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DanganRonpa: Trigger Happy Havoc Vita Review

I’m not exactly sure where my interest for text-heavy, adventure, visual novels came from – it probably started with Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney on the Nintendo DS. It seems I wasn’t the only one who enjoyed a good story with twists. I say this because it seems the genre, while not selling massively well, is popular enough for some of the smaller publishers to bring those types of games across the ocean. The next game in this category is DanganRonpa: Trigger Happy Havoc, a title that was released on the PlayStation Portable in 2010 in the land of the rising sun. It then went onto get a 2013 Vita remake with bonus game modes. Nippon Ichi Software USA has seen fit to bring this Spike Chunsoft – A merger of Spike and Chunsoft (the guys that brought us the excellent Zero Escape: Virtue’s Last Reward) – developed title to the west. After playing the game, I’m glad they did.

DanganRonpa begins with the main character, one Makoto Naegi, explaining that he has been accepted into the elitist of all elite high schools, a place called Hope’s Peak Academy. He’s not the only new student who is enlisted for enrolment, as another 14 students have also been accepted into the academy. What makes this academy exceptionally special is that each student is the ultimate prodigy in their specific field. For example, Toko Fukawa is the ultimate writing prodigy, while Chihiro Fujisaki is the ultimate programmer. Makoto is a little different; he’s an ordinary student with average talents who managed to get into the academy through the luck of the lottery, giving him the title of Ultimate Lucky Student, so as you can imagine, he feels a little out of place compared to the rest of the geniuses.

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Before properly making his way into the school, Makoto faints outside of the gates of Hope’s Peak and then wakes up in a classroom that has its windows sealed tightly. Lost and confused, Makoto meets up with the other students, who inform him who they are, before being told that everyone has to go to the gym for an assembly meeting. Here is where the headmaster is revealed to be a Monokuma, an evil black and white teddy bear that comes with the news that everyone is imprisoned in the academy for the rest of their lives. The only way out of this is to graduate from the school, but this means that they must murder one of their fellow students without getting figured out by the rest of the group that they were the killer.

This, of course, comes as shocker for the students, but after a few motivational nudges from Monokuma, it’s not long before someone gives in and murders the first victim. From there, DanganRonpa becomes a tale of trust and betrayal, as Makoto must find a way to stop all this senseless waste of life and allowing the sadistic Monokuma to get his thrills from the murder of others. Problem is, in the back of your head you know that anyone could be killed off any time. No one is safe from each other in Hope’s Peak Academy.

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Story is a very important part of an adventure/visual novel game, so I’m going to keep the spoilers to the minimum. This is because DanganRonpa is a title that rewards the player with a great story after each gameplay section, and to have that spoiled for someone would be unfair to them and also to the game’s very fascinating story progression.

What I can say about the story that unfolds in DanganRonpa is that it’s one that knows how to grab your attention, keeping you entranced with its of twists and turns – some players will see coming and others not – to make it an enjoyable trip all the way to the end. It’s also rather long, coming in at 28 hours for me, but this wholly depends on how fast you read and if you are willing to go talk to everyone during the gameplay sections.

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That’s not to say that it doesn’t have faults with its plot. The pacing will at times slow down, and I did figure out a murderer way before a trial started. It can also get a little silly at times, stretching the boundary of what is believable. But don’t let that stop you from experiencing this griping tale, because there’s no doubt that it’s enjoyable to witness what enfolds in this murder mystery plot.

DanganRonpa’s gameplay can be split into four sections. A chapter usually consists of an opening story section, which means walking to points highlighted on the game’s map to progress the story to the next step. This leads to free time, where players can explore around the current accessible locations and speak to the other students to find out more about them. Presents – which are bought through a random capsule machine with coins gained from successfully finishing a court trial or by finding them hidden around the school – can also be offered to these students to get them to like you faster, which results in learning more details about their past and rewards with new skill points or skills, such as having more slow down time, to help with the court sections or during the exploration of the academy.

