Hope's Peak Academy: a social melting pot for Japan's best students, and home to a horrific killing game that provides teenagers with the motives for murder. This is Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc, a title that's part visual novel, part point-and-click adventure, and part courtroom craziness. But is this sinister scenario worth investigating, or should it be left to rot in a ditch? Let the trial begin.
You play as Makoto Naegi, a self-styled unashamedly average high school student who is admitted into the prestigious institute after winning a lottery. Because of his chance victory, our plain-looking hero is dubbed the 'Ultimate Lucky Student', and gets to attend classes along with the likes of the 'Ultimate Martial Artist' and the 'Ultimate Affluent Progeny', titles that immediately add a layer of personality to the characters involved in this twisted tale.
Makoto's colourful classmates all follow some sort of stereotype: the mysterious Celestia Ludenburg, for example, is a cold-hearted girl who adores gothic lolita fashion, while the ditzy 'Ultimate Swimmer' Aoi Asahina is a buxom young woman who's far too naïve for her own good. However, just because the personalities involved adhere to a certain predictable foundation doesn't mean that they remain this way throughout. As the plot progresses, you'll slowly begin to understand your fellow students better, gaining insight into their hopes, dreams, and background due to a slew of often comical interactions with each member of the cast.
Whether you're casually chatting or accusing someone of bloody murder, the teens prove to be well-realised and endearing characters, their wildly varied attributes keeping you constantly guessing as to who is and who isn't an enemy. To top it off, the story itself has so many twists and turns that it's hard not to become utterly engrossed in what's happening within the walls of Hope's Peak – it's safe to say that between the crazy cast and the sizzling storyline, the release is one of the most addictive, engaging titles on Sony's handheld console.
It's also very well paced, as a mixture of several different styles of gameplay keep proceedings chugging along without things becoming tedious or boring. Just when it seems like you might be spending a tad too much time reading through reams of dialogue, you'll be thrown into an investigative situation, or be forced into a tense courtroom showdown. As such, the game is essentially split into three main avenues of gameplay: exploration, investigation, and class trials. The first and second generally revolve around visiting various areas of the academy and either consulting with an associate or gathering clues, while the latter attempts to put a whole new spin on heated courtroom debates.
This is where the 'Trigger Happy Havoc' part of the title comes into play. Standing in a circle, Makoto and his surviving classmates must decide who the most recent murder's culprit is. If they vote for the correct psychopath, then everyone but the doomed killer gets to continue their school lives – well, at least until another foul deed is committed. Voting for an innocent party, however, means that the murderer 'graduates', and gets off scot-free, while everyone else is brutally executed by the maniacal Monokuma, a small robotic bear that oversees the events of the killing game. Alas, working your way to the right conclusion is easier said than done, as you'll have to load the evidence that you've gathered into a hypothetical gun, and shoot down any opposing arguments, highlighting their inconsistencies in regards to the case.
Actually finding said evidence is a relatively easy process as it's not possible to make a mistake. Try to leave an area while there's still something that you should check, and our typical teenager will comment on how he isn't quite finished yet. A handy map also points out exactly where you should be going to gather information, so freely exploring Hope's Peak from a first-person view isn't quite as enlightening as you may initially think. This rather linear structure keeps things ticking along and ensures that you don't get caught up in trying to uncover secrets that don't matter or don't actually exist, but at the same time it downplays the title's emphasis on discovery – especially since the selected students are all eager to find a way to escape from the deadly campus.
In contrast, the class trials themselves are laden with insane action that brings each murder – and subsequent story arc – to a brilliant climax. The release takes on the form of an incredibly strange shooter, where you're tasked with firing your truth bullets – bundles of information that you've collected through prior investigation – at coloured lines of text that the other students spout. Hit the right statement with the right piece of contradicting evidence, and you'll successfully break the argument. Even if it sounds complex in writing, it's simple enough in practice – at least initially.
To start with, you'll only be handed one or two specific bits of ammunition, and matching them up with the corresponding lie is quite easy. For instance, a classmate may suggest that the victim wasn't killed with a blade, but you'll know all too well that the deceased was stabbed with a knife – and so you'll take aim at the dubious dialogue that you disagree with and fire your logic at it. But unsurprisingly, shooting down people's points becomes increasingly difficult as the game progresses. In time, you'll have to aim your shots through lines of white noise and make sure to reload your hypothetical weapon, all while pressing L to sift through your available truth bullets. As if that doesn't sound demanding enough, all of your actions are timed, and Makoto has a health bar which is depleted every time that you try to snipe the wrong comment.
