Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc review: deadly combination

Game Info
Platform PS Vita
Publisher NIS America
Developer Spike
Release Date 2014-02-11

Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc mixes murder and play perfectly.

Equal parts social sim, murder mystery and courtroom thriller, Danganronpa kept me enthralled with concepts that felt fresh and familiar all at once. It pieces together a devilishly good story with characters that feel like individuals and mixed mechanics that play well together. Though built on violence, Danganronpa isn't strangled by its dark nature.

Danganronpa stars Makoto Naegi, a high school student preparing for his first day at Hope's Peak Academy — a school that only takes the best and brightest. At least, that's what they think, right up until Makoto and company are trapped in the school and forced to participate in a killing game. In order to escape, one must murder a fellow student without being discovered. Get caught and you'll be "punished" with death; get away with it, and everyone else is punished.

Danganronpa's mystery unfolds through very different yet equally engaging mechanics. During Daily Life sections, I roamed around the school and socialized with other students. There's a practical purpose for choosing to be friendly; as the relationship between Makoto and his classmates grows, you pick up new skills to use later in the game. The game's memorable cast makes the sim aspect all the more enjoyable. Deciding who to spend time with each day was a genuine challenge, and even Danganronpa's most irritating characters reveal redeeming qualities as the plot progresses.

Danganronpa isn't strangled by its dark nature

Getting close with students has a high potential for emotional turmoil when the game switches to Deadly Life. These segments occur after a murder has taken place, switching gears to detective-like gameplay. Picking apart crime scenes and questioning other students pulled me even deeper into the game's story, but not without some unnecessary handholding.

You can't leave specific areas until you've found all relevant clues, and the game provides redundant hints as to where to go next — when it doesn't just automatically take you there. Sometimes I would understand a clue well before the game would let me move on, which was frustrating. In one extreme case, I mentally pinpointed the guilty party five minutes after the murder — and still had to go around collecting clues.

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These minor annoyances are resolved in the game's trial segments, which justify digging up as much evidence as possible. Trials play out through a series of quirky minigames that are easy to get a handle on. Each level starts by picking apart discussions, which is accomplished by literally shooting down discrepancies or weak statements with "Truth Bullets." Occasionally I had to present evidence, or play a hangman-style game where you destroy letters to guess a phrase. A great rhythm-based minigame allowed me to verbally overpower the accused party, and in concluding arguments, I pieced together the murder through comic book panels. The variety on display in these segments keeps Danganronpa's trials from feeling repetitive, even as they put to use what you've figured out in prior investigations.

These minigames feel light-hearted, but that mood is immediately thrown off by the punishments that follow. Guilty parties are dragged away and subjected to bizarre, disturbing deaths. The satisfaction I felt for blazing through a trial with a high score was deadened by the graphic death sentence the guilty party received — a sentence that I'd helped deliver.

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Regarding gender

Danganronpa approaches its violent nature honestly and, for the most part, with good taste, but it fails to use that measure of restraint when presenting a character whose gender identity goes beyond traditional roles.

During one crime, the reveal of a character's genitalia is used as a shocking twist — a step that feels tacky and unnecessary. Furthermore, the other students in the game are quick to change their pronoun use in reference to that character with no questions asked. It's an unfortunate misstep that leaves a sour aftertaste during an otherwise enjoyable portion of the game.

While working on this review, I consulted an expert on gender and sexuality to discuss the character's representation at some length. With help, I reached the conclusion that I didn't have enough information to comprehend or understand the character's preferred identity. However, Danganronpa's handling of the situation remains troubling.

Punishment scenes reminded me that Danganronpa is built on brutality. But the game's shocking violence is paired with kooky antics in a way that somehow makes it digestible. The villainous Monokuma is a black-and-white teddy bear whose words teeter between mischievous and psychopathic in the same breath. Victims are always covered in hot pink blood sprays that make crime scenes look more like pop art parties than kill rooms. Even the sheer horror of being trapped in a school and forced to murder your friends is downplayed by the cheerful, chirpy tunes of the game's everyday music.

For every lighthearted gesture Danganronpa makes, it never mistakes death for something casual. I didn't have time to bond with everyone in the game — there were simply too many interesting characters to chose from — but each murder carried a dreadful weight. Every discovery was a surprise; every death, a strange rush of dread and relief as I learned the fates of those I'd grown close with.

Wrap Up:

Danganronpa is a fascinating exploration of everyone's dark side

Danganronpa is, hands-down, one of the strangest games I've ever played — and yet also one of the most enjoyable and thought-provoking. It plays with ideas I rarely get to explore in games: the desperation that drives people to kill, how quickly you'll betray your friends, loss and despair. I can't say that Danganronpa makes murder fun — but it weaves gripping gameplay and storytelling with an off-beat cast in a way that's absolutely to die for.

Danganronpa was reviewed using code provided by NIS America. You can read more about Polygon's ethics policy here.

About Polygon's Reviews
8 PS Vita
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