An outstanding murder-mystery visual novel from Spike-Chunsoft that blends multiple genres and a gripping story into one of Vita’s most essential experiences.

Developer Spike-Chunsoft
Publisher
Franchise DanganRonpa
Genre
PSTV
Yes (AS/JP/NA copies only)
Physical English Yes – EU/NA

 

World-building & Story

Hope’s Peak Academy – an elite school for talented students who have reached the top of their field and earned the title of ‘Ultimate’. Makoto Naegi stands outside its towering gates wondering just how he ended up here, after the result of a random lottery and about to join their newest class. He steps through the entrance only to be immediately knocked out and from there becomes embroiled in a hell unlike anything he could have imagined… 

2014-02-14-142044DanganRonpa tells the story of a group of students trapped inside a school who are forced to participate in a mutual killing game, where the only way escape is to slaughter one of their fellow classmates and get away without being discovered. The mastermind behind this is Monokuma, a murderous stuffed bear whose charisma and cryptic puzzles are almost the standout part of the whole package.  

DanganRonpa wastes no time setting up its premise and establishing the tense atmosphere, that permeates through everything you do in Hope’s Peak Academy. The feeling I got in the first few hours is unlike anything I’d ever experienced in a videogame before – despite being a somewhat grounded premise it seemed completely surreal and I could barely believe what was happening, yet I became fully engrossed, eager to find out what twist lay around the next corner of the plot. 

2018-12-26-020516A large part of that comes from the fact that DanganRonpa focuses just as much on the overarching mystery as it does the student killing. These characters don’t know why they’re trapped here and information is drip-fed that gives little teases about the outside world – and I lapped every second of it up as it was a fascinating reality to discover. Without spoiling too much, nothing is what it seems and contradictory evidence shows up repeatedly that made me question what was real and what wasn’t – and each moment of this was felt alongside the stellar cast. 

See, the other thing the game absolutely nails is its characterisation. Every one of the 15 students here have their own personality and quirks and getting to know them over the journey (particularly during free time events) is a joy – it’s even funnier watching some of their personalities clash as they disagree over key evidence during the investigations (Byakuya/Toko and Celeste/Hifumi were especially well judged). I felt a real connection with everyone here, like it was a group of friends I was interacting with.  

2018-12-25-154416That bond you form with them just makes it all the more heart-wrenching when one of your friends turns up dead or – even worse – if they turn out to be the killer. You’ll be encouraged to gather evidence and put together a cast to point the finger at one of your classmates and realising what they’ve done can be horrifying – worse still when they provide a sob story that makes you realise what an effed up situation you’re in and how these otherwise likeable people got pushed into a corner thanks to their feelings of despair.

After a killer has been established, Monokuma will ‘execute them in a particularly gruesome punishment scene, and this is where one of DanganRonpa’s little oddities comes in – these vary wildly in tone from comedic to horrifying, yet that just plays into its surreal nature. The first execution, which I won’t spoil too much, is one of the most visceral and disturbing things I’ve ever seen and really hammers home the dark atmosphere and messed-up premise, whereas the second is a bit sillier – they seem to constantly flip-flop between serious and comedic, which is strange but it works.

2018-12-26-022528Of course, as you progress certain students become more key to the overarching story and the final few chapters are an absolute thrill ride as you work to uncover the secrets of Hope’s Peak as a team before the mastermind leads everyone to despair. And that’s the central theme of the game – hope vs despair and how people hold up in increasingly disturbing and desperate circumstances. It’s an interesting idea that’s explored with care here, fully developed across the 16-18 hour adventure. 

As a lead character, Makoto is easily likeable thanks to his dependable nature and outsider status allowing him to almost look in on the events unfolding, much like the player is doing. Yet he wasn’t the one I ended up loving the most – Hina’s warn-hearted optimism and sweet naivety really won me over and I also loved Kyoko’s role in helping Makoto focus his problem-solving skills during the class trials, meaning I cared a great deal about their eventual fates. 

2018-12-25-212039With DanganRonpaSpike Chunsoft have crafted one of the most unforgettable scenarios in videogames – a tense killing game filled with lovable characters and an atmosphere unlike any I’ve ever come across. It completely sucked me in and left me yearning for more, something few games have ever managed to do. 

