A.K.A. – Trigger Happy Havoc
Developer – Spike & Spike Chunsoft
Translator – Project Zetsubou (Unofficial) NIS America (Official)
Length – 10 – 30 Hours
Platform – PSP, PSVita
Every now and then there’s a game that presents you with something completely new and sweeps you off your feet. Most recently for me that game was Dangan Ronpa. With a refreshingly unique story and exciting gameplay components that make you feel truly involved in the events that unfold, Dangan Ronpa is a shining example of excellence rarely seen on portable consoles. It isn’t without faults, but only the most picky of players will find them and even fewer would say they affect the experience in any meaningful way. If you haven’t already left to go and play it (which you should have), read on and see why it now sits at second place in my list of favorite Visual Novels.
Kibougamine Academy is Japan’s source of Hope; every year 15 of the best and brightest students around are chosen to have the privilege of attending and having their success in life all but guaranteed. From “Super Duper High School Programmer” to “Super Duper High School Outlaw Biker”, Kibougamine’s students excel in a plethora of areas. When Naegi Makoto is chosen as the 15th student by lottery, as the “Super Duper High School Luckster”, he can’t help but feel overwhelmed by the prestige of his future school. What awaits him there, however, could not have been predicted by anyone.
After falling unconscious before the opening ceremony, Naegi finds himself trapped within the academy along with his classmates. Together, informed by the mysteriously deranged robot bear calling itself Monokuma, the group discover that there is only one way to graduate from the Academy of Hope: murder a fellow student and get away with it. With danger potentially lurking within the eyes of everyone around him and a deadly puppet-master pulling strings from behind the scenes, can Naegi hold onto his Hope and escape from the School of Despair?
Dangan Ronpa’s synopsis sounds a little over the top and in truth so is the game. However, through clever contrasting of what seems silly with events that are anything but, you are forced to take Dangan Ronpa seriously very early on. The juxtaposition of the students’ titles and teddy-bear-like Monokuma to the gravity of the situation just serves to emphasize how Hopeless things are. I mean, what are your chances when even the villain doesn’t seem to take things seriously? There’s some clever humour here and there to keep things from becoming too macabre though; Dangan Ronpa has some emotionally jarring content but it is by no means a horror game.
As the game progresses you will find yourself interacting with your classmates and getting to know them better, investigating crime scenes for even the smallest scrap of a clue and feverishly arguing your cases to pinpoint the murderers hidden in your midst. The story is gripping and leaves you craving more every time you put the game down to a degree that is rivalled by very few other titles. Your perception of the story is constantly changing as new details come to light so that every scene is interesting, with every single component being potentially important and contributing positively to your reading experience. The first negative thing I have to say about the story is that I would have liked to know a little more about what was going on behind the scenes, possibly in the form of an extended epilogue, though I suspect there’s going to be more explained in the second game.
The second negative thing isn’t so much about the story itself as it is about the way one particular part of the story is delivered. There’s a point in the game where you are given the decision to either tell one of your classmates about some information you dug up or not. I say decision, but if you select the choice that makes the most sense the game refuses to do so and forces you to choose the other option and then proceeds to constantly remind you how bad your choice was for the next two chapters or so. It was incredibly frustrating and I just can’t see what the point of it was, games really shouldn’t give me two options to pick from if only one of them can be picked, and the game definitely shouldn’t blame me for that choice afterwards.
Including Monokuma there are 16 characters in Dangan Ronpa, with each possessing a strong personality. Apart from the more prominent characters though, there isn’t much room for character development. However, with characters that are already so well developed being locked in a closed space I think that things are more about the way their existing personalities play off of each other and clash, something that Dangan Ronpa does very well. With such a large cast you can generally expect a number of stereotypes to show up, but I was really surprised by how much that wasn’t the case. At first glance you may think that stereotypes abound but as the game progresses you will find that those characters don’t act quite the way you expect them to, and that their behaviour is well explained by their back-story. Given the size of the cast Spike has done an excellent job of tailoring each character to fit into the story in a unique way, with all of them feeling like they could be a real person to boot.
Of course people are going to die throughout the story, that’s not really a spoiler, but it is where the gameplay kicks in. As well as being able to wander the hallways in first-person view you can also examine rooms using a point-and-click system, which is your best friend when it comes to examining crime scenes. Once a body is discovered you are given the task of finding whatever clues you can as to whodunit. The searches are just complex enough to feel worthwhile and the game is nice enough to tell you when you’ve found everything in the form of a “Class Trial” announcement, so you don’t have to worry about whether you’ve missed something or not.
The concept of the Class Trial is simple: try to reason out who the killer is using the evidence you have and convince the others you are right before the verdict is determined by ballot. If you correctly identify the killer, they die in a way befitting their identity (and some of the executions are pretty brutal), if you’re wrong the killer goes free and everyone else is executed. There are 3 main challenges that may be repeated numerous times throughout a trial with various multi-choice questions scattered between them and a final “putting it all together” challenge at the end. You’re marked on your performance and given a number of Monokuma Medals based on how you did (more on them later).
