A novel game.
3,355SRP: £29.99*For the purposes of this review, all screenshots are taken either from Chapter 1 or don't show any aspects that could be considered spoilers. Plot points are not discussed.*
Tongue twisting titles aren’t usually a smart move - names such as El Shaddai or Shin Megami Tensei aren’t exactly the easiest to remember for the non-initiated.However, when the genre is suitably niche it doesn’t really matter, as the games will long have been on fans’ radars. Visual novels aren’t so much a niche in the market as a crack in the skirting board.
Luckily, the continued presence of popular text-heavy puzzle games like the Phoenix Wright and Professor Layton series, coupled with the relative success of Spike Chunsoft’s Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors and follow up Zero Escape: Virtue’s Last Reward, made sure that crack was never polyfilla’d in the West; hence Danganronpa, a title previously released in Japan on the PSP back in 2010.
This adventure ramps up the oddball atmosphere, veering away from the skewed but somewhat traditional noir roots of previous titles into an altogether more Eastern-flavoured madhouse; one of nefarious talking robot bears.
Don’t question it, just go with the flow, if you’re an anime or manga aficionado you’ll feel quite at home as the characters all fall in line with staple archetypes.
These easily identifiable figures are closer to a fighting game roster than layered personalities, such is the obvious differences in physical design and characterisation.
School days eh?
The only surefire way to make it out is by killing another student.
As with most dramatic visual novels, what the developers hope lures you down the rabbit hole is your curiosity. Why are you imprisoned? What secrets do the others hide? And how are you going to escape? The earliest moments set a scene of playful mystery, but the added twist which injects a bit of spice is straight out of the Battle Royale playbook: It is soon explained by your devilish bear guide, Monokuma, that the only surefire way to make it out is to trigger a Graduation Clause, a fancy term for killing another student.
Each room falls into view like a theatre set descending and being constructed in double quick time. As the walls arrange themselves your fellow cast members enter the room like pop-up two-dimensional (literally) figures. Investigating the room is as simple as any adventure game, utilising the age old mechanic of highlighting and selecting points of interest.
Conversations are similarly straightforward, but contain purple words which can be be selected to trigger further detail. As a basic nod to the Vita tech, you can tap text to proceed to the next line, but there’s no mechanic to highlight words of interest, so it’s pointless heading down that path as you’ll only have to revert to the face buttons.
Despite the dastardly environment, the school is still to be treated as a learning institution, so there are rules in place. For instance, curfews are enforced and sleeping anywhere other than your allocated dorm room will be classified as napping in class. It’s a strange atmosphere, and I dare say due to the bizarre juxtaposition of teenage school life and manipulation to murder, feels more unsettling - albeit in a cartoonish way - than the likes of 9,9,9.
It’s certainly heightened by the voice acting which, though not extensive, has a Japanese language option that obviously remains the preference for those looking for authenticity. It just finishes the whole vibe, particularly Monokuma’s squeaky tones as the quasi-naughty child persona.
BFFsYou get spare time which you can choose to use with other characters, and this in turn will create bonds. Your time is finite though, and the story will progress, so you must choose who you wish to converse with and, if things go well, to give gifts to. These are purchased from the school gift shop with tokens that are found as you investigate and are also given out when you complete a chapter.
As with all relationship mini-games in Japanese titles, your success is largely down to the correct choice of present; I had a sneaking suspicion that giving one girl a “Hand Bra” was unlikely to be welcomed. I was correct.
Keeping with the school theme, you can check on your relationship status on the character’s report card, accessible from the menu. The early drip feeding of information about fellow students never dilutes the macabre gloom of potential murder being around the corner, and this is heightened by the secretive nature of the act. Only those who are undiscovered in their violence will be “blackened” and graduate.
The chain of events after a murder is fairly straightforward, with points of interest and people who require questioning. As with any slightly zany investigation game, the logic can vacillate wildly from the obvious to the oddball at any moment, but the more obtuse theories are usually reserved for the means rather than the motive. Find the how, and the why will be revealed later.
The “later” in question is the Class Trial, which is the final flourish of your investigation where you must present your case. This kangaroo court throws another layer of absurdity onto an already kooky game. It plays out like a Phoenix Wright title with a timer and a rhythm game twist. Truth Bullets - facts about the case by another name - are fired at statements in an “objection” manner, but time never stops, meaning you must actually line up a reticle onto scrolling words and shoot them down.
In one of the very few instances of the Vita’s gadgetry being utilised, you can prod the screen, but the tech is so sparingly integrated that it feels like a detour from the other controls, and thus gimmicky.
Time trialWeak points in statements are highlighted, but not all will contain contradictions, so you need to think carefully. Blast the wrong one and you’ll lose the trust of your fellow students; when this hits zero you’re done for. This is complicated even further by the fact that your gun will be loaded with multiple Truth Bullets, and you need to cycle the chamber to select the right one to puncture a statement. All the while, a timer’s ticking down. It’s not quite the sweat-dripping tense race against the clock that it could have been, but it’s effective nonetheless.
Once you’ve got your witness on the rocks, and the perpetrator is known to you, you enter a bizarre rhythm mini-game whereby your timed taps to the beat will select statements popping up, and then firing will destroy them. You’ve also got a Hangman’s gambit, which is an important phrase that needs to be deduced by the letters, like a half filled Hangman. And all this is before you take acquired skills which can be loaded pre-trial into the equation.
The phrase “over-egging the pudding” springs to mind; the final package plays more like a collection of interesting ideas than a tight game designed around one key mechanic. The rhythm game is largely pointless, in so much as the statements aren’t intended to be read properly, so in effect you’re just tapping to a meter whilst a scene you’re not actually watching unfolds. It almost feels a waste to have this flourish used in such a way; your attention is taken by a simplistic mechanic at the bottom of your screen whilst a moment of colourful animation is unfocused on by your eye at the top.
Yet, it works as a whole. It scores big in the two departments you’d assume a visual novel must excel in: artwork and script. Aesthetically it’s chock full of great character designs, even allowing you to remove the HUD so you can view moments in all their faux-hand-drawn beauty. Then there’s the script. It’s dark and playful, the simplistic anime visuals acting as a counterbalance to the morbid and blackly humorous moments. At the cold black heart of everything is Monokuma, who provides a fine pivot for all of this, with more than one remark treading a devilishly risqué line that’s juxtaposed with the colourful cartoony aesthetics.
- Crisp artwork
- Fitting voice acting / music
- Eclectic gameplay mix
- Lack of Vita features
- Navigation can feel repetitive
Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc Vita ReviewDanganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc is a must for anyone who enjoyed the likes of 9,9,9. Its vibe is playfully foreboding, with moments like execution sequences unfolding like a CBBC-directed Saw film, pink blood and all.
It's a unique mix of relationship sim and investigation game. The meatier gameplay mechanics are weighted towards the latter part of each chapter, but that initial overwhelming tide of mad, disparate ideas soon becomes manageable, even if it does still feel like some are unnecessary additions.
The exquisite oft despair-laden murderous atmosphere practically negates any flaws in the mechanics, and even the clunky navigation around sparse environments is covered by the mood of uneasy foreboding. It does get excessively wordy in some parts, but few games offer such a scalpel sharp script, full of inventively odd witticisms and memorable caricatures.
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