Nippon Ichi is full of surprises. It wasn’t that long ago that The Guided Fate Paradox arrived in my inbox and unassumingly won me over with its accessible take on roguelikes, despite my having not even heard of it before being told to review it. Similarly, the inexplicably titled Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc was a game I knew very little about when I first started to play it. It turned out to be another unique title; a visual novel about a murder mystery, complete with investigations and trials, with a few gimmicky action elements thrown in to try to keep things interesting for players more interested in gameplay than reading. Though those action elements fall flat, the storyline and characters are strong, and they alone make the game worth playing, even if there isn’t much of a game to play and despite the fact that the storyline is extremely linear.
Hope’s Peak Academy
It is pretty much impossible to discuss any element of the storyline of Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc without spoilers. In fact, Nippon Ichi issued a strict embargo restricting discussion of any content after the first chapter. Frankly, even the first chapter is filled with spoilers, so if you already have your heart set on playing the game and you don’t want to know anything about it, you might want to stop reading. But if you do choose to continue reading, rest assured that throughout this review I will not reveal anything that you would not discover early on in the game, nor will I spoil any of the game’s mysteries.
Oh, are you still here? Hold onto your butts! In Danganronpa, there exists a school in Japan called Hope’s Peak Academy, where only the “best of the best” students can attend. For example, the best baseball player, Leon Kuwata, is allowed to attend and is described as the “Ultimate Baseball Star.” Then there’s Sayaka Maizono, the “Ultimate Pop Sensation.” No matter what their talents, the students of Hope’s Peak Academy are the absolute masters of their respective fields. Sounds like an interesting place, right?
But what if a completely average person were to attend? Meet Makoto Naegi, who arrives at Hope’s Peak Academy by the unlikeliest manner of all: lottery. As the “Ultimate Lucky Student,” Makoto has his doubts about whether or not he will be able to be successful at the prestigious school. With average grades, average looks and average skills, there’s absolutely nothing particularly great about him. How could he possibly stand out next to the likes of the “Ultimate Writing Prodigy” and the “Ultimate Biker Gang Leader” when he was so normal?
The answer to that question becomes quite irrelevant only moments after Makoto arrives at the school. Not long after taking his first steps on the campus, he faints and wakes to find himself stuck in a nightmare. The windows throughout the school are covered in massive, impenetrable metal plates, there are security cameras everywhere, and the entrance to the school has been replaced by a massive vault door, protected by turrets mounted on the ceiling. There is no way out of the school whatsoever, and Makoto, now alongside fourteen other “ultimate” students, has to discover the truth about this mystery in order to escape.
The students are soon confronted by a mechanical bear called Monokuma who starts explaining the rules and regulations that must be followed at Hope’s Peak Academy. Among those rules is a murderous motivation with the potential to turn the students against each other: “Anyone who kills a fellow student and becomes ‘blackened’ will graduate, unless they are discovered. Once a murder takes place, a class trial will begin shortly thereafter. Participation is mandatory for all surviving students. If the guilty party is exposed during the class trial, they alone will be executed. If the guilty party is not exposed, they alone will graduate, and all remaining students will be executed.” Needless to say, these rules eventually influence someone to become a murderer, and that’s when the game moves beyond being a simple visual novel, and the player is tasked with collecting clues in order to discover the culprit before participating in the trial.
It’s not all murders and mysteries for the students of Hope’s Peak Academy. In their day to day lives, they are free to roam around the campus, which has a variety of facilities that can meet all of their basic needs to survive. In fact, if the students could only accept their collective fate and live peacefully, they would be able to live there forever without fear of running out of food or resources.
In between massive chunks of dialogue, Makoto can look around the environments, and—assuming this is not one of the numerous linear moments of the storyline—freely explore the school. Looking at an object will provide the player with a detailed description, and occasionally award the player with a coin, which can be spent outside of the game to unlock artwork, movies and music, or in the school store where there is a capsule toy machine filled with a huge list of trinkets and doodads that can be used as gifts for the other students.
