Dangan Ronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc ReviewOmar Elaasar
A prestigious academy. A class of the ultimate students. An evil mastermind and an unexplainable situation with more questions than answers. All the ingredients are present for a grand mystery. Welcome to Hope's Peak Academy, the unfortunately named high school where Dangan Ronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc takes place.
A game in the spirit of the Zero Escape series (999, Virtue's Last Reward), Dangan Ronpa is a mystery that takes place in a "locked room" scenario. You and your classmates are locked in Hope's Peak Academy by the evil mastermind, Monokuma, a psychotic bear avatar who plays upon the insecurities and desires of your classmates to ultimately turn them upon each other. This essentially sets up a game of death to push the character's to their psychological breaking points. It's your duty to then unwrap the mystery of the school and the mastermind, solving a deadly string of murder cases along the way.
Dangan Ronpa takes place in three phases: Daily Life, Deadly Life, and the Class Trial. During the Daily Life phase you'll explore the school, uncover new information, and get to know your schoolmates. This fleshes out each person's backstory and gives you an opportunity to earn new skills to use during the trials. Inevitably, conflict will occur and a classmate will fall victim to a vicious murder. So Deadly Life begins. Here you'll be tasked with gathering clues about the situation, which become "Truth Bullets" that will be using during arguments in the class trial.
Often you'll not be able to form a complete picture of what transpired until you begin the trial phase and begin to talk to your classmates about it. Part of this is a bit of sleight of hand on the side of the writers. You won't be given enough information to logically link all the clues together before the trial. At best you'll have a few vague theories, but nothing concrete. Dangan Ronpa is neck deep in plot twists as well. From the very first case it isn't afraid to show you that it will be moving into the realm of the strange and outlandish. This most be the most far reaching thriller since Ghost Trick on the Nintendo DS. It's an interesting and tense approach, supported by a host of varied mechanics augmenting the argument and logic challenges of the story.
The meat of the game occurs during these trial portions, where classmates' statements scroll across the screen as they are performed. Here you'll target certain weakness and fire the appropriate Truth Bullets at them to point contradictions. There's generally no penalty for allowing these statements by other than running out a bit of your total time allowed for the trial. Most of the time you'll actually be better served letting the whole conversation play out, since there will be several red herrings to throw you off.
As the story progresses more elements are added to complicate matters, forcing you to rotate through several Truth Bullets to find one to match the contradictions, push out the noise preventing you from hitting with your Bullets or play a simple rhythm game or recreate the events of the case comic book style to drive a point home. The mechanics ratchet up the tension and prevent the game from suffering through the same problems that often make visual novel style games feel like multiple choice quizzes.
On occasion the system does stumble upon itself. Later in the game a mechanic is introduced where you pick out a statement and use it as a Truth Bullet to attack a contradiction. Often you'll actually have to allow them to speak, then let the conversation replay and use the statement against an earlier contradiction. While the rest of the game mimics the flow of conversation and logic and well, moments like this, or when the game presents you with similar logic flaws and becomes picky about which one is "correct" require you to stop using traditional logic and instead exploit videogame logic to succeed.
These moments stick out (along with hiccups such as the comic book scenes being in traditional Japanese right to left format) mostly because the rest of the game is so expertly produced and presented. The art cribs from from a variety of of styles, appropriating an off kilter anime aesthetic, pixel art, dynamic and rough mystery scenes, and 3D environments that feel lifted from an early PS2 dungeon crawler. Flourishes such as the paper cutout placement of the characters and the way objects drop into a set upon entering make sure that while you'll never mistake this for a high budget animated production you will appreciate the care put into the production values. Boosted by a superb soundtrack by Masafumi Takada (composer on Killer 7, No More Heroes, Kid Icarus: Uprising), Dangan Ronpa gives of a very slick and tense atmosphere. The few moments of animation, presented in a similar paper doll style movement, feel a bit over the top even in comparison to the rest of the game, clashing with the gravitas the game tries to present by creating a temporary world of cartoon violence that feels at odd with the horrific violence that is otherwise on display.
Dangan Ronpa also gets caught up in its own absurd logic at times, opting to deliver plot twists instead of maintaining consistency. A few character arcs become throwaway, abruptly ending for similar reasons. Despite that once the story built up enough momentum it dragged me into it's own insane logic and pushed me to keep playing in order to get to the next revelation. Stumbles aside, there's something quite compelling behind the story and world of Dangan Ronpa, and I'm looking forward to seeing more of it when the sequel comes stateside later this year.
Disclosure: We are provided copies of games from the game companies for some games that we review.
Omar Elaasar is an hobbyist artist, writer, and game developer, and is dedicated to playing obscure games in order to maintain his status as a most pretentious hipster.
About the Author: Omar Elaasar
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