Developer: Spike Chunsoft
Publisher: NIS America
Platform: PC (Steam)
Danganronpa was reviewed due to a code received from the publisher, NIS America.
Danganronpa does something truly fascinating. It features such brutality mixed with utterly goofy antics spliced with various genres including social sims, murder mystery along with a bit of Phoenix Wright courtroom drama for good measure. If this is how good visual novels can be then it should come as no surprise that more titles are making their way across the ocean.
I’ll fully admit to being entirely new to Visual Novels. It is an oddity considering how many video games from Japanese developers I play in a given year or how much anime I plow through in any given month. It was a blind spot, for sure, but staff writer Nicole Seraphita’s guidance and, well, insistence to give Danganronpa a shot has resulted in my plunging in head-first into unknown waters. Mostly I am grateful for a game getting me back into the sort of intimate give and take that a genuinely compelling narrative in a video game can offer.
Brutality Meets Absurdity
The setup is simple. Makoto Naegi, the game’s main protagonist, is all set for his first day at Hope’s Peak Academy – a school for the absolute best and brightest in the country. It isn’t long, though, before the truth of the situation becomes apparent as Makoto and his other classmates are forced to participate in a game of life or death. The stakes are immediately raised and, at the helm of the insanity, a black-and-white bear by the name of Monokuma. Those involved can live within the confines of the school, but there’s only way out. A student can “graduate” from campus should they manage to not only murder a classmate but get away with it as well.
The social sim aspect becomes apparent quickly as Makoto navigates his way through a cast of characters that, while very much the typical archetypal anime sort, manage to provide surprises consistently thanks to superlative writing from Kazutaka Kodaka. Daily life within Hope’s Peak Academy consists of exploring the halls, visiting the dining hall and conversing with fellow students. The characters Makoto has to not only live with but hopefully make it out alive with are varied and consist of the “Ultimate” purveyors of their craft. Among the “dramatis personae” are Ultimate Martial Artist, Baseball Player, Fanfic Creator, Programmer, Gambler along with others. Eccentric characters all but they’re all well realized.
Days are spent learning more about classmates, spending time with them and gaining insight into their characters while also acquiring skill points that reward useful abilities for when things get grim. Daily Life gives way to Deadly Life as the baser instincts of humanity are put on display and, well, this is a killing game after all. People start to drop like flies fairly quickly, often in very abrupt and brutal ways. What sets this apart from bargain store murder mysteries? The motive, the emotion and the characterization present throughout sinks its hooks in and keeps on digging.
Bear Cross Philosophy
It is a strange thing to be hit with such a profound idea of considering despair and hope within the same breath, yet Danganronpa had me doing that for days as I worked my way through towards the ending which, I am so happy to report, absolutely sticks the landing. This game can easily draw comparisons to Capcom’s Ace Attorney series and, rightly so, as a series of locked room murders occur, and the player must take the guilty party to trial. Danganronpa is not shy about the mystery part, though, as each and every case had me walking into the Class Trial phase of each chapter with little to no idea of who had done the deed. The metaphorical gunfight, complete with Truth Bullets, which follows in these segments results in a dynamic experience that will likely make other visual novels look stale by comparison.
Monokuma, the school’s Headmaster, mascot and all-around convenient deus ex machina, is a walking contradiction. This strangely irresistible creature seeks to bring about despair in the students assembled and , thus, the Battle Royale setup looms large over the heads of those trapped within the walls of Hope’s Peak Academy. A cackle of “Puhuhuhuhuhu..” will often follow a slim nugget of hope being dished out only to be taken away mere minutes later. The two sides of the coin, hope, and despair, in varying measures are meted out by Monokuma brilliantly. It is so very “anime” but at the same time rather transcendent of its decidedly Japanese trappings. This is a story that could take place anywhere, really, and the setting is vague as each of the “Ultimates” come from all walks of life. It is, however, a tale of the extremes even the most rational of people will go to win their freedom, protect a secret, protect loved ones and then some that resides at the core. It is a fireball of a story that shows a surprising amount of restraint as it winds down, ends appropriately and doesn’t stumble like so many games often do in the homestretch.
Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc for PC/Mac/Steam OS is not only a fantastic port of a great game but another entry point into a genre that is surprisingly lively these days. The writing is superb thanks to Kodaka and his team. The gameplay is engaging as Class Trials are a fusion of pop art and disparate styles of games that merge well while the investigation/point-and-click meets social link system ala Persona provides plenty of reason to explore and experience every conversation possible. This isn’t just a great visual novel but a tremendous game that is worth exploring by even the uninitiated in the ways of anime and the like. Do yourself a favor and play this now.