Review: Danganronp​a: Trigger Happy Havoc

DanganronpaTriggerHappyHavoc

A game that to the few people who had heard of it would never thought would see the light of day in North America has hit the PlayStation Vita, and more importantly, hit it in English. The subtitled Trigger Happy Havoc is a series of murder mystery investigations told largely in a visual novel style with a sprinkling of dating simulator thrown in for good measure. Tossing these labels around is my short hand way of saying at the outset that this game involves a lot of reading. Sentence after sentence, dialogue panel after panel, prolonged conversation after excessive exposition, this is largely a game of words with some cartoon character pictures above those words. Unless moving through a blocky school and clicking on people to start more talking can be seen as a big step forward in interactive action, it is clear there is not a lot going on in this game on a physical level. On an emotional, intellectual and dramatic level there are lots of things going on, just nothing immediate as most of the violent action in the story is discovered far after the fact. The tale is an interesting one, the dialogue is well written and the cases are just bizarre enough that their solutions are not obvious until after all of the evidence is gathered. It is very well done and a fresh game, if for no other reason than this sort of experience is usually not available in the United States.

Trigger Happy Havoc is played through the eyes of Makoto Naegi, a young man who just found himself admitted to the prestigious Hope’s Peak Academy. This stalwart against despair is famous for the quality of wide-ranging talent of its students that can best be summarized with the suffix “-est”. Unlike a traditional pedagogical institution where students are admitted based solely on their academic ability or special needs, this school only wants the best of the best. They’re just not very interested with passing judgment on the answers to the question, “The best at what?”, just so long as the student is the best at something. There’s a shy young thing who is the world’s best programmer, the country’s greatest baseball player, the most motorcycle gang leadingest punk, the biggest gambler, and the country’s premier doujinshi artist (a word I think people playing a game called “Danganronpa” are familiar with, but here it is called “fan fiction”).  There are a wide range of characters with the fourteen students Makoto will meet who range from immediately familiar anime clichés to the bizarre. When the most relatable character is a famous pop troupe icon, you know you’re amongst weirdos. To be fair, at a school that attracts such extreme persons, people who are the best at what they do, you would not expect their personalities to conform to any norm.

This diverse group of new students are instructed to go to their new school for the introductory ceremony for the beginning of the school year. On the way there Makoto blacks out and awakens in a seemingly deserted school. An announcement is made that tells him to assemble with the rest of the students in the gym. Shortly after assembling they discover that not only are they seemingly alone, unless one counts the surveillance cameras in every room as company, but that they are trapped within the school as the doors leading outside are locked and giant iron plates are bolted to the windows. A creepy thing resembling a teddy bear, cuddly and white on one side, sinister and black on the other, named Monokuma appears in front of them and tells them that they have two choices: stay in the school forever, or graduate. The plush toy goes on to state that graduation is no simple matter, because the only way to escape is to murder someone.

Since it does not appear that any of the students are the “World’s Ultimate Psychopath,” the idea of having to kill someone shocks all in attendance. But that is not all. The ursine fiend continues, anyone wishing to graduate must not only kill someone, they also have to get away with it. During the first case of the game, it is revealed that this will mean that shortly after a murder is committed–and it does not take long–the class will hold a trial where they will all discuss the case, make accusations, and ultimately vote on who they think the killer is. The verdict will be the result of the popular vote. If the killer is correctly named, justice will be done and he or she will be put to death (in an exceedingly violent manner themed after whatever he or she is the best at), but if the group is wrong, then everyone but the murderer will be killed. So, in other words, no points for guessing.

After this ominous introduction the game moves in phases from school life to deadly life and ultimately to a class trial. School life is where Makoto and the gang will investigate the school to try and determine if there is a way out or some clue as to who is holding them captive and generally discuss the situation and recent developments. For the most part this is just a lot of going to the right room and reading, though there is some room for free time. During free time, of which there are a few opportunities in between cases, Makoto can choose to hang out with one of the other living classmates to pass the time while they are trapped in their mutual hell.  While hanging out the characters will divulge a little more about their past and motivations if they feel close enough to the guy with seemingly no talent. The students can also be given gifts during these encounters which, if they like the gift, will increase the rate at which their friendship grows (at least it appears to, there is not any sort of objective metric). These gifts can be purchased at the school store from a capsule vending machine with coins awarded for doing well in the class trial or for clicking on random things like someone in the Professor Layton games looking for Hint Coins. These dates, for lack of a better word, help to flesh out the characters and reinforce that they had lives outside of the school.

