Psycho-Pass: Mandatory Happiness takes place in the same universe as the popular anime show, Psycho-Pass. Set in the year 2112, an always online system named Sybil is constantly monitoring the mental state of the entire population, and pointing out individuals who are psychologically likely to commit a crime in the future. As a consequence, crime rates have dropped to near zero, but undesirables are often tried and convicted without ever actually committing any crime.
Police work is a lot different in 2112. The government releases certain people who have been deemed likely to commit crimes by Sybil and gives them enforcer jobs within the Public Safety Bureau's Criminal Investigation Division. The enforcers are a natural fit for the leg work in tracking down potential criminals because they can, theoretically, think like criminals. You can't just release a bunch of potential villains onto the streets, though, since they could lose their way and end up turning to crime themselves, so that's where the inspectors come in. Inspectors oversee enforcers by directing them when necessary, and stepping in if their mental states start to deteriorate.
At the beginning of the game you're asked to pick which character you'd like to play as. There's Nadeshiko Kugatachi – a female inspector for CID who lost all of her memories in an accident but still, inexplicably, has kept her job on the force – and Takuma Tsurugi, who became an enforcer for CID hoping to one day find his long-missing childhood friend.
Even for a visual novel game, Psycho-Pass: Mandatory Happiness is a fairly pedestrian affair. If we were breaking this review down into sections, then the one devoted to gameplay would say "Press X to continue" and little else. That's basically your lot. Somebody says something, and then once you've finished reading it you press X to see the next line of dialogue. You can even change the settings so that the game does this for you automatically if you're one of those people for whom moving your thumb slightly every ten seconds or so is a little too much effort.
Where other games in the genre like Danganronpa or Virtue's Last Reward throw puzzles or action sections at you to spice things up from time to time, Mandatory Happiness gets no spicier than occasionally asking you to press the d-pad up or down to make a decision before going right back to pressing X to continue. Psycho-Pass: Mandatory Happiness is a game that will live and die by its story.
Fortunately, the story of the game has a lot going for it. The setting, and the Sybil system that watches over the populace, raises some important ethical questions that are worthy of debate. There are few criminals in the world of Psycho-Pass, so the system is obviously working in cleaning up the streets, but arresting and locking people up before they've actually committed a crime is a troubling concept, and one that should become more troubling for you as you play through the game and deal with these "criminals" face to face.
There are a number of cases that you'll work on, and whether you pick the inspector or the enforcer, they'll play out largely the same. It's not the outcome of the investigations that will be affected by the choices that you make necessarily, but rather how you fit into the story and what you learn from it. Choosing to pursue one path or another might yield information that will make you sympathise with a character more or less, and that in turn will affect your own psyche, and ultimately, how much you'll learn about your own character's mystery.
What links the cases together is an over-arching story involving a villain named Alpha. Alpha is by far the most interesting character in the game, and a surprisingly thought provoking villain since his motive is to make people happy. While what he's doing is criminal in nature, his ultimate goal of enriching people's lives – even if he's doing it for not entirely altruistic reasons – makes him a thoroughly intriguing character. His role as the antagonist of this story raises some provocative questions pertaining to morality, justice, and utilitarianism, with a case to be made as to whether Alpha should even be considered the villain of the piece at all.
The story of Psycho-Pass: Mandatory Happiness, as compelling as it may be, is hampered somewhat by presentation issues. Most of the time you'll be sat looking at a static image while dialogue is spoken in Japanese and the English translation pops up on screen. While reading subtitles is nothing new, particularly if you're already aware of the Psycho-Pass anime, the occasionally poor translation and the lacklustre still images you'll spend a lot of your time looking at aren't what a story as interesting as this deserves.
Even if you haven't seen the Psycho-Pass television series before, Mandatory Happiness does a good enough job of making it clear what's going on to be enjoyable. It tells an engaging and thought-provoking story that deals with some heavyweight and uncomfortable subjects, and one that poses plenty of ethical dilemmas along the way. If you can get past the borderline non-existent gameplay then the narrative will probably keep you entertained for a dozen hours or so, although it may leave you wondering if this story would have been better told over a few episodes of the anime instead.