[This review will be triggery for ableist slurs and suicide and will have some spoilers regarding the above. Please read with caution.]
If you’re like me and you’re a fan of Japanese games; do you ever find yourself asking: “Why the heck did they decide to localize this game?” It’s pretty much a given that almost every Final Fantasy game is going to make it to North America nowadays, but every so often there’s a surprise localization of a game no one saw coming. Corpse Party is one that immediately comes to mind for me. I would never have thought that a game like that would make it over here.
Danganronpa is another game that I didn’t think would get a North American release. It wasn’t on anyone’s radar when the PSP version came out, so why would it come out on Vita? Luckily, I was wrong and this charming mashup of Virtue’s Last Reward, Phoenix Wright, and Persona 4 came to the West.
In Trigger Happy Havoc, you play as Makoto Naegi, an average high school student who was selected to attend the prestigious Hope’s Peak Academy, where the best and brightest of Japan’s high-school students gather. The other students are all “Ultimate” (in Japanese, Super High School Level) in their fields. There’s the Ultimate Pop Sensation, Ultimate Clairvoyant, and Ultimate Moral Compass, to name a few, but Makoto is unique in that he has no particular talent and was selected by a lottery, making him the Ultimate Lucky Student. When he arrives at the school, however, he’s knocked out and awakens inside a classroom with all the windows boarded up and no idea as to how he got there. Meeting up with the other students, the group encounters Monokuma, a giant bear who refers to himself as the Headmaster of Hope’s Peak, who tells the group that they must live the rest of their lives within the school, which will provide for their every need, or they can graduate, and by “graduate” he means “murder another student without getting caught”. If they are caught, the “blackened” as they are called is punished, but if the other students can’t identify the killer, they are punished, and the killer is allowed to leave the school, and by “punished”, he means “executed in a spectacularly gory fashion”.
The game is divided into three phases. In the “Daily Life” phase, you’ll spend time interacting with your fellow classmates and unlocking special abilities which will help you in the third phase. Basically, like Social Links if you’ve ever played the Persona games. When a murder happens, you enter the “Deadly Life” phase, where you investigate the scene of the crime, gathering evidence by examining certain points in the scene. If you’re in a hurry, you can press a button (triangle, I think?) to highlight everything that you can interact with in the area. When you’ve finished investigating and talking to students, you move into the game’s third phase: the Class Trial.
Remember how I said at the beginning that in order to graduate, a student needed to commit a murder and not get caught? This is the part about not getting caught. A class trial is basically a series of minigames aimed at ferreting out the guilty party. Discussions among the cast are very Ace Attorney-esque, requiring you to expose contradictions in your fellow students’ testimonies. Unlike in the Ace Attorney series, however, you contradict statements by shooting them with “Truth Bullets” containing certain pieces of evidence. The first trial starts off simply, but latter trials add more mechanics. You will also play a “hangman” style minigame and rhythm-based “bullet time battles” which are the closest thing this game has to boss fights. At the very end of the trial, there’s a special “Climax” mode, where you piece together what happened by correctly arranging the sequence of events in comic book style panels. By the way, most of what you do during these trials is on a timer. If you fail to provide a correct answer or run out of time, it hurts your credibility with the other students, and once your credibility drops to zero, it’s game over.
Graphically the game’s interface is basically the same one from Persona 4. The characters are all distinct. In general, I wouldn’t expect earth-shattering visuals. I really enjoyed the soundtrack, particularly the fast-paced music that plays during the debate portions of the class trials.
