Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc is like a strange fusion of Virtue's Last Reward and Phoenix Wright. Courtroom trial-based gameplay is set against a dark backdrop where the world's best and brightest students are being forced to play a deadly game of cat and mouse. The concept of the game is simple: kill your friends or be trapped forever. You are a student at Hope's Peak Academy, a school for the ultimate high school students in a plethora of different fields. There are representatives from rational fields like the Ultimate Writer, and the Ultimate Martial Artist, but there are also some oddball entries like the Ultimate Psychic and Ultimate Bike Gang Leader, all of which come together in Hope's Peak Academy.
You play Makoto, a surprisingly normal student amongst these young juggernauts who are picked for Hope's Peak Academy by lotto. How lucky you actually are is questionable though because the second you walk into the building you faint and awaken to find that you've been kidnapped and trapped in some unknown school alongside your fellow classmates. The only way out is to kill one of your classmates without being caught, and sacrifice all your new found friends in the process. After each crime the entire class holds a school trial; if they choose the correct person as the murderer then that person will be executed, but if they choose incorrectly everyone besides the murderer will be killed and the murderer will be set free.
Unfortunately you play as some righteous know-it-all, so this isn't the “perform the perfect crime” simulator many will have been hoping for when they first heard the concept. Instead, this set-up serves as a narrative force and gives Makoto crime scenes to investigate. Working through each crime, it's interesting to see how the culprit was planning to get away with murder, and during downtime you get a chance to talk to the students and grow close to them, which makes the crimes that feature later on in the game even more interesting as you just saw someone you “knew” killed and not just a random stranger. It's definitely a fun ride with some emotional scenes, those wonderful “aha!” moments as you finally understand an important clue, and fantastic voice acting as some of these characters' facades break down under the mounting pressure.
The only major issue with it is that you may have already spoiled the twists for yourself. Recently, an anime series adaptation of the game released, and I'll admit that if you have watched this anime most of the twists and crime conclusions will already be known to you. That said, finding out more about the specifics of each character is fun, and delving into thought processes that go into solving each crime is enjoyable even after watching the anime. Personally, though, I'm going to ensure that I don't spoil myself for the next title if at all possible, assuming it makes it to the West. The story is interesting even after knowing the general conclusion from the anime, but if you haven't watched it then it'll be even better.
So if you've watched the anime and aren't too enthralled about seeing the same story but in more detail then the gameplay is going to have to make up the difference. It's a pretty strange mix of concepts. At first things are pretty straight forward - after a crime has been committed you go around the different related scenes trying to find any clues which you can point and click on. Thankfully you won't have to do too much pixel hunting as a button press will show you all the objects in a given space you can interact with in any way. This part of the game is mostly linear and the trial won't start until you've collected all the necessary information in order to solve it.
After you've found all the clues it's time to debate the case amongst your classmates. You must use the clues you've found to find a contradiction in what one of your classmates is claiming about the case and lead everyone in the correct direction. To do so you're presented with a section of the discussion that you can go through as many times as necessary. Every time an important statement that you could contradict is presented the pertinent text is highlighted. You must use one of the “truth bullets” in your arsenal to disprove this statement, either by using the touch pad or an aiming reticule moved with the left analog stick.
These debates form the bulk of the classroom trial gameplay and they're very enjoyable. At first all you need to do is pick the right text that contradicts with the truth bullet you have ready, but as things move on it gets more and more complicated with different options that require quite a bit of thought when it comes to choosing exactly what point counters what. Each time you choose the wrong point to contradict the incorrect statement you take a hit to your health which represents how much the other jurors trust you. Let this get hit too much and they'll think you're the killer and you'll all die. You can choose to retry when this happens at least once per case, though, so I never actually saw a true game over screen happen under these conditions. You even get to use the Vita's back touch screen to wipe away static noise statements from the important points, which works extremely well and is actually a superior control scheme to the aiming reticule for this particular function.
The other gameplay system is when you fight another character one on one. This is usually at a point where one of the other characters refuses to accept your arguments and just starts throwing out any insults they can muster. Rhythm is the name of the game here and you must target and then fire at the person's points in time with a beat moving across the screen. Each time you take out one of their statements you reduce their health, but if you miss one it'll hit your health instead. Like the previous gameplay system this starts out simple but as you move on becomes ever more challenging. Take down your opponent's health completely and you'll be given a chance to break their contradiction if you can determine the appropriate truth bullet.
Each of these challenges has a time limit but you can activate 'focus' using the R button to trigger varying effects that make your task easier. These include slowing down time in the debate sections or giving yourself infinite truth bullets during one-on-one battles. Talking to other characters and learning about them is not only a fun way to kill time and find out how weird all your classmates are, but they can also give you skills for the courtroom sections which come in handy, such as more health, focus, or time. There are also difficulty modes for these sections which affect different things like how many points you have to choose from, but unfortunately you can only pick this when you start a new game.
Finally, there are summarizing and hangman challenges. During the hangman challenge you simply have to remember what specific word solves the problem Makoto is thinking of at that point in time and find the letters as they move across the screen. This is neither challenging nor enthralling. Each case is then finished by summarizing everything that you think happened. This is presented as a comic book with certain panels you have to fill in for yourself. By this point you should know exactly what happened during the murder, so the only difficulty comes from deciphering what the images you have to choose from actually represent. As usual, make the wrong choice and your health will go down. It's not much of a brain teaser but the finished comic book presentation of each crime is a sight to behold.
Speaking of presentation, Danganronpa really has this down pat. It's not technically impressive but the visual variety of the characters and the deep outlines that are used really help make them stand out. The execution scenes are particularly stylized and brutal yet beautiful. As you enter a room all of its features come up from the ground like a pop-up book, which is a glorious effect though the fact that everything is flat in a 3D world can be a bit odd. The soundtrack is oddly upbeat and jazzy for what is a largely melancholy tale, but I found myself loving it nonetheless.
I really have to commend NIS America on the localization of this title. I wasn't completely sold on Monokuma's voice when I first started but I slowly began to appreciate his creepy cuteness. Even though I already had preconceived notions of what the characters should sound like from watching the anime, I think the English voices chosen by NISA fit each one extremely well. I particularly loved how some changed their tune as they lost their cool. It's not fully voiced, but what is there is extremely well done, and if you want to stick with the original audio it's also an option - just make sure to choose it at the start of a new game, because like the difficulty settings this is the only chance you'll get.
My first playthrough of Danganronpa took me through 23 hours' worth of murders and making friends. Unfortunately characters die off so often that you can't possibly become best friends with everyone before they kick the bucket, but there are ways around that. Once you complete the game for the first time you'll earn a new mode which allows you a lot more time to talk to all of your classmates and features gameplay that's completely different, focusing on time and resource management to complete certain tasks. It doesn't have the tense main storyline from the main campaign but it's a fun little distraction that you can work through while you lean about all the other class members.
Danganronpa isn't perfect, but it is certainly great. The gameplay has its fair share of downtime, with large sections that are simplified pixel hunting and a few courtroom challenges that don't live up to their potential, but the presentation brings it all together into a fun, intriguing, and high value package. If you like Pheonix Wright but you think it could use some more betrayal and despair then I think you've come to the right place. I only hope it's successful enough for NISA to bring the second title in the series over to the West as well.
This review is based on a retail copy of Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc for the PSV, provided by the publisher.