 

Presentation & Sound

With its bright pop-art graphics, unique mix of 2D and 3D elements and effortless style, Trigger Happy Havoc offers one of the best visual packages on Vita that is completed with its absolutely stellar soundtrack. 

2014-02-14-222353See, every object in DanganRonpa’s world is 2D, but the actual world itself is 3D, which creates an incredibly memorable aesthetic as you explore around. Characters rotate around so you’re always facing their front, some items are hidden behind 2D layers while desks and chairs literally ‘pop up’ when you walk into a room (which is a particularly fascinating animation as the classroom basically constructs itself). It’s thrilling to explore this strange location as a result of the incredibly clever perspective. 

Of course, character designs are typical of a modern Japanese game meaning plenty of long flowing hair (in a variety of colours), elaborate clothing and just a general larger than life feel. Yet each cast member feels memorable thanks to their designs – Sakura is an overbearing presence thanks to her bulging muscles that pop out of her tiny skirt, while Celeste is more reserved and classy in her layered black dress and wide hair. It gives you an immediate connection to them and their designs quickly bolt into your memory. 

2014-02-15-220741Impressively, the characters look the same in both the cutscenes and normal gameplay, meaning there’s no disconnect when swapping between the two. The cutscenes (and CG stills) are an absolute triumph – stylishly animated, they pop off the screen and help to sell DanganRonpa’s zany world – whether it be the bobbing flames of the burning of the Versailles witch or the incredibly gruesome first execution. Interestingly, although in-game portraits are always static, they feel full of life due to a number of different unique poses that again add to each person’s character. 

Hope’s Peak Academy itself is an intimidating place to explore thanks to its winding corridors and hidden secrets and the graphics definitely get this across. Everything is seen from a first-person perspective which allows the developers to help develop the different atmospheres thanks to certain lighting effects and the like and while I wouldn’t call Trigger Happy Havoc a pretty game (thanks to a few stretched textures likely due to its PSP origins), its graphics were certainly good enough to immerse me in its world. 

2018-12-26-105923What voice acting is here is universally excellent – from Toko’s confused stuttering to Byakuya’s endless confidence, every actor really represents their character well. The main issue is just that there’s not enough of it – class trials are fully voiced but most other things aren’t, meaning you just get the odd grunt when someone is speaking (even these could be great though, particularly Hina’s “oof” when she’s accused of something!) 

Music is universally stunning and I would possibly go as far as to say that the game has my favourite soundtrack of any title on Vita. Tense when it needs to be (Trial Underground), relaxing at other times (Beautiful Days), I never got tired of any of the tracks here. All of the soundtrack has a certain style to it that really helps to define what DanganRonpa is too – lots of funky rhythms that wouldn’t feel out of place in Persona. 

Soundtrack highlight – Discussion (Hope vs Despair)

 

Gameplay & Content

While Trigger Happy Havoc would most simply be described as a visual novel about a group of high schools students forced to kill each other, it’s so much more than this in reality. You’ll explore the school, investigate crime scenes, partake in class trials and build bonds with your classmates – all of which makes for one of the finest games I’ve played in years. 

2018-12-27-095318You’ll play at all times as Makoto Naegi, an average student who finds himself among the extraordinary ‘Ultimate’ talents of Hope’s Peak Academy. Makoto constantly narrates and provides his perspective on things which is key in establishing the tone in early chapters – he’s as clueless to what’s happening as the gamer is. Indeed, there’s a lot of reading to be done here but the overall plot is so worth it that even if this isn’t your cup of tea, I’d recommend giving the game a try regardless. 

After introductions are out of the way and you gain control, you’ll find the perspective is first-person but you’ll be able to move around freely (more like an FPS than a dungeon crawler). You have a reticule to aim and can interact with objects by pressing x, which throws a little question mark at the target and will provoke a comment from Makoto. This allows you to find out more about Hope’s Peak Academy at your leisure – you can choose to interact with everything or nothing at all (although you are awarded with coins for poking around).  