Although it gets very action-oriented during the trial sequences, Danganronpa is at it’s heart a visual novel, and so it’s important that the characters be interesting. Fortunately, Danganronpa has a strong cast of characters that are less stereotypical Japanese stock characters, and more stereotypes of people in their particular profession or field. The Ultimate Moral Compass, for example, is an upstanding Lawful Good character who feels it is his duty to make sure the other students follow the rules, the Ultimate Clairvoyant is always going on about Lemuria and vibrations, and the Ultimate Affluent Prodigy is an arrogant asshole. They’re all stereotyped to a degree but they also have hidden depths and, let’s not forget, a few of your new friends are secretly cold-blooded killers. It’s also peppered with plenty of humour, mostly, surprisingly enough, courtesy of Monokuma himself. For a diabolical mastermind, he manages to get involved in some very awkwardly hilarious scenarios. While some characters did irritate me, and others definitely grew on me, overall I found the cast very likeable. I loved how Aoi Asahina and Sakura Ogami bonded easily over a shared enthusiasm for athleticism or how Mondo Owada and Kiyotaka ishimaru bonded over a “manly” contest of endurance in a sauna (it makes sense in context). If you’re not careful you can get very attached to these characters, and that’s not a good idea, because there’s always a chance that that character will die horribly.
There were two things I really didn’t like about the game. The first is that the minigames, particularly the Bullet Time Battles, would frustratingly not register a button press when I was jamming on that button trying to get it to register. During one particular Bullet Time Battle, I had to restart about five times due to issues I was having with the minigame.
The other major issue that I had was with the localization. To give this complaint a little perspective, I actually watched some gameplay videos that used a fan translation of the game. I recall reading that NISA stated that they did not look at the fan translation while localizing the game, and, to be honest, I kind of wish they had taken some pointers from it (even though that would have probably been messy in terms of legalities). For instance, the team chose to change some of the names of the characters, Touko becomes Toko, Oogami becomes Ogami, etc. This in itself is not a big deal for me, although I was scratching my head as to why they chose to rename a serial killer “Genocide Jack” instead of just keeping it as “Syo” (or Shou). I understand the reference is to Jack the Ripper but to me the name change seemed unnecessary, but you know what? Names aren’t really why this is a negative for me. What I did find problematic was their use of the slur “Schizo” in reference to one of the characters, not only is it an ableist slur, but the individual in question actually has dissociative personality disorder, not schizophrenia, and this is something that the fan translation got right and could have easily been fixed with a second or two of internet research. I’m not saying that the translation was absolutely horrible, but I definitely think there were some poor choices made on the part of the team. The game is also as linear as linear gets. The killer in each scenario doesn’t change depending on your choices, so there’s really no reason to go back and play again unless you want to get all the free time scenes or special abilities. At times I found that I didn’t have a whole lot of time to interact with the characters much before the next murder. Fortunately, the game has a “School Mode” which is an alternate scenario where the students choose to live together in the school and you have time to catch up on conversations (as well as being a light strategy/sim game where you build different Monokumas using materials you find around the school, but I haven’t spent a lot of time with this mode as of this writing. Oh, and just to clear one thing up, the pink blood is actually there in the Japanese version. They changed it early on to avoid having to give the game a higher rating, so for once it’s not the result of North American censors. BTW, the English voice acting is pretty good but this is one game where I actually prefer the Japanese voices, although Makoto shouting “No, that’s wrong!” in any language would be satisfying every time.
In terms of potentially triggering content. Well, it’s essentially a murder mystery so there’s a lot of violence and death, and the executions pull no punches in this regard (but for the most part, they actually aren’t that gory–with a couple exceptions). There is a fair amount of blood but, as I said, it’s pink, so it looks more like that disgusting pink medicine. One of the trials involves a suicide, Also one character has some issues related to their gender and the pressure to act a certain way, which is in keeping with the stricter and more enforced nature of Japanese gender roles, but might be triggering for folks who have to deal with similar issues.
These issues aside, I enjoyed Danganronpa and I can’t wait for the sequel to ship and I honestly have no idea why I didn’t order it sooner. If you like a good mystery, especially if you’re a fan of games like Virtue’s Last Reward and Ace Attorney with a look that is closer to the recent Persona games, you should definitely give this one a look.