Once in a while the player will be given “free time” which can either be skipped entirely or used to spend a chunk of time with one of the other students. This is not unlike the “social links” aspect of the recent Persona games. Spending enough time with or giving the right gift to a student will level up your relationship with that person, providing additional information about them and unlocking a skill that can make the game easier during the trials. It’s also the best way to get to know your favorite characters a little better.
I really enjoyed spending time with the characters throughout Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc. Nearly all of them were well developed and interesting to get to know. I actually wish there were more “free time” opportunities, as I was only able to finish getting to know 4 of the characters throughout my entire playthrough. As the unlockable skills are not that important, I recommend you always spend time with your favorite characters. If you must, you can replay a chapter to spend extra free time with the characters, but I don’t recommend it, especially considering there is a special mode that unlocks after you beat the game that provides a ton of free time.
Whether it is through conversations during free time or regular storyline development, learning about the students is a pleasure. The entire cast of Danganronpa is comprised of characters that are more than what they seem. Nearly all of them hide something beneath the surface, which makes exploring their personalities and discovering their secrets one of the strongest points of the game. As expected of a visual novel, the character development is patient and thorough. There is not a single throwaway character in the entire game, and it’s quite easy to become attached to the cast. Of course, given the rules and regulations at Hope’s Peak Academy, it might be best not to let yourself become too attached.
It wouldn’t be a murder mystery without a murder. Once a corpse is discovered, the investigation begins. If the surviving students cannot determine who the murderer is, they will all be executed. But as the friendships and relationships develop throughout the school, it becomes harder to believe that anyone could possibly have committed a murder to begin with.
And so the survivors begin their investigation. The player must look over the scene of the crime and related areas in detail, searching for every possible clue. When a clue is discovered, it is added to a list of “truth bullets” that can be used during the trial following the investigation. While this seems like a great opportunity for some interesting gameplay, in practice, this is just another linear part of the storyline.
The player must find every single clue that exists before the trial will begin. In order to make sure that nothing is missed, the player is not allowed to leave an area until every relevant clue has been discovered. Beyond that, the player will always know where to go next, because the characters in the game will describe exactly where to go. There may be multiple locations throughout the school that have to be explored, and the player can choose what order to explore them in, but that does not make the game any less linear. I frankly don’t see the point in giving the player control over this part of the game to begin with, since there is nothing challenging about this aspect of gameplay.
In fact, for a visual novel, Danganronpa provides an astonishing lack of decision making opportunities to the player. Dialogue options are few and far between, and the player is almost always shoehorned into the correct choice anyway. The game has a story to tell, and it’s going to tell its story—interactivity be damned. I would have hoped for some kind of fork in the road along the way to add weight to the player’s decisions and add some replay value to the game, but unfortunately, like the investigations, the game itself is unapologetically linear.
Given this linearity, the player will inevitably find every single clue there is to find and the class trial will begin.
Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc
The class trials are the main way that Danganronpa attempts to differentiate itself from other visual novels by adding gameplay elements that feel more like a video game and less like reading a book. Though the majority of these trials are business as usual for visual novels—albiet with more exciting character and background animation that usual—there are also several minigames that pop up throughout that add a bit of action to a genre that normally has none.
The most common is called “Nonstop Debate.” During these sequences, the survivors talk through a point of the case, and hidden within their dialogue is a line that can be contradicted by existing evidence; either one of the truth bullets from the investigation or a statement made during the argument itself which can be copied and used as a truth bullet as well. It’s up to the player to figure out which line of dialogue can be contradicted and which truth bullet will get the job done. The bullet must then be “shot” at the text representing the dialogue, which acts as a “counter,” interrupting the argument and allowing the trial to continue. Making things more difficult are white noise lines of dialogue that can appear over the relevant dialogue, forcing the player to shoot them away before firing the truth bullet. To make things a bit easier, the player can briefly slow down time during the “Nonstop Debate” minigame, so even the least skilled player should be able to get through it to continue the story.