2018-12-30-010605DanganRonpa’s structure is fairly rigid and each chapter generally follows the same flow – it’ll start out with some exposition and linear story progression (alongside comments about what’s happened previously), before you’re given a chunk of free time to spend how you wish. You can do things like explore the school or gamble coins in the gacha machine during this – but the main activity is spending time with your classmates and building bonds with them, which is among my favourite aspects of the game. 

See, thanks to its killing game premise, the tone of DanganRonpa is constantly dark and gloomy, so the moments of respite that the free time offers provided a brilliantly upbeat breather. You’ll learn little details about your fellow students and their lives prior to this point that makes them much more human, plus you’ll be able to give them gifts (which can be won in the MonoMono Machine). I truly felt attached to so many of the characters here, which just made it all the more heartbreaking when something goes wrong.  

2018-12-27-095305It won’t take long for a dead body to show up which is when the game shifts to ‘investigation’ mode, where you’ll find clues to how the murder took place in order to figure out who the killer is and save Makoto and his innocent classmates from being executed (the main ‘motive’ the killing game has is that if you kill someone and get away with it, you escape the school and everyone else dies) . The investigation takes the form of a traditional point ‘n’ click adventure – you’ll make a note of important items at the crime scene and take witness accounts, all of which gives you a catalogue of evidence which should begin to paint a picture about what happened. 

This all leads to DanganRonpa’s crowning glory which is the class trials, where the whole class comes together in a tense group debate to figure out whodunit. Each student will advance theories about what they think happened and it’s up to Makoto (with a little help from Byakuya and Kyoko) to refute these with evidence collected and eventually uncover the killer, after which point everyone votes and a verdict is reached. 

2018-12-26-014719You’ll play a variety of mini-games during the class trials which do vary in quality, but the majority are a lot of fun and require a decent amount of thought. The main one is non-stop debate, in which you’ll see a series of statements (from a number of characters) with various words highlighted and you’ll need to use one of a handful of ‘truth bullets’ (from the evidence you collected) on the correct word or phrase to refute the statement. Basically, you’re looking for holes in the logic of what’s being said – which can be trickier than it first appears and definitely requires you to engage your brain, but getting it right is such a satisfying feeling.  

Non-stop debates grow slowly more tricky as the game goes on thanks to white noise (which you’ll need to shoot down) and the addition of the ability to absorb words and use them as truth bullets later on. There were times when I felt the logic jumps were a little much but generally I adored figuring things out – and they were certainly a lot more complicated than hangman’s gambit (shooting letters to spell a key word) and the one-on-one debates which took the form of a simple rhythm game. 

2018-12-27-133500The only area of the class trials that I felt didn’t really work was the closing arguments, where you need to fill in a comic book panel by picking missing images from a list. It’s quite difficult to make out what some of the images are meaning half the time it’s just guesswork and although you’re not penalised too heavily for messing this up, it would’ve been nice to get a clearer picture of what you’re looking at. 

Once you’ve finished the main story – which is split across 6 chapters (of which the penultimate is absolutely mind-blowing) and will take a good 16-18 hours, you’ll unlock school mode, which is a fantastic little bonus and incentive to keep playing. In this, the killing game doesn’t take place and you simply need to complete certain goals with your classmates within timeframes – there’s also loads of free time to allow you to see all the character events you missed in the main game. 

2018-12-29-190618The gameplay in school mode takes the form of resource management, as you assign tasks to each student while managing their fatigue levels. You’ll need to keep the school tidy while gathering materials to craft certain items – it’s fairly addictive once you get into it, although it is designed for multiple playthroughs and it’s nigh-on impossible to do everything in one go which I found a little frustrating. Still, this is just a bonus mode – you can still feel completely satisfied just playing the main story and leaving it there, school mode just provides a nice little extra if you want to see all the free time events.

Ltttle hiccups in the class trials don’t stop the overall gameplay here from being an absolute triumph – everything in Trigger Happy Havoc comes together to create not only the most absorbing game I’ve played on Vita but one of my favourites of all time. 

 

Conclusion

An absolute thrill ride from start to finish, DanganRonpa is an outstanding narrative adventure that no-one should miss. From the brilliant characterisation to the bright, unique graphics to the constantly inventive and enjoyable gameplay, Trigger Happy Havoc nails everything it does and leaves a package that is undoubtedly among the best on offer not just on Vita but in gaming in general. 

10/10

 

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