Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc and its sequel, Danganronpa 2: Goodbye Despair, are a couple of the best visual novels I have ever played. They have great writing, unique and bizarre characters, and story elements that keep you guessing. If that’s all they were, I would have nothing to complain about, as they would be near perfect examples of visual novels. But the developers at Spike Chunsoft were not satisfied with making simple visual novels; in which gameplay is traditionally comprised of nothing more than making occasional dialogue selections for the protagonist. Instead, they wanted to turn their murderous mysteries into something that closer resembled other videogames, something with action that requires quick reflexes in addition to quick thinking.
I suppose you might say they succeeded. Both Danganronpa titles do reach further than the confines of their parent genre. At the most basic level, the inclusion of a detailed world that can be moved through and explored takes gameplay beyond what is expected of a visual novel. They also included a way for the protagonist to get to know the other characters in the game by spending “free time” with them, optionally showering them with gifts in order to develop the relationships a bit faster. But Spike Chunsoft still wanted more gameplay in their visual novel.
They decided that the parts of the game where the dialogue choices were the most critical—the trials in which the characters have to determine who the murderer is—would be filled with minigames. In theory, this sounds like a good idea, especially if the minigames provide clever and interesting ways of deciphering the clues and riddles that are inherently part of the trials, while remaining contextually relevant. In practice, they serve merely to interrupt the flow of the trials and disconnect the player from the game and its story.
Perhaps the worst example of this is Logic Dive, which is one of the new minigames in Danganronpa 2. Logic Dive a simple game where the player races down a tunnel on something that resembles a snowboard while avoiding obstacles, jumping over pits and accelerating or breaking as necessary. Assuming this is a snowboarding game, it’s an extremely primitive one. But putting that aside, I can’t help but to wonder what on Earth this has to do with figuring out who the murderer is?
Supposedly the tunnel is some kind of logic tube that the main character has to navigate in order to figure out a part of the mystery. Two or three times throughout the track, the player will be presented with a question, and will have to answer the question by choosing the correct fork in the path in order to proceed. I’m not sure this works metaphorically, though I kind of understand what the developers were aiming for. But in the end, Logic Dive does not add any fun to the game, since it is such a poorly executed snowboarding game, and instead takes the simple matter of answering a question and draws it out over several minutes which interrupt the storyline unnecessarily.
The other minigames present throughout the series are much the same. The hangman game of the original asked players to complete a word or short phrase by shooting down letters floating around the screen in the correct order, and in the sequel, this is further complicated by making the player combine letters together before shooting them. Once again, the process of answering a simple question is drawn out for the sake of a minigame that provides no fun or contextual reason for its existence while slowing the rest of the game down.
Then there’s the absurd music game that occurs when a character refuses to admit the truth. The player must hold down a button while the opposing character spouts out a bunch of nonsense, and release the button in time with the music to shoot down that dialogue. On harder difficulties, this is complicated by forcing the player to reload their imaginary argument gun with imaginary argument bullets. Frankly, this poor excuse of a music game has nothing to do with anything, and again drags out a simple dialogue choice.
Another new minigame in Danganronpa 2 involves slicing through a bunch of dialogue as though in a sword fight. This is done by tapping the directional pad or swiping over the dialogue using the touch screen, and the direction of the attack must be perpendicular to how the dialogue is presented. So not only is text being presented both vertically and horizontally, but instead of attempting to read it, the player has to slice it apart as quickly as possible, despite the fact that it contains clues that are necessary for the next step of the minigame. Once the player has slashed through enough dialogue, they eventually have to select the right piece of evidence to contradict a line of dialogue in order to end the minigame. Sadly, it’s very likely that they will have to fail the minigame intentionally at least once in order to read through all of the dialogue to digest all of the information needed for an informed decision at the end of the minigame. Rule number 1 of visual novels: do not interfere with the player’s ability to read the dialogue. This minigame does everything wrong.
I suppose there is one minigame present in both Danganronpa and its sequel that serves a purpose contextually. It occurs frequently throughout the trials and involves finding a line of dialogue that can be contradicted by existing evidence. The player can cycle through pieces of evidence which take the form of “truth bullets,” and aim a shot right through the weak point in the dialogue. Sometimes the player will not have the right evidence, but in those cases, one of the other characters will provide the clue, and the player has to load their gun with that clue instead. And in Dangonronpa 2, there are also lines of dialogue that need to be proven as true, which adds an additional and welcome layer of intrigue to this minigame.
Even this minigame has its issues, however. To add a bit of action and skill to this game, the developers decided to overlap the target phrases with dialogue shouted out spontaneously by other characters. This dialogue needs to be cleared away to reveal the target phrase before aiming and firing off the correct truth bullet. This is another example of the game making it hard for the player to simply answer a question. There are tons of features meant to simplify this part of the game that instead make it more complicated, such as allowing the player to slow down time, or to equip a variety of skills earned throughout the game to affect how this and other minigames work. But in the end, even if the player knows the answer, the game gets in the way of accepting it.
Fortunately, the developers made the wise decision of including difficulty settings that can disable some of the more annoying aspects of the minigames, though it does not disable them entirely. But no matter what difficulty you choose, the storyline will still be frequently interrupted by contextually irrelevant minigames that actually bring these great games down a notch.
The only minigame that really works is the one that represents the closing arguments of the case. The player has to fill in missing panels in a comic that describes the murder in detail. It provides a simple and effective way of summarizing the events that led up to the trial, while presenting the facts in a stylized and visually interesting manner. No imaginary bullets, no psychedelic snowboards and no DDR; just the facts of the case, a clear and straightforward method of solving the puzzle, and complete immersion in the storyline.
Visual novels are simple for a reason: their greatest feature is their storyline. As much as we love minigames and bonus features, in some cases of game design, they simply aren’t necessary, and in others, adding them can actually make the game worse. Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc and Danganronpa 2: Goodbye Despair are still remarkable visual novels, but they are also a perfect example of one of those cases where more is less.