I’ll start with the easiest two challenges. An Epiphany Anagram is where you have to shoot down letters in the right order to fill in the blanks of a given word – they’re usually pretty easy. A Machine-Gun Talk Battle is where you have to get through to a person who’s spouting nonsense and won’t listen to reason and win by pressing various buttons in time to the beat; there isn’t much logic behind this challenge. The hardest (but perhaps most fun) components of the class trials are the Nonstop Debates. During these the characters will discuss the murder and it’s your job to weed out any inconsistencies in what people are saying, which you do by “firing” contradictory evidence at the offending statements as they come up (using either previously gathered evidence or what other people have said during that debate).
The Class Trials are fast paced and exciting in a way that I haven’t really experienced before. The game knows how to make you feel good with each correct action; the feeling of success behind Naegi’s exclamations is like a pat on the back which never gets old. The major issue with the challenges, though, is that the conclusions you are expected to come to are incredibly rigid at times – there were multiple occasions where more than one of the options available to me would have made sense. On those occasions my clever rebuttals devolved into a hurried game of trial and error, with the end result sometimes being one of my few failures at the class trials. It didn’t happen often relative to the number of challenges, but if you don’t share the writers’ line of thought you’re pretty much screwed and I can see that becoming frustrating. There are difficulty options for “Gameplay” and “Logic”, though I didn’t find much challenge despite playing on the hardest settings for each.
At the end of each trial you are given the task of working out the order in which everything happened in manga format. It feels a little redundant, as by that point you have worked everything out anyway, but the presentation prevents it from being too boring. My complaint here is that the icons used to represent each event are quite small and so it can be hard to work out what they are supposed to represent. Though it wasn’t too much of a problem in the long run it can be frustrating to try and work out why your chosen event doesn’t fit.
The cases themselves are wondrously complex without being too hard to believe. You go into the trials thinking you have a decent idea of what happened and are then forced to re-evaluate your thoughts multiple times without at any time feeling “wrong”, as such. Even in cases where I had correctly identified the perpetrator before the trial, the how and why of what had happened were so different from what I had in mind that I couldn’t help but enjoy ferreting out what had really occurred. The best part was that all of the cases were completely believable – there weren’t any Deus Ex Machina moments to ruin all of the logical thought you had put in. Beyond the cases you have the mystery of Kibougamine to work out, but I’ll let you explore that one for yourselves.
In the breaks between cases you can interact with the other students in order to learn more about them and strengthen your bonds. This is done by giving presents from the school store which are bought using Monokuma Medals (which you get from the Class Trials). There are particular presents that certain characters like and dislike but I found that the relationships advanced no matter which gift was given (though it’s always best to give them something they like to stay on the safe side and make sure you don’t miss out on their bonuses!). By hanging out with the others you unlock abilities for use in the class trial, so don’t think you’re not going to gain anything by being social. None of them are absolutely necessary but the help is always appreciated. The system is kind of like Persona 3’s social links without the hours and hours of down time between story segments.
If I haven’t already lost you behind that wall of text, it’s time to talk about Dangan Ronpa’s unique art style. There are really two different types of art: the anime-esque 2D sprites for each character that look a lot like cardboard cut-outs when you’re walking around and their 3D representations used during movie sequences. Though both styles take a bit of getting used to they suit Dangan Ronpa perfectly – extremely high quality with a quirkiness that you’ll quickly learn to love. The only reminder that you’re playing on a portable platform is the average quality of the 3D academy that you wander around in, but it’s certainly not bad and in fact manages to convey the feeling of Kibougamine admirably. Overall, for a PSP game, the visuals are stunning. The BGM manages to manipulate the player’s mood well, properly fitting the tone of each scene, but I don’t have any more to say about it. Only the movies, class trials and the beginnings of some sentences are voiced but that’s par for the course with portable titles and the voice acting that is done is of excellent quality; it’s especially important for making you feel involved when it comes to the class trials.
Summary – Dangan Ronpa is a must-play. Its excellent writing (and translation), entertaining character design and gameplay that is truly immersive come together to form a wonderful experience that isn’t quite like any other. The art may take a little getting used to but you will quickly find that it fits the feel of the game perfectly, with the audial aspects completing the experience. There were a few faults, it’s true, but nothing that gets in the way of the amazing experience Dangan Ronpa provides. My only regret is that I played the game over a number of weeks – the experience could only have gotten better if I’d played as much of it as possible at once.
Plot/Characters – 10/10
Gameplay – 9.5/10
Audio/Visual – 9/10
OVERALL SCORE: 10/10 – Excellent
Here’s the OP, even though you should all be watching it in-game:
P.S – It’s actually been a few months since I played Dangan Ronpa and hearing that OP music again brought back all the good feelings I had while playing it. That, my friends, is the hallmark of a good game.