That's not to say that you're without any tricks of your own, though. Holding down R activates the focus gauge and allows you to slow time so that you can hit your targets a little easier, and if you're not keen on shifting your reticule with an analog stick, you can simply tap where you want to let loose using the Vita's accurate touch screen. Meanwhile, if you're here primarily for the visual novel side of things, you can make use of the 'gentle' difficulty, which removes white noise, the need to reload, and limits the number of truths at your disposal so that you've got less chance of choosing a red herring.
However, regardless of difficulty setting, class trials prove to be scarily intense scenarios that can sometimes last over an hour as quarrels erupt between opposing high schoolers, although not all of this time is spent blowing away statements with an imaginary revolver. Between lengthy bouts of conversation, you'll also need to present evidence when asked or provoked, and answer multiple choice questions based on your knowledge of the case. Thankfully, wrapping your head around the circumstances of each murder feels like a natural process, thanks to well written dialogue, and, as we previously mentioned, great narrative pacing. Because of this, you'll feel positively giddy when you crack a case wide open, and dreaming up your own theories on who enacted the heinous crime almost becomes impossible to avoid.
That said, there are times when you'll think too far ahead. At multiple points during this 20-hour tale, we had already figured out the details of some scenarios for ourselves, but were forced to watch the characters involved stumble around blindly. It's all to keep the plot connected, of course, but watching Makoto take a verbal beating for not figuring something out earlier – even when you had caught on hours ago – is frustrating nonetheless. The opposite is true of some of the trials' truth bullets. At times, the contradictions that you're expected to uncover are so vague that you won't catch on until you've exhausted many of your options. Whether this is down to awkward Japanese-to-English translation or pure difficulty is up for debate, though.
Nevertheless, you won't stay mad at Danganronpa for long due to its nicely crafted visuals. The title's art style may appear slightly generic, but its quirks, broad colour palette, and emotive character portraits get the job done admirably. Animated cutscenes look great in particular, as they take on a pop-up book-like appearance but still manage to maintain the sinister atmosphere that pervades the rest of the game. Speaking of which, the title as a whole balances the undoubtedly oppressive feel of the academy with happy social bonding shockingly well. Sometimes you'll be given the option to spend your free time with other students, and doing so adds new pages to their profiles that are available for perusal on your personal handbook, a digital guide that acts as the release's pause menu. Outside of often comical and revealing conversations, you can even gift your company with a present to spur them into talking. The desirable items in question are won through a capsule machine that sits on the first floor of Hope's Peak, and are purchased with Monokuma-branded coins that are found by clicking on seemingly useless objects.
In addition, building relationships with each classmate grants Makoto access to various passive skills which can be equipped for use during class trials. Some may increase your focus gauge, while others steady your aim. To get the best ones on offer, though, you'll need to form tight friendships, which sadly isn't likely to happen due to the constant killings, so if you're looking to fill all of your handbook's tantalising pages, you'll need to play through the game several times.
But perhaps that's not as much of a chore as it sounds. Holding down circle allows you to skip through dialogue quickly, and you can also select each separate chapter from the main menu. The outcome of the plot or the various cases never changes, but there are certain rewards to be gained for completing each trial without losing any health, for example. It also helps that the title's soundtrack is absolutely infectious. Much like the tunes that you'd find in Persona 4 Golden, these poppy electronic beats are agonisingly catchy, and provide the perfect backdrop for every situation, whether you're casually walking through the school's halls or taking part in a ferocious verbal duel. Likewise, the voice work is of a similar quality. Featuring both English and Japanese tracks, both sets of actors do a great job of playing their parts, with English standouts including the hilarious bumbling fortune teller Yasuhiro Hagakure and the creepy self-loathing author Toko Fukawa.
Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc's biggest mystery is deducing how to put the game down. Featuring a colourful collection of memorable characters, some sweat-inducing gameplay, and a narrative that has more twists than a Hollyoaks omnibus, Spike Chunsoft's bloody tale of high school life will keep you engrossed from start to finish. We find the defendant guilty of murdering our free time.