Kidnapped, placed in a strange locale with equally strange people, and forced to participate in a game of life and death. This might sound familiar, especially to any fan of Spike Chunsoftís Zero Escape series. In Danganronpaís case, the premise isnít the only thing shared with other franchises. In fact, many have called it a combination of Persona, Ace Attorney, and Zero Escape. Those people are 100% correct, but while having multiple influences can be seen as lazy, Danganronpa has a perverse take on each one.
As Makoto Naegi, you begin on the first day at a new school. Makoto is average in every conceivable way, and is therefore shocked to find out he had been accepted to Hopeís Peak Academy, a school for the best and brightest in all of Japan. But, of course, his luck runs out as soon he steps in the door. Alongside 14 others, Makoto gets straight-upabducted and finds himself playing a deadly game at the behest of a talking stuffed bear named Monokuma. The teens have two options: 1) live a communal life trapped inside the walls of the school until the end of their days, or 2) get away with murder and "graduate" back into the outside world.
While undeniably a visual novel at heart, thereís more to gameplay than simply making a few choices in a sea of dialogue. The day-to-day life section is where the expected visual novel aspects emerge, and during the free time period youíre allowed to wander at your leisure. Ideally, this is when you get to know your "classmates," because the better friends you are, the more skills youíll have unlocked for the class trials. Class trials take place after a murder. Naturally.
In terms of gameplay, this is where Danganronpa excels. Investigations are straightforward; they consist mostly of exploring, finding evidence, and conducting interviews. Once you're ready, court is in session and the class has to convict "The Blackened" or else theyíll be executed ó while the murderer walks free. Most trials proceed in an unpredictable fashion. Youíll have your suspicions, but just as soon as you think youíve got it pegged, the whole thing just gets twisted.
During the trial, youíll partake in several mini-games. Non-stop debates are times where youíll have several "truth bullets" ó pieces of evidence ó and youíll have to shoot the incorrect phrases. Difficulty makes a big impact here. The higher the challenge, the more potential truth bullets youíll have. The thing is, only one of them matches with a single specific phrase. What it comes down to is a detectiveís mind. Pay close attention and you shouldnít have too much trouble.
Thereís also Hangmanís Dilemma ó yes, the elementary school game ó and scene reconstruction where you place comic panels in the right sequence to properly map out the crime. "Moment of Truth" is the only mixed bag. Occasionally appearing at points where the person in question is undeniably wrong about a piece of evidence, the only defense they provide is name-calling. Logically, failure should be a non-factor in the outcome, but if you do misstep, you lose the faith of your peers and are instantly convicted for contrived reasons. Other than the strange narrative justification, itís the best and most challenging of the bunch, as the combination of intense music and rhythmic gameplay get the heart pumping.
Upon conviction, "The Blackened" is subjected to a personalized, grandiose execution, courtesy of disturbingly beautiful cut-scenes. There's something lovably demented about how over-the-top the violence is, and all without being too gory. The dark and highly contrasted coloring of the nightmarish scenario designs play up the sense of dread. In these moments, hope and despair hang delicately in the balance; each murder feels so personal and soul-crushing. When the killer is convicted, vengeful justice is overwhelming. You should be happy, right? Well, not necessarily. Once the final details are revealed minutes before a brutal death, I often experienced a tidal wave of empathy. Given the circumstances, if you were in the position, you couldn't guarantee you wouldn't do the same thing. The longer the game goes on, the more betrayal and death surround the victimís of Monokuma, and this creates a vortex of inescapable despair. Understandably, risks are then taken.
The major themes ó despair and hope ó not only inhabit the narrative; they're also present in the visual design. Take a gander at Monkuma, for instance. The half-white, half-black teddy bear. Or perhaps the Hopeís Peak itself. At first glance, itís a school / mansion for the highly affluent. On closer examination, the windows are blocked off by steel plating, and the maze-like layout symbolizes something sinister. This intelligent design ensures the story isnít plopped down in an average or inappropriate setting. Everything around you only serves to further drive home the themes at play. In other words, you'd better get used to them. Danganronpa is a manipulative vixen, capable of extracting tears of joy and then rubbing the mangled remains of your closest friend in your face, just for shits and giggles. During the lulls, you somewhat unwillingly befriend the others, only to suffer the one possible outcome of trusting a stranger in this whacked-out school.
Despite what some would believe, tropes are not always a bad thing. Many great pieces of fiction actually embrace genre faults to heighten the value of what surrounds them. An anime art syle, a high-school setting, and typical Japanese archetypes do the trick. How they are manipulated ó or not manipulated ó is mostly in the hands of the cast. Darker moments are mixed with lightness; comedic relief isnít kept to a few sparse scenes. Despite the grave situation, many do their best to hold on to some semblance of sanity. The one issue with this is a sort of narrative balance. When one of the walking talking jokes is murdered, the humor shines through a little too much, creating a dissonance between the dialogue and morbidity.
In the reviews which have already hit, Danganronpa has rounded up at least a couple accusations of sexism and transphobia. However, itís important to be able to make a clear distinction between sexist characters and sexist overtones. Danganronpa has a bit of both. High school kids arenít exactly the compass of good morality, so the occasional remark can be chalked up to personality. And thatís a good thing. Itís only natural to have a cast of varied views. Most of it is fairly tame, like a bad "make me a sandwich" joke.
Though when the only obvious female cast member who isnít portrayed as physically inferior to the males is not only brutish but conventionally unattractive by a holistic societal approach, you have to wonder about the views of the creators.
When my 30 hours with Danganronpa were up, I only wanted more, and not just because of a Godzilla-sized cliffhanger. I yearned to go back to those first couple hours before the killing started and just soak in the characterizations. Give me a nonsensical spin-off set in an alternate and non-violent high school, entirely focused on relationship building. Please give me that. Even Monokuma, with his black humor contrasted against his teddy bear physique, was enjoyably deranged. I daresay heís the best villain in quite some time.
Borrowing from many ó but truly emulating few ó Daganronpa doesnít top Persona's relationships or Zero Escape's complex / morally ambiguous narrative. It does, however, mash concepts together with terrifically terrifying results. Properly incorporating music, art style, level design, story, and gameplay into one cohesive package in a way that few games truly realize. Danganronpa fires on all blood-soaked cylinders, and is an enthralling experience from top to bottom.
Iím the sort of guy who gets a kick out of yearly top 10 lists and GOTY discussions. That said, Iím confident Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc wonít be left off my end of the year list. I donít doubt itís a niche game, but if you like the idea of Persona, Zero Escape, and Ace Attorney being jammed into a schizophrenic visual novel / adventure game, be sure to drop some dead presidents as soon as humanly possible.
This review was originally posted on Plus10Damage.com