Thoughts on Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc
With a name like Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc, it’s much too easy to joke about developer Spike Chunsoft’s 2013 PlayStation Vita title. It’s even easier when you hear the game prominently features an evil, smart-mouthed robot teddy bear named Monokuma, and a laughably crazy premise: Monokuma has captured 15 students, each of them the very best in what they do, and trapped them in a school called Hope’s Peak Academy. Inside, they have everything they could possibly need: food, housing, recreational facilities, etc. The only way to get out, however, is to not only kill a fellow student, but to get away with it too. This premise makes the game a mix of Battle Royale and Ace Attorney, and is both awesomely insane and insanely awesome. Once you get past the jokes and into Danganronpa, it really does become a seriously great game, and one of the most memorable gaming experiences in quite a while.
The actual gameplay behind Danganronpa consists of two core parts: daily life and the trial. During daily life, you can explore the school, choose to talk to different students, and be witness to key events that happen and move the story along. There is only so much time for daily life, so you have to pick the students you want to talk to the most. Talking to people gives pretty valuable insight into each student’s character so it feels important to choose which person you want to talk to. Most of what you do in these segments consists of just tapping ‘x’ or the screen to keep talking to people, which effectively makes the game a visual novel experience and it never really feels like a chore.
Eventually, though, a murder will happen and you’ll be thrown into the investigation by gathering evidence, or “truth bullets,” at various key points around the school and dorms. Gathering the evidence in practice is a pretty linear process, but the game does a good job of making you feel like you’re actually investigating. Once a certain amount of time has gone by (effectively once you’ve gathered enough evidence), the actual trial starts which is by far the most bizarre and intense part of the game. In them, characters discuss aspects of the murder in an attempt to determine the culprit. There will be statements made that don’t add up and the player will have to literally shoot down these arguments with the aforementioned truth bullets. The proceeding “No, that’s wrong!” from the protagonist Makoto Naegi is pretty satisfying. There’s plenty of time to “shoot,” so if you miss the right argument, you can hold ‘o’ to speed up the conversation again, in which case all the voices turn really high-pitched. There are a couple other mini-games that make up the trials, and they all fit in pretty neatly.
What’s really great about the gameplay and trial sequences of Danganronpa is that it really makes the player feel intelligent. Finding clues and shooting down arguments is immensely rewarding in a very different way to most other games these days. Whereas in other games it feels like the you’re just going through the motions, Danganronpa really makes you feel smart whilst also keeping the story moving along at a steady, fairly linear pace. It’s a type of game design that emphasizes logic instead of skill, to get through, and that’s really cool.
Without an intriguing story, however, there wouldn’t be much reason to tap through Danganronpa’s 25 hour running time. Thankfully the story and narrative design behind Danganronpa are pretty top-notch. In the beginning, the characters all feel like tropes of anime and videogames. There’s some quiet characters, overtly muscular characters, and one girl who comes on to you and really wants to be your assistant. But as the game progresses, all these tropes get turned in very surprising yet natural ways. It’s a game that plays with what you expect will happen in increasingly smart and surprising ways, not just through its story but also through the gameplay.
Another strength of Danganronpa is that it gives real character depth to almost all of the 15 students trapped at Hope’s Peak academy. With 15 students, it would seem hard to give all of them personalities but they accomplished this very well. During the daily life segments, spending time with the various characters really felt like you were developing relationships with them and it was really nice getting to “know” them better. This made it all them more worse when some of the characters actually did die.
Even the character of Monokuma, the robot teddy bear who’s trapped everyone in Hope’s Peak Academy, was lovable in a weird way. Everything about his character is just really well thought out. He’s always weirdly positive and his lines are always really funny, the music that plays whenever he shows up is really fantastic. His voice can seem annoying initially but it really grew on me as the game went on. Everything about him makes him an instant classic videogame character.
The only thing about Danganronpa that felt a little weird to me, amongst all the other “weird” things in Danganronpa, was actually the tone. Although the positive, humorous attitude throughout most of the game actually does fit in with the incredibly dark setup and ending of the game, it just made me feel a little weird and almost uncomfortable inside as the game went on. In fact, the game is almost a black comedy in a way.
Once you overcome the name, a conglomeration of the Japanese words for “bullet” and “refutation” (“dangan” and “ronpa” respectively), and premise, it’s easy to see that Danganronpa is actually a really terrific game that’s incredibly different from almost every other game out today in an amazing way. Everything in Danganronpa just syncs really well together as a package, from the writing to the art to the characters to the gameplay to the themes of hope vs. despair and importance of freedom. It’s a really weird, bizarre, overtly Japanese experience, but one that’s absolutely worth playing through.