At first no one wants to kill anyone else, particularly given the strong likelihood of being discovered and punished (with death), which prompts Monokuma to provide a series of motivations to prompt the students to contemplate, and ultimately commit, murder. As an example, the first motivation is a DVD showing the Makoto family sitting peacefully at home in one second, and then that same scene of bliss replaced with one of debris strewn around the room barely recognizable as the same house. The plain message being: if you want to find out if your family is ok, you have to kill. All of the students get similar videos showing something they love outside the school potentially dead or destroyed, which will cause someone to set a plan in motion to end another student’s life and get away with it. As soon as three or more surviving people discover that body, the School Life phase is over and the investigation phase of Deadly Life begins. Clues and accounts from witnesses must be gathered to be used in the Class Trial. To accomplish this players simply will have to touch what they want to investigate or move the cursor to highlight an object and click on it. This aspect of the game is not very exciting, but it is necessary in order to get a handle on the evidence of the crime. There is very little CSI analysis and classic detective story clues like powder on shoes, broken glass with bottles nearby or bloody weapons. While it is not compelling gameplay, there is at least no chance of missing anything as often Makoto will not leave a room unless he has clicked on everything.

After all the evidence that can be gathered has been assembled, Monokuma announces the Trial will begin soon and that students are to pass through the locked red door in the school in order to descend to the court far below the school. Here the students will face each other in a circle of fifteen podiums, the deceased represented by a portrait with black mourning ribbons, giving their theories and opinions on who the murderer could have been, knowing that it had to be one of them. The mastermind bear has automated guns and traps throughout the school, but he will only kill someone if they defy him or try to escape. As one can imagine, with multiple people and theories floating around, high school students with differing opinions and no authority will enter into an endless circular debate, actually represented by the camera moving around the circle, resolving nothing. It is up to the player to literally target the contradictory statements of others which float on the screen with a cursor and break the cycle by shooting Truth Bullets. In another context these pieces of information would be called “evidence”. After a contradiction in someone’s statement is pointed out, the debate will end and Makoto will make an argument which will lead to the next roadblock of the trial.

These other hurdles are often set up with one character saying, “Why don’t you tell us?” followed by a picture of Makoto thinking and multiple choices of potential responses given. This would feel insanely forced if the characters popping these questions were not so full of themselves. A less conceited person might just say what they think and not bread crumb those they perceive as ignorant to the conclusion they’ve already reached. This approach to solving the crimes works in practice and it helps make sure the player, even if it is through trial and error, understands the key pieces of the mystery. Sometimes a student will refuse to believe something and a timing mini-game has to be played to get them into a position before whatever deeply held belief can be destroyed with key evidence–sorry, “Truth Bullets”. There is also a game where an idea or object must be identified by shooting letters which pop up on the screen to spell it out. These mini-games and a constantly ticking clock in the corner adds a sense of urgency to the life or death situation of the trial. For the players that find them too distracting or difficult there are difficulty settings that allow one to concentrate only on the story and easily deal with the mini-games.

The biggest problem I have with the game has to do with the end of each class trial which, similar to a real trial, has a closing argument. Here all of the evidence gathered and deductions of the students are summarized by Makoto. These are told in the form of animated comic books that go through each step, or act, of the crime committed by an anonymous, fiendish-looking gray form that at the end is revealed to be the killer and the ultimate accusation is made. To formulate this argument, players are presented with a dozen or more objects, actions or persons and a series of comic pages that tell the story of the crime. Some of the panels in the comic are blank and the right objects have to be put into the correct panels. The victim and characters who serve as key witnesses are drawn just as well as they are in the main game and it is nice to see them doing something other than pointing with accusation and looking down in disgust or concern, but that is the only nice thing that can be said about this part of the game.