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Free time only lasts a couple of days before someone eventually kills off one of the ultimate undergraduates, which initiates the investigation section. For anyone who has played any of the Ace Attorney games this will instantly be familiar, as it focuses on the player examining the crime scene to find evidence that could help figure out what happened and who did it. This can either be done by clicking on items in the environment or using the stick and buttons to move a target around the screen. What really helps with the investigation is the press of the triangle button to show squares around everything that can be investigated in the environment. This saves much needed time, as you know what is selectable, meaning you don’t have to spend time guessing which areas are important. The investigation scenes are usually straight-forward, and you cannot miss any evidence or testimonies before the game progresses you to the next phase, again, similar to Ace Attorney.

Once the evidence has been found, it’s time for the final phase of the chapter, the class trial. All the students still alive are sent down a lift to a specially crafted room to allow them to debate about who the killer is. The class trial is one of the more versatile areas of the game, as it is built up of various mini-games. Testimonies happen with a time limit, although time was never ever a factor in failing a testimony, since the game generously gives you 12 minutes to figure it out.  To find contradictions, the player needs to shoot a bullet that contains a statement at the correct piece of highlighted text. These gold words highlight the importance of a statement, so you’re often looking at three to five of them at a time. This also means that finding the correct result isn’t all that challenging. It’s not like Phoenix Wright, where in that game you don’t really have a clue what to press and sometimes you take a guess. In DanganRonpa, this limitation of words allows the game to run without much frustration.

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While the testimony gameplay is the best bit, there are three other snippets of gameplay that come up from time to time. A hangman-esque game is based on giving the player a word with missing letters, in which then the player has to shoot the right letter to fill in the missing blocks. It is extremely easy to do, as the word is always obvious to figure out and hitting the letters is never difficult. This is the same as the rhythm game, where tapping x is to the beat is required to build a combo, while pressing triangle when text appears on the screen highlights it, marking it ready to be destroyed with a press of X and taking life off the opponent who objected your statement. Square reloads the gun, again done on the beat to keep the combo going. It’s another easy mini-game.

Lastly, there is the comic book strip that requires the player to pick the right images to finish off what happened at the scene of the crime. If you have been following the case, then this is also rather easy to figure out, but it can be confuse at times, since the images aren’t always clear at what they are trying to represent. I feel all these additional games are included to make the gameplay different, rather than offer a challenge to irritate the player. At least they are mindless fun and not an obstruction that spoils the experience of playing the game. If you win a trial, the murderer is sentence to death in some of the most bizarre of ways. Death shouldn’t be humorous, but some of these executions will make you chuckle – butter, anyone?

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As more trials are solved, more areas of the school open up, giving access to more areas to explore and hunt coins. There’s no real reason behind these new areas other than to act as new murder scenes for the next victim to be killed in. There are no mini-games to discover or any other aspects in these new rooms, but the students will begin to hang around those new areas, commenting on anything that seems interesting to them.

Voice acting is solid (both English and Japanese are included), with each character represented well; sounding like how I would expect them to. I do find it a bit weird that text outside of the courtroom doesn’t always have speech. It’s dumb (but funny) when the biker dude is talking about something and his sound cue is “piece of shit.” You’ll hear this often. I don’t understand why they didn’t just record all the text in the game after putting so much effort into having it all done for the courtroom action.

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The look of DanganRonpa is heavily based on Japanese anime, which looks great for the character portraits, but is weird when the player is exploring the rooms, as characters are presented as 2D cardboard cut-outs, almost like paper. It’s a bizarre style that sticks out like a sore thumb in an otherwise nice-looking game. DanganRonpa is also very colourful for a tale about death and betrayal, even the blood is fluorescent pink rather than deep red.

DanganRonpa: Trigger Happy Havoc is a welcome addition to the ever-growing library of great visual novel games for us Westerners. It combines the tone of Virtue’s Last Reward with the gameplay of Phoenix Wright rather well, yet manages to have its own style and personality. There’s no doubt that the story is the star of the show, with great characters and a gripping plot that has many twists and turns. Fans of adventure visual novels should without a doubt check DanganRonpa: Trigger Happy Havoc out, while showing support for the series to let Nippon Ichi know that we want the sequel to get the same deserved loving treatment.

8 out of 10