Normal high school is tough but Hope’s Peak Academy in Spike Chunsoft’s Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc is murder for the students that want to graduate. In a game that takes a plot similar to the Saw movies and slaps a little Phoenix Wright Ace Attorney style gameplay on it, murder is the only way to graduate for the students. The world of Danganronpa is filled with tension as it builds an atmosphere around the constant uncertainty and sadistic despair. It might just be the ultimate whodunit.
Hope’s Peak Academy is the premier high school that seeks out the top students in their fields for the student body such as the Ultimate Baseball Star or Ultimate Novelist. Players enter the game and Hope’s Peak Academy as Makota Naegi, the Ultimate Lucky Student, due to Makota winning a raffle for enrollment but otherwise being completely average in all other ways. Unfortunately Makota might as well be the Ultimate Unlucky Student because as he crosses the threshold of the main hall he loses consciousness and awakens with 14 other new Ultimate students trapped in the locked down school.
The students are alerted to their trapped status by the ying-yang-ish Monokuma, an animatronic Two Face styled teddy bear. They are to live in the school for the rest of their lives unless they choose to graduate by murdering one of their fellow students. The caveat is that after every murder there will be a trial and the murderer (a.k.a. “the blackened”) must escape suspicion. If they get away with the murder than they graduate and all the other students are punished with execution but if accused they are punished while everyone else lives.
Danganronpa has different stages of gameplay in each chapter. The Daily Life portion allows players to explore the school in a first person perspective while inspecting objects and talking to people. What the game calls Free Time happens a couple of times each Daily Life portion and allows the player to build relationships with the student of their choice to unlock both more information and special skills to be used during the trial. At some point someone gets murdered and the Deadly Life portion starts. Deadly Life sends the player around the school to investigate the scenes of the crime ala the investigation in a Phoenix Wright title. Once all the evidence is gathered up, the students are summoned to the Class Trial portion of the chapter.
The trial is acted out as round table of witness stands where the students go over what they know and it is up to the player to use the evidence gathered to shoot down any falsities. The trial is split up into 4 different mini games with the occasional need to just select an dialog choice or piece of evidence.
The most used mini game is Nonstop Debates which has the player watching for weaknesses in the different students statements to literally shoot down with Truth Bullets. Epiphany Anagram displays letters that the player must shoot to spell out a word that is related to a piece of evidence needed. Climax Logic requires the player to build out a theory of how the crime was perpetrated by filling in the blank panels of a manga comic. These 3 games work extremely well with the flow of the game but the 4th and final game called Machine Gun Talk Battle feels completely out of place.
Machine Gun Talk Battle is a rhythm game where players tap a button or the screen in tempo with a spinning wheel in order to target all the gibberish coming out of the accused’s mouth. While still keeping in tempo, the player must then hit another button or portion of the screen to actually shoot down those phrases. It was an extremely frustrating experience to get through all of the trial up to that point perfectly only to lose because I don’t have very good rhythm especially when unexpected.
The art style of Danganronpa helps sell the atmosphere of uneasiness with the dissonance created by the mixture of 2D characters in a 3D world. Add in anime style cutscenes with over the top animations for the executions, Danganronpa is a world that is both attractive and creepy at the same time. Audio also plays a big part with the atmosphere thanks to a great soundtrack and top notch voice acting with a choice of English and Japanese audio. Outside of the class trials not all of the dialogue is voiced unfortunately and it can be a bit annoying to hear little canned pieces of speech completely different and shorter than what is on the screen.