular “Ultimate” trait. There’s the Ultimate Pop Sensation, the Ultimate Gambler, the Ultimate Biker Gang Leader, the Ultimate Fanfic Creator, the Ultimate Clairvoyant, and so on. Including Makato, who’s reluctantly dubbed the Ultimate Lucky Student, these 15 pupils find themselves entangled in a vicious scheme orchestrated by Monokuma, a maniacal teddy bear-like creature who informs the group that the only way they can depart the facility, or “graduate,” as he so nonchalantly puts it, is to assassinate another classmate and get away with it completely unnoticed. Of course, this sets everyone into a right state of panic, kicking off a chain of tumultuous events that leads to a string of gruesome killings. In spite of its ample implementation of genre stereotypes, Danganronpa remains interesting in part because of its lively dialogue, which never takes itself too seriously, unique aesthetic flair (combining anime/manga elements as well as 2.5D surface textures, which look terrific on the Vita’s HD screen), and varied soundtrack, composed by the always competent Masafumi Takada (killer7, No More Heroes, Kid Icarus: Uprising).
Gameplay is largely split into three sections: Daily Life, in which Hope’s Peak Academy is mined for future evidence and conversations with fellow students take place, moving the plot ahead; Free Time, a sort of spin on the dating simulator where relationships are built; and Class Trial, Danganronpa’s crown jewel, where everything learned during the investigative phases will come in handy. Anyone who has played a Phoenix Wright game will find a number of similarities here, but the alacrity and dynamism with which the game’s trials progress requires a great deal more concentration, memory retention, and hand-eye coordination. Players literally load their various facts and findings into a figurative firearm, launching Truth Bullets at contradicting remarks made by defendants. At the climax of each cross-examination segment, Makato must rearrange the events leading up to the crime in chronological order in a neat multi-paneled diagram. If a correct answer is provided, the culprit is dragged off by a gleefully psychotic Monokuma to face their designated punishment. These comically ultraviolent cutscenes comprise much of Danganronpa’s offbeat charm, making the sometimes overlong information gathering portions worth the effort.
However, as the game’s twisty-turny story carries on, the cases tend to become so tonally convoluted as to bog down the once smooth litigation processes. By about the fourth or fifth chapter, the search-interrogate-solve routine grows slightly tiresome and unnecessarily mentally taxing due to repetition. Even with witty banter flying back and forth between stressed-out suspects, arriving at the end of each protracted prosecution, no matter how many shocking surprises materialize, obligates stout dedication. Yet, somehow, Danganronpa proves itself worthy of such an unwavering commitment; it’s a gem of an adventure game that trains players to painstakingly question all things at all times, insidiously breeding stubborn paranoia in their everyday lives.