As an initial matter, the comic panels are presented as they must have been originally, in the Japanese right to left format. Since this is the opposite of what most western audiences are used to, this can be confusing. Even if one assumes that the player devours more manga than a Shueisha editor looking for the next big hit for Jump and would have no problem with the format, the main problem is due to the unique nature of how comics relate information. To illustrate, figuratively, between a panel showing Charlie Brown charging up to kick a football with his supposed friend holding it and another panel with a depiction of the bald kid with the swiggly shirt’s kicking foot way over his head and that bitch in the blue dress grinning like the sadist she is, the reader’s brain infers the action that took place in the unseen middle of the panels, possibly in a missing panel (she yanked away the ball, he kicked air) and the reader goes on to predict the next event (Chuckie B is going to fall on his duff, he’ll probably be mad). 

This is a phenomenon of interpretation that is part of what makes reading comics engaging and unlike other mediums. However, the more separated the actions get from one another, the more physical steps missed or not shown, the harder it is to make these inferences. Inferences are exactly what are required in the closing argument section of Danganronpa because multiple panels are missing and the action is therefore even harder to follow. Further complicating matters, to not make it a simple jigsaw puzzle the panels to choose from are not exact representations of the action taking place in the gaps, but general things like objects or persons. This creates yet another layer of abstraction. Ultimately, this means that even if you know exactly what happened before, during, and after the murder, there is a strong possibility you will screw up a closing argument at least once. This will in turn hurt your creditability, the “health” for a trial, with the class and possibly mean starting the entire argument over, replacing each object – even the ones you got right – before giving it another shot. The only times I took significant damage to my creditability was in these sections of the Class Trials. The comic reenactment is a neat idea, but unfortunately its execution is clunky. Some refinement would make this a great way to wrap up a case as there is far more player agency than Phoenix Wright going on for thirty screens of text.

Since the game is almost entirely story and as visual novels typically have a wide range of possible outcomes, a natural question to ask is whether or not there is any replayability. The answer is not really. The crimes are the most interesting part, and they never change. The new things to see would be spending time with different people during the free time segments. Possibly knowing who dies when would allow one to spend precious moments with the characters before they snuff it, but that is it. Since the friendship development aspect of the game is more of an interesting side activity than a crucial part of the narrative, it is not going to be worth it for most people to maximize their friend enjoyment. If there is some way to drastically alter how the main story plays out, I never saw it.

The characters are all drawn distinctly and have a variety of poses that all help show off their personalities. The music is catchy in a forgettable kind of way. One would expect a game which is almost entirely dialogue to have a significant amount of voice acting. The bad news is that only about a third of the game is voiced–mostly the class trials and a few sentences in the school–but the good news is that what is there is well done with the actors showing a range of emotion that is usually not seen in video games, or Japanese cartoons for that matter. It might seem odd to give so little description of the graphics in a video game, but there is not a lot to say. It is a game of words and plot with anime pictures on top of those words. Theoretically this could have been a text only game or even a novel and not lost much. A combination of some visuals to nail the setting and character allows players to concentrate on the character interaction and story with a sense of involvement not present in a television series. I can understand why there are so many games like this in the land of the rising sun and it is great to have a fantastic one on the Vita in North America.

BuyIt

Pros:
+ Memorable characters
+ Intriguing setting and story
+ Murder mysteries are just difficult enough to be challenging, not frustrating

Cons:
– Closing Arguments are confusing
– Little replayability

Game Info:
Platform: PlayStation Vita
Publisher: NIS America
Developer: Spike / Spike Chunsoft
Release Date: 2/11/2014
Genre: Mystery Adventure / Visual Novel
ESRB Rating: Mature
Players: 1
Source: Review code provided by publisher

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About the Author

Steve has been playing video games since the start of the 1980s. While the first video game system he played was his father's, an Atari 2600, he soon began saving allowances and working for extra money every summer to afford the latest in interactive entertainment. He is keenly aware of how much it stinks to spend good money on a bad game. It does things to a man. It makes stink way too much time into games like Karnov to justify the purchase.