The concept of high schoolers trapped in a murderous locked-room mystery isn’t anything new; from Battle Royale through Drifting Classroom, the plot is so old that it’s even starting to attract parodies, such as Persona 4 Arena’s story mode. So, you can imagine that at first blush, Danganronpa (or Trigger Happy Havoc, as NIS has localized the title) doesn’t sound like it’s a terribly original game. Then again, tremendous fan outcry leading to a fan-translation which practically forced an “official” localization isn’t new, either (see: Cave Story for starters). In pretty much all of those cases, though, it’s been warranted.
Makoto Naegi is a student selected at random to attend the prestigious Hope’s Peak Academy, as the so-called “Ultimate Lucky Student”. Hope’s Peak is attended exclusively by students who have reached the pinnacle of their respective talents, from Mondo Owada (Ultimate Delinquent) to Sayaka Maizono (Ultimate Pop Idol). Unfortunately for all fifteen of these exceptional kids, as soon as they set foot in the school they’re knocked unconscious and transported to a twisted, sealed-off version of the academy. There, they’re greeted by the adorably psychotic Monokuma, who tells them that they can never leave the school again. The only way out is to commit the perfect murder: if a student can kill another and leave no traces behind as to who did it for the remainder to figure out, that student will go free— and the rest will die. But, if the murderer is discovered, they will die for having committed murder, and the rest live on to fight another day.
Serving as a delightfully unhinged cross between Ace Attorney, Tokimeki Memorial, Final Fantasy Theatrhythm, and a David Lynch movie, Danganronpa puts players in Makoto’s hoodie as they try to get through the bloodbath unharmed. Most of the game is spent in the investigation mode, where you travel throughout Hope’s Peak Academy looking for clues to the murder du jour. This plays out like your standard point-and-click adventure game, with a few conveniences to prevent pixel-hunting from creating unnecessary frustration. Once you’ve collected all of the clues, you’re whisked away to the trial phase of the game, where you engage in a series of mini-games that literally blast holes in your classmates’ arguments. Like Ace Attorney, you’re permitted a handful of mistakes, dressed up as your “integrity” meter: go too far off the rails and the class quits listening to you, and it’s game over. In between the cases, you have periods of free time where you can hang out with the surviving students, give them gifts, and learn more about them that can make each of the murders to follow hurt that much more.
As stated above, the game came to the attention of most North Americans through a Let’s Play series, wherein viewers became enamored with the characters and story. And for good reason: the plots are very well-written, and the characters instantly likable (when they’re supposed to be). When I said the murders would hurt, I meant it. The first couple of them are absolutely brutal and out of the blue, and happen to characters you’ve probably got a little bit of an attachment to even that early in the game. The murders are suitably complex, too; while you’ll probably figure out the killer in the first case way too quickly, there is a layer of intrigue to the proceedings that makes it far more than it appears.
The excellent voice acting helps, but the fact that only the trial phases are fully voiced hurts the immersion overall: outside of trials, most everyone only has a handful of randomized voice snippets to utilize, and they get annoying fast, aside from the rare lines where the voice is reading the text verbatim. Still, even in the limited lines, everyone puts real emotion into their acting, and the whole thing just kinda works. The music is catchy, but ultimately nothing to really get overly excited over.
Danganronpa started life as a PSP game, but North America got the Vita re-release. The graphics are stellar, with virtually no chunkiness in the hand-drawn portraits and gorgeous 3D sets. Probably as an artifact of the PSP, however, characters appear as 2D “cardboard cutouts” in the investigation scenes, which is very jarring as the camera can be manipulated to get at hidden clues. Still, that’s a very minor flaw in the big picture; the whole visual package just works, and there’s a very self-aware 8-bit aesthetic in use for signs and certain cutscenes.
Overall, I can’t recommend this game highly enough, especially if you liked Spike Chunsoft’s other works, such as Virtue’s Last Reward (the achievements even have some subtle nods to that game). Equally hilarious and horrifying, Danganronpa is not to be missed. I place it at Fifth Gear (on our scale out of six).