To be honest, the white noise aspect of the “Nonstop Debate” minigame is ridiculous and unnecessary. It is basically an action based skill check in a game that shouldn’t have anything of the sort. If you know the answer, you should be able to state it freely. Instead, even if you have the right answer, you can shoot the truth bullet and watch it get reflected away. It feels like a completely forced method of adding some action to the game when the game really didn’t need any.
Then again, there is a reason the game is called Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc. I did a little research and it seems that “dangan” translates into “bullet” and “ronpa” means “defeating an argument,” so you can see how that relates to the truth bullets used throughout the trial. Still, it feels a bit like the title was chosen to trick people into thinking they were buying a game with a lot more action than it actually has.
The Moment of Truth
As the trial progresses, there are a few other minigames as well, though none appear nearly as frequently as “Nonstop Debate.” Once in a while the player will have to figure out a specific word that is relevant to the case. This is done through a minigame called, “Hangman’s Gambit,” where a series of blanks representing a word appears—usually with one or two letters filled in—and the player has to “shoot” letters to fill in the blanks in order as the letters appear randomly on screen. The majority of these puzzles are so simplistic that they are laughable, and even if you don’t know the solution right away, it takes only the slightest bit of trial and error to get through them. Once again, this minigame feels unnecessary.
Similarly, you will also be occasionally expected to select a specific truth bullet from a large list to provide as evidence. In the rare case that the answer isn’t obvious, progression again becomes a matter of trial and error. This can also be said for when you are expected to answer a question and are given multiple choices to respond with.
Once in a while a character will stubbornly disagree about an aspect of the trial, and in that case another minigame called “The Moment of Truth” begins. For reasons that are unfathomable to me, the developers decided to base this minigame on the rhythm game genre. The player must tap buttons in time with the music, with one button aiming at lines of disagreeable dialogue, another shooting at them and a third reloading the weapon. This eventually culminates with a final opposing statement which must be shot down with the correct truth bullet. Like most of the other minigames, I feel like “The Moment of Truth” has no business being in a visual novel and it actually detracts from the game as a whole instead of adding to it.
Worse still is that if enough mistakes are made, the minigames can be failed completely, which leads to the consequence of not discovering the killer. Since the trial is obviously not over yet, the game over screen proves to be nothing more than a frustrating interruption. The only time it feels appropriate is at the very end of the trial if the wrong person is selected as the killer. But short of that, it just interrupts the flow of the gameplay like most of the minigames themselves.
There is one minigame that I actually enjoyed, and it occurs at the very end of the trial: the “Closing Argument.” The entire case is laid out like panels in a comic book, but certain panels are missing. There is a collection of disconnected panels at the bottom of the screen, and the player has to find the relevant panels to fill in the empty spots in the comic. Once it is completed, the comic is brought to life and you get to finally see exactly what happened—assuming you put all the pieces in their proper places. If not, it’s back to the drawing board to rearrange the panels until you get it right. My only issue with this minigame is that sometimes the disconnected panels are too similar to one another and can be small and hard to see, leading to some failures in cases where it seemed like there was no doubt of success.
When all is said and done, the killer is discovered and punished, the player is graded and awarded with a pile of coins, and life goes back to normal at Hope’s Peak Academy—or as normal as such a life can be anyway.
As the game progresses, the storyline in Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc builds upon itself, and becomes a many-layered and intricately detailed mystery. Despite the weak minigames, lack of plot branches and simple overall gameplay, the underlining fact is that all a visual novel really needs to be great is interesting characters and an excellent overall storyline. Danganronpa has both.
