‘Trigger Happy Havoc’ a well-crafted, oddly disturbing murder-mystery
Right off the bat, let’s kill the notion that “Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc” is for children. Ignore its beautifully designed characters, reminiscent of your favorite anime characters. Don’t pay attention to the adorable teddy bear mascot, its stark black-and-white fur stripped right down the middle. Don’t even think reading the game’s description will help, either. Because even though you’ll realize the game is a murder-mystery visual novel, you really have no idea what’s about to happen.
Though, to be honest, that’s the beauty behind Spike Chunsoft’s “Danganronpa.” As you work your way through its six chapters (taking about 20 hours for this review), you’ll think that you know what’s going on. You will make assumptions about who killed who, why you’re trapped to begin with, who’s behind this terrible situation you’re in. Chances are, you’re going to be wrong, only learning the truth at the last possible moment.
“Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc,” ported to the PC after first being released on PlayStation’s portable devices, starts off innocent enough. You control an average high school student with the blandest of personalities: one Makoto Naegi. He’s gained admission to the top high school in Japan, Hope’s Peak Academy. The school represents the hope of the nation, allowing only those you are the best at what they do, titled “Ultimates.” (The Japanese version titles them “Super High School Level.”) We got the Ultimate Affluent Progeny, the Ultimate Swimmer, the Ultimate Martial Artist. Our character is the Ultimate Lucky Student (which proves to be the ultimate irony as you complete the game).
But our first day school, already a nerve-wracking time, turns positively deadly once we actually enter the front door. Trapped in this ultimate-school-turned-ultimate-prison, Makoto and 14 other Ultimates learn that in order to “graduate” (aka escape) from Hope’s Peak, they must murder another student AND get away with it via “Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney”-style courtroom scenes. To make matters worse, our tormentor is a cuddly teddy bear named Monokuma, whose cute features and perky voice belie his sadistic tendencies and penchant for executions.
The game’s play structure is deceptively simple: Through six chapters, you travel around the school, exploring different areas and finding clues as why they’re trapped in their school and who is the mastermind behind this deadly killing game. Without fail, though, someone is murdered. (Incentive is a powerful theme in this game.) You’re then given some time to find whatever clues you can to determine who committed the murder, after which a deadly class trial kicks off (with Monokuma presiding, of course). During the trial, you’re tasked with countering arguments with evidence you’ve collected and pointing out contradictions. (Sometimes, your friends will present information you yourself may have missed during your investigation.) Plus, “Danganronpa” has a few mini-games throughout its trials. They tend to be a bit much, adding an unnecessary level of complexity, but they do serve as a break from the non-stop debate sections.
After an ironic gruesome execution scene, you repeat the cycle, only with more floors of the school opened for exploration. The game offers a fast-travel system, which you will want to become familiar with quickly, though exploring each floor will yield coins you can use later on.
The game’s illustrations utilize a blend of horrific graphics with a pop art visual style. Yes, students are gruesomely murdered, but the blood you see is hot pink. The vast majority of the school is decked out in bright hues, only for the trials to be decidedly somber in their color choices. Both ways, however, are impeccably done, detailed with a precision you don’t find very often.
The game’s shining gem, though, is its script. Surprisingly clever for a visual novel game, it smartly blends an engrossing story with well-done character development, smattered with well-timed bits of comedy throughout. The story plays out almost like a high school simulator, allowing you the chance to bond with characters who may not live enough to see the game’s end. The dialogue is perfectly awkward, perfectly keyed to high schoolers trapped in a less-than-ideal scenario. It’s both appropriately funny and devastatingly upsetting, leaving you filled with despair once you realize you may have spent too much time getting to know one character, only to see their corpse the night day. And you never want to stumble upon those corpses because you’ve become attached to these zany students. You want to learn more about them, why they act the way they do, what their dreams are, only for those connections to be violently snapped.
For fans of “Ace Attorney,” “Persona” or the film “Battle Royale,” you’ll find pleasure in the game’s mixed structure. The trials are less convoluted than any “Ace Attorney” game, but they still will leave you confused if you’re not playing attention. As with “Persona,” you’ll have opportunities to learn more about other characters through free time events, moments in the game when the story doesn’t so much progress as deepen. You can even give gifts to further bond (think social links) with the other students, which you can buy with your Monokuma coins. “Battle Royale” junkie? Well, there’s plenty of students killing other students in order to survive to sate every fan.
The game, though, does have a nasty habit of repeating itself. You learn of a major revelation? Prepare to hear the same snippet of dialogue about a dozen times. A conversation suddenly matters during a class trial? Don’t worry, because you’re going to see it multiple times. Time and again, the game repeats information it deems important ad nauseam.
In the end, “Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc” is a clever blend of a witty script and a gruesome murder-mystery. The underlying conundrum — the one of why you’re trapped in Hope’s Peak Academy and who’s pushing you to kill your fellow students — is far deeper and engaging then you may first realize. The zany characters are truly enjoyable, no matter your initial impression. The light-hearted moments offer a stark contrast to the deadly killing game you find yourself playing. When it boils down to it, this is a game of trust, and who you trust can mean the difference between life and death. Choose wisely.
Five “Ultimate Unlucky Student” stars out of five, and a critic’s pick.