Game Reviewby Jacob Chapman,
Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc
Thrills, chills, kills! Spike Chunsoft's 2010 surprise hit adventure game, Danganronpa, has blasted its way onto Steam for all those Trigger Happy Havoc fans without a portable Sony platform.
Fifteen "ultimate" students with once-bright futures have been locked into the esteemed Hope's Peak Academy by a sadistic robot bear named Monokuma who wants to teach them a very different kind of lesson. The teens must murder one of their own without getting caught in order to earn their freedom, or else they'll have to spend the rest of their lives locked away from the outside world. It's a battle between ultimate hope and ultimate despair as protagonist Makoto Naegi struggles to prevent these killings or else solve them to save his surviving friends. You'd better give it everything you've got! It's punishment time!
Outside of a few mainstream-friendly darlings like the Phoenix Wright series, Western gamers don't get many official releases from Japan's massive bevy of murder-mystery-driven visual novels. Given how hard it can be to get these games brought over in English, Danganronpa's resoundingly successful release for the PS Vita may come as a surprise. Even setting aside its less widely adopted host console, Danganronpa is far from all-ages fare, littered with scenes of disturbing violence, sexually irreverent humor, and bucketloads of filthy language. The decision to make the game's blood bright magenta was not only a style choice, but a necessity to get the game released under a teen-appropriate age rating in Japan. (It still gets a mandatory Mature from the ESRB on the f-bomb count alone.) On first glance, these factors seem like barriers to entry, but the experience of playing the game reveals these shocking elements as the keys to its popularity. In a genre populated with twisted tales doing their best to look smart, Danganronpa is the rare thriller that doesn't hold anything back.
Rather than adopting the familiar tale of an everyday Sherlock drifting from case to case in pursuit of a central mystery, usually while incorporating some tastefully cool or sexy side characters, Danganronpa opens with a macabre, bizarre, nonsensical battle royale between mean-spirited problem children and never looks back. The evil mastermind behind their torment, Monokuma, is tacky and off-putting by design (and his own admission), spouting off whatever bad jokes he pleases and taking perverse glee in suffering of any kind. On paper, the game's concept might come across as "trying too hard" to shock, but as the player actually navigates Danganronpa's candy-colored-cardboard setting, the blend of cutesy pop art and outrageous horror only feels more and more effortless.
While Danganronpa is immediately fun to play thanks to its one-of-a-kind aesthetic (you won't see character designs quite like these anywhere else) and its criminally catchy soundtrack (there's not a disposable track in the entire eclectic score), this is at its heart a visual novel, where story can often reign supreme over other gameplay elements. Unique mystery-solving tricks like blasting contradictory statements in a trial with "truth bullets," wearing down the enemy through competitive rhythm minigames, or cementing a verdict by illustrating it in manga form give Danganronpa plenty of standout charm, but the real secret ingredient lies in its deceptively exceptional writing. Moment to moment, it's fun to watch Monokuma make awful jokes while the game's wackiest cast members shoot barbs at one another in the dining hall, but the game's cleverness runs much deeper than its goofy dialogue or the construction of its whodunnits.
It might have been easier to create a Hunger Games narrative with disparate murders bookended by a macro-plot to defeat Monokuma, but Danganronpa laces its bloody cases together with consistent character motivations and wickedly subtle details that make the outcome of every trial unforgettable and paint the game's past events in twisted new colors. (You'll want to play it again from the start as soon as it's over.) That's not to say these characters are particularly complex, but they are tremendously entertaining to watch as they clash in debate and develop new team dynamics when their former friends start dropping like flies. By the story's genuinely shocking finale, every step along the way feels firmly justified, making Danganronpa the rare horror story that never leaves you feeling empty, even in its most deliberately tasteless moments. Danganronpa's predominant tone is so dumb and silly that it obfuscates the incredible intelligence it takes to weave a story that can jump up and bite you when you least expect it over and over again. By not taking itself seriously on the surface, the story gets to yank an unexpected level of emotion out of the player in its darkest moments, which definitely helps explain the level of fanaticism surrounding the franchise.
Given the game's point-and-click (or in some cases, aim-and-shoot) playstyle, porting it over to PC seems like a no-brainer, and the Steam release plays much faster and easier than it did on Vita. Minigames like the Hangman's Gambit and Bullet Time Battle go from being occasional inconveniences to child's play now that you can move the reticle with your mouse instead of an analog stick, and if your machine is adequate, maps and animations load gracefully without the longer load times or occasional frame lag the console version had as well. (Players may need to tweak their graphic settings to get overlays like text boxes and some animations to display properly, but once you figure out what driver settings work best for you, they should work the same every time. This review was written using a pre-release review copy though, so these overlay glitches may be patched out in the future.) Danganronpa's incredibly necessary skip function (if you want to 100% those achievements) is not only slightly faster now, it's also host to the Steam version's most appreciated gameplay tweak: skipping now automatically stops when you reach a text box with a Re:Action option. This saves the player a surprising amount of time and embarrassment when hammering back through a case at top speed.
That Re:Action mechanic is easily the most superfluous gimmick in the game (it was taken out for the sequel and presumably all future entries), and if Danganronpa has any flaws that halt its addictive story momentum, they're in the feature creep. While the game's titular Truth Bullet mechanic is immensely satisfying, many of its other tricks get old fast, like the immense number of coins needed to unlock skill points from other characters with gachapon gifts, which wouldn't be as bad if the game's staggering number of gallery assets didn't need to be unlocked with those same coins. (Do yourself a favor and win Celeste over first to get more money faster. If you want to unlock even half of the game's goodies though, be prepared to replay cases over and over.) Outside of occasional clunky minigames, the game's flaws are minor. Its vulgar content will be a real trash-or-treasure factor for many, and even if you're completely sold on its tactless schtick, many of the game's most lovable characters bow out a little too soon, leaving more obnoxious cast members to fill space by the end. The game's plot is so consistently compelling that this character vacuum doesn't drag the story down, but you may often find yourself pining for your deceased faves by the comparatively dryer Case 5 or so.
Danganronpa may not have the family-friendly reach of Phoenix Wright, but its cult status has now become undeniable among adventure game fans, and if you've ever wanted to discover its uncanny magic for yourself from the comfort of your own PC, this Steam release will definitely reward your patience. If you've been looking for a riveting mystery thriller caked in layers of shameless bombast, Danganronpa will give you hours of trigger happy entertainment.
Overall : A-
Graphics : A-
Sound/Music : A
Gameplay : B
Presentation : A
+ Striking art design, exceptional sound and score, engrossing story driven by thoughtful twists, unforgettable characters (especially the villain), game now runs and controls much smoother with a keyboard and mouse on PC
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