But since this is also a murder mystery, it’s important that the player is able to follow along, make assumptions and get surprised, without ever feeling like they were deliberately tricked in a cheap way. I’m happy to say that Danganronpa doesn’t miss a detail, covering its tracks quite carefully throughout. Only once in the entire game was I able to determine who the killer was before the class trial began, and the rest of the time, I was completely satisfied with the results.
But most importantly, the great character development made me actually care for the cast. There was a palpable sense of intensity present throughout the game that swelled from time to time when things got dangerous. The excellent Japanese voice work further solidified how the story was told, as did the music and sound effects, providing the right emotional cues right on schedule. I can’t speak as much for the English voices, as I felt like they did not fit with the setting whatsoever and switched to Japanese right at the beginning of the game.
In terms of replay value, there honestly isn’t much in the main game, unless you happen to really love playing through the trials. In that case, you can set the logic and action difficulty to “mean,” which adds more distractions to the minigames and additional incorrect choices to the decisions throughout the game—though I can’t imagine that mattering much on a second playthrough. Alternatively, if you want to play through the game with fewer distractions and less frustration, you can set the difficulty to “gentle.” Playing the game again also allows you to talk to the rest of the students in order to unlock additional skills for the trials, but as I mentioned before, these skills just make the game a bit easier and are really not that important. You can even go achievement hunting if that’s your thing; good luck completing every trial in the game without making a single mistake though.
There is one significant post-game activity though. It’s called School Mode, a “what-if” simulation game that is completely different from the main game. Instead of getting involved in a murder mystery after getting trapped at Hope’s Peak Academy, the students are instead forced to build copies of the robot bear, Monokuma, with a variety of upgrades and outfits. In order to collect the necessary parts, each student can be assigned to work in one of the rooms throughout the campus, and collect items while they work. Once enough parts are collected, the specified Monokuma copy can be constructed, and a new challenge will be issued. But things get messy during the day, so some students must be assigned to cleanup as well. Each student has stats representing how good they are at finding items and cleaning, and these get be improved using items rewarded by Monokuma.
Each day, the player can spend some time with one of the students, just like during free time in the main game. This is by far the fastest way to unlock all of the skills and see all of that interesting dialogue. But the player can also use tickets awarded for completing Monokuma copies to take a student somewhere on campus in order to try to develop some kind of deeper friendship or relationship. Amazingly, it’s only in this School Mode that the player’s dialogue choices really matter! Depending on what you say, the student you are talking to might have a positive, neutral or negative reaction, and that will determine how the relationship progresses. If only the main game contained some non-linear progression like this! This is much more in line with what is expected from visual novels, especially of the dating simulation variety. Some of the gameplay elements from the trials pop up here from time to time as well, adding a bit of variety to the dates and outings. You can even ask Monokuma to tell you how your relationships are developing, and he’ll show you a helpful chart that keeps track of everyone and how much they like Makoto.
I find it ironic that School Mode feels more like a proper video game than the main game of Danganronpa. The simulation is not incredibly deep, but it is provides an amusing distraction in between building relationships with all of the characters. Best of all, it gives the player something worthwhile to do after beating the game, since replaying the game itself is not very appealing. It also adds even more character development to a game that already develops its characters exceptionally well.
But when it comes down to it, the main mode of Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc has to stand on its own. It does so with its storyline and characters, the most essential elements of a visual novel. I could have done without some of the minigames, and I wish the storyline could have been a bit less linear; especially considering the result is a game that pretty much plays itself. But nevertheless, Danganronpa kept me on my toes, always guessing, rarely right, but never disappointed in its plot. It’s definitely worth playing though once just to experience the storyline, and the post-game School Mode is icing on the cake. If you’re in the mood for a murder mystery or a good visual novel, Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc could be perfect for you. To me, it was another pleasant surprise, courtesy of Nippon Ichi, and I’m looking forward to the next one.
Ari spent at least 20 hours playing the Danganronpa campaign, though the exact playtime is unknown. He received a copy of the game for review purposes from NIS America.
Available on: Vita
Version Reviewed: Vita