Ultimate Visual Novel: A Review of Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc

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Visual novels are a relatively niche genre here in the states, limited mostly to fanservice-heavy anime styled titles  and enjoyed mostly by those with a thick skin for the tropes found within. Games like 999 or Virtue’s Last Reward have enjoyed some success despite punishingly obtuse branching pathways and “true” endings that are nigh impossible to achieve without a walkthrough. On the other side of the genre are games like Persona 3 4, which despite not being true visual novels, rely on gobs of text and decision making to augment more traditional game mechanics.

Then there’s Spike Chunsoft’s Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc, which sits firmly in the middle, marrying the linear storytelling of traditional visual novels with a unique logic based debate system. While it won’t win over those who don’t know what kawaiiiiii means, genre faithful will be right at home among its outlandish characters and rollercoaster plotline.

If you’ve played any of the more popular visual novels, the plot is one you’re probably familiar with. A group of high school students, each an expert in their chosen field (ranging from the Ultimate Baseball Star to the Ultimate Fanfic Creator), is trapped in the nefarious Hope’s Peak Academy. The only way out? To kill one of your fellow students and get away with it.

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You spend a good chunk of your time at Hope’s Peak fighting for your life, either by collecting evidence or putting it to use during one of the game’s many fully-voiced “Class Trials,” where you try to prove who’s responsible for whatever murdering has recently occurred. Scouring the twisted locations for clues is a largely paint-by-numbers affair, with characters guiding you around by the nose from place by place, the trial only starting once all the necessary tidbits and factoids have been accrued. That’s only about half the game though, as the real meat comes once you step through the red doors of fate and into your captor’s twisted courtroom.

Danganronpa eschews the back and forth of the Phoenix Wright games for a slightly more brutal system of literal logic-based combat. Rather than slowly picking out contradictions, it throws you right into NONSTOP DEBATES, where statements from characters float by and you have to launch the TRUTH BULLETS you’ve collected at them to interject. There are a few other layers that are placed upon the system as the game goes on, ranging from bits of self-doubt that you need to tap away to throwaway clues that you need to choose from. It adds a sense of tension to the normally stolid mechanics of these kind of games, getting heart rates pumping without resorting to tricks.

On top of that, Danganronpa actually got me on more than one occasion. Things were rarely what they seemed to be, and even when I thought I had outsmarted the game, it smacked my pathetic theories down and laughed. Even better, it did it without the Shyamalan-esque feeling of what a twist! Up until the very end, the plot made sense, even if it went unexpected and exciting places.

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Once you do complete the game, there’s an optional extra “School Life” mode, which replaces the murderous overtures of the main story with a management sim-lite game which gives you a chance to follow up on any missed conversations from the storyline while also taking your fellow prisoners on trips around the school. It’s a nice little addition that’s unique to the Vita version, adding anywhere from four to five more hours of gameplay onto it’s already weighty ten or fifteen.

That said, Danganronpa isn’t the genre break-out hit visual novels need. Despite removing the aggressive branching that plagues games like 999 or the arbitrary gating of the Corpse Party series, it still is very much a game for those who keep up with all things Japanese. The characters are a parade of anime tropes, ranging from the mysterious pink haired girl (in a short skirt) to the ditzy tanned sports fiend (in short shorts). One of the characters, a particularly ecchi otaku – if you know what those two words mean, welcome – constantly makes lecherous comments about the female cast, and there’s an one-sided slave/dom romantic relationship in the game that’s downright uncomfortable at best.

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It’s hardly a new story. As Western game development has blossomed over the last few decades, videogame culture has shifted away from its reliance on primarily Japanese developed titles, creating a chasm between the kind of anime inspired world of Danganronpa and something more familiar, like Sherlock Holmes. Both draw from the same pool of detective story tropes, yet the difference in dressing is enough to sour a new generation of gamers raised on the brown and bloom of stuff like Gears of War and Halo to the more eccentric anime style that dominates most visual novels.

Which is a bummer, because despite all the weird references to bloody noses and otaku culture, Danganronpa weaves a web just as devious as any plot Moriarty dreams up. It’s brutal, joyous, stylish, and totally worth your time, even if you don’t know your Narutos from your Kenshiros.