I’ve never played a visual novel before – never really even considered it. For many people like myself, there’s a certain stigma that comes with the word “novel” that provokes a mix of disinterest and indifference. I’d always imagined playing a visual novel would be akin to reading War and Peace with pictures. Danganronpa is nothing like that. There is plenty of reading, sure, but it’s closer to a typical JRPG in that regard. Danganronpa is a joy to play.
Danganronpa is a murder mystery visual novel, but it opens innocently enough. You play as Makoto Naegi and you’ve been accepted to attend Hope’s Peak Academy, the most prestigious school in the country. This school is a school of “Ultimates” – students who are the best at whatever it is they do and you happen to be the Ultimate Lucky Student, picked in a random lottery to attend. Makoto goes to school, loses consciousness, and when he wakes up, he meets up with fourteen other students who are now trapped in the school with him.
The students are greeted by the black and white mechanical bear Monokuma who explains their predicament: They are all trapped there until the end of their lives unless they can commit murder and get away with it. Also, Monokuma makes sure you know if the murderer actually does get away with it, everyone else will be killed instead. Leaving the students fearful and uneasy, the killing game begins.
Danganronpa plays out in two separate segments: Daily Life and Deadly Life. Daily Life exists to give you free time to explore the school’s accessible areas and socialize with any of the other students. Chatting with them can earn you skills for use during Class Trials at the end of each chapter. Daily Life can be skipped if building relationships and learning more about your classmates isn’t your thing.
Deadly Life consists of a murder, investigation and collection of evidence, and the Class Trial to figure out “whodunit”. Deadly Life is by far the most interesting part of Danganronpa. With each murder, Monokuma will remind you that the murderer is one of the students, and tension builds as you search around for each clue and try and piece together who the culprit is and why they broke the peace. Danganronpa does a great job (after the first case) of playing its cards close to the chest to keep players guessing until the killer is eventually revealed through conversation and a series of minigames during the Class Trials.
Class Trials contain multiple segments as you and the surviving students try to solve each murder. There the most common is the Nonstop Debate, which pans around the courtroom while each student contributes to the conversation, and your job is to point out inconsistencies to refute their statements. Hangman’s Gambit has you shooting down letters to spell out a word (makes more sense in the game, I promise), Bullet Time Battle is essentially a rhythm game (don’t worry, it’s really easy), and in the Closing Argument, you present your final argument in the form of a comic strip. All of these segments are pretty easy, but offer a good change of pace from the normal gameplay’s pointing and clicking. The only real complaints are that some of the trials can drag on a bit long and a couple of the minigames aren’t very well explained.
Danganronpa’s cast of characters is fairly diverse, ranging from the Ultimate Fanfic Writer to the Ultimate Moral Compass. Most of the students aren’t fortunate enough to have much character development, but participating in the Daily Life portion of the game can offer some additional insight into their personalities. The writing is good and Monokuma, in particular, really shines as the de facto antagonist. While not fully voiced, the parts that are are well done and every voice fits their character perfectly. Once again, Monokuma shines with his perfect pitch, delivery, and unreasonable cheerfulness (Character of the year? Possibly!). There are only a few music tracks, but they are also surprisingly effective at setting the appropriate mood. Visually, the more detailed artwork used during some of the story segments are nice and the bright pink blood stands out, but the in-game graphics are fairly dull.
As a bonus, Trigger Happy Havoc contains a mode called School Life that wasn’t included in the original PSP release. School Life is unlocked after beating the game and is essentially an alternate take on life at Hope’s Peak Academy if there were no murders. It plays out as a crafting game with Daily Life segments in-between story beats and for some, this mode will be very engaging. I didn’t go far into this secondary section (I’m afraid me and crafting don’t get along), but the part I played did have some fun dialogue.
If you haven’t gathered by now, Danganronpa is fantastic. It pulls you in with a devious killing game that keeps you guessing and entertains you with the joyous Monokuma who bombards you with a hail of story knowledge, innuendos, and puns. If you’re like me and have been hesitant to try a visual novel, start with Danganronpa. If you’re not like me, you should still play Danganronpa. If you don’t, a certain black and white bear may just have a special punishment waiting for you.
Available on Playstation Vita
Dev: Spike Chunsoft
Pub: Nippon Ichi Software America
Buy: DanganRonpa: Trigger Happy Havoc – PlayStation Vita (Amazon)
Full disclosure: Main story was played to completion and approximately two hours were put into School Life mode.