Making its way to western shores after nearly four years, Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc is simultaneously a familiar and fresh experience. Playing Danganronpa oftentimes feels like developer Spike Chunsoft took a lot of the best ideas from Japanese games of the last decade and threw them in a blender, with games like Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney and Persona 4 being the most obvious examples. It’s easy to end it there, but Danganronpa is successful at combining its various influences into a game with unique ideas on its mind. Danganronpa is simultaneously dark, cute, and surprisingly relatable, making it one of the best times you’re likely to have all year.
Danganronpa takes place within the walls of Hope’s Peak Academy, a high school where the only students allowed are those that excel at a certain talent (these can range from programming to fanfiction). The only exception is the protagonist, Makoto Naegi, who was selected through a lottery system. After arriving at the school, Makoto and the other fourteen students pass out, and awaken to find the school’s been locked down. At this point a robotic bear named Monokuma shows up, calls himself the headmaster, and proposes a way to get out: kill one of the other fourteen students and get away with it.
What follows is an ambitious, successful thriller I couldn’t stop playing. Danganronpa isn’t afraid to dip its toes into some tactfully handled, but nonetheless dark subject matter; this is a game about high school students murdering each other, after all. What’s more impressive are the ways in which Danganronpa uses this set-up to explore ideas you might not expect, like gender or the uncertainties around growing up. A dark narrative like this also has the tendency to get bogged down in pointless misery and shock value, but the game is a lot funnier than its dark subject matter would suggest. A lot of this humor comes from Monokuma, whose twisted manipulation clashes with his childish attitude in a way that is immediately apparent (and hilarious).
It’s the first, but far from the last time Danganronpa subverts expectations, and this is largely in part to its school life sections. Before anyone gets murdered, there’s little for the students to do other than hang around with each other. These parts of the game play out a lot like Persona 3 and 4‘s social links, with the player able to meet up with any student they want and learn more about them. While Danganronpa‘s characters don’t reach the same levels of complexity and depth as those games’ (with a couple of exceptions), they’re far from bad. Most of them have something valuable to reveal, and they’re at the very least humorous and entertaining encounters (one stretch of encounters ends with a character pleading Makoto to sell their organs for them). What’s even more impressive about these sections is how they deliberately suggest character depth from the first encounter; it makes it all the more shocking when a new friend turns up dead (or to be a murderer).
Once someone dies, the game transitions into its investigation mode, where Makoto needs to gather enough evidence to convict the right person for an upcoming trial. These sections are pretty automated affairs; it’s just a matter of selecting objects in the crime scene and other important areas, as well as gathering witness testimony. These parts aren’t exactly Danganronpa‘s highlight, but they’re hardly offensive; more importantly, they give players a good sense of all of the individual parts of a crime, and call attention to notable pieces of evidence.
Danganronpa‘s manic blend of dark humor, social simulation, and investigation really comes together in the class trials at the end of each chapter. The premise is similar to the courtroom segments from Phoenix Wright, present evidence to counteract points, but the mechanics and presentation are completely different from that series. Trials have the students gathered in a circle and presenting accusations and statements to others. You engage with them in a few different minigames, the most common being Nonstop Debate. During these events, phrases students say will be highlighted and float across the screen, which Makoto can then counter with truth bullets (pieces of evidence picked up while investigating). It’s a pretty ridiculous concept on paper, but they work shockingly well when paired with the solid voice acting and high octane soundtrack. There’s some additional nuances introduced throughout the rest of the game that prevent them from getting stale, and presents a good difficulty to boot.
There’s a few other minigames as well: Hangman’s Gambit has you selecting letters to form a case-related word, Bullet Time Battle is a rhythm game that has you dispelling objections by presenting a piece of evidence, and Closing Argument has you assembling a manga of the case with related images. These are all pretty simple affairs, but they serve their purpose of injecting some variety into the trials. Even better, they serve as pretty interesting combinations of courtroom drama and high-school arguments, which is a unique differentiation from the Phoenix Wright series. Trials also have a smart incorporation of Danganronpa‘s social elements, giving skills that help during minigames as rewards for befriending people.
After these exciting cases, Danganronpa immediately undercuts any feeling of accomplishment by subjecting the victim to a cruel and unusual punishment. These are imaginative and surprisingly disturbing affairs that Danganronpa uses for some smart meta commentary, but the main focus is firmly on the students. Even though failure to catch the right student causes the rest of the group to die, does landing a conviction technically mean everyone commits murder? Is murder ever justified? Danganronpa plays out like a morality study in these moments, but that’s not the only function its trials serve. The concluding cases of Danganronpa function as more of an analogy for the growing up, and its remarkably poignant here as well.
I have a few quibbles with Danganronpa: I would have liked the voice acting to encompass all of the dialogue instead of just during trials, and the soundtrack, while great, could have used a few more tracks over the course of fifteen or so hours. These are insignificant criticisms for what is ultimately a dark, tight, and rewarding experience. Danganronpa executes its myriad of themes better than most games pull off even one, and it’s all done within a thoroughly entertaining plot. Danganronpa 2 can’t come soon enough.
Danganronpa 2: Goodbye Despair Addendum (9/18/2014)
Danganronpa 2: Goodbye Despair came out several days ago, and while I don’t think there’s enough of a radical difference between it and the first game to justify a new review, I did want to comment on it briefly. From a mechanics standpoint, Goodbye Despair is nearly identical to the game that preceded it: There’s a lot of text scrolling, selecting objects on the screen, and engaging in trial segments. There are some slight improvements to the trial segments themselves: there are now weak points you can shoot to share consensus with others, which makes the plotting go by ever so slightly smoother, and some changed around minigames not dissimilar in quality to Trigger Happy Havoc‘s.
The quality of Goodbye Despair ultimately lives and dies by its writing, and it’s here where it more than delivers. I won’t dive too deeply into it here to avoid spoilers, but suffice it to say that it succeeds in justifying its existence. The premise is pretty much identical: a group of sixteen students from Hope’s Peak Academy are on a field trip to Jabberwock Island, and are before long thrust into a killing game identical to Trigger Happy Havoc‘s.
It’s the sort of thing that could come off as a little stale, but Goodbye Despair differentiates itself from the main game pretty quickly. For one, the character dynamics aren’t really identical to Trigger Happy Havoc‘s. I never got the feeling that I was meeting a repeat of any of the first’s cast; even Hajime, Goodbye Despair‘s protagonist, comes off more unique and complex than Makoto did. The tropical island setting also gives off a different mood than Trigger Happy Havoc’s mood; it trades off Hope’s Peak Academy’s claustrophobia for a gradually intensifying surrealism.
Everything I loved about Trigger Happy Havoc returns as well, namely a series of intriguing and involving cases. One of the middle ones features a source of conflict that feels a little abrupt (although the game later partially justifies it), but the rest are of equivalent or greater quality to the first set. Goodbye Despair also gradually builds towards a twist that turns initially confusing sections of writing on their head in a really impressive way; when the pieces fit together, it’s one of the most mind-bending moments of the year.
Goodbye Despair is a game written for fans: if you didn’t enjoy Trigger Happy Havoc, there’s no cause to think you’ll enjoy this one. But for those that were, Goodbye Despair walks an impressive line between satisfaction and subversion in such a way that avoids making it feel redundant. Goodbye Despair accomplishes the impressive task of improving upon one of 2014’s best games.