Killing high schoolers has never been so much fun!
Murder mysteries are an often neglected part of video game design space. Whereas books, movies, and tv series have seen great success with that theme, games have generally avoided it due to the lack of obvious gameplay. Those that have tried (Batman Arkham Asylum or L.A. Noire come to mind) have trouble making the investigatory process interesting as compared to the shooty/fighty bits of the rest of the game. Given the challenges of the past, it’s not surprising that the game that finally gets it right is the one that commits to being a detective. Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc succeeds because it knows exactly what kind of game it wants to be.
The story begins with Makoto Naegi attending the first day of high school at the ultra-exclusive Hope’s Peak Academy. He walks in, falls asleep, and wakes up to find the school has been shut off from the rest of the world. Stuck with him are his hyper talented classmates who are then informed by the sadistic murderbear Monokuma that the only way they can leave is by killing one of their classmates and getting away with it. The rest of the story focuses on the interaction between the characters as the bodies pile up and the desperation sets in. The set up creates a great deal of natural tension between the characters as they grapple with their desire to avoid killing (or being killed) while still wanting to escape. Each character feels more fleshed out than your standard anime archetype and the game explores their backstories as a way to both empathize with them and establish their motivations. The murder mystery style pushes the characters in interesting ways so much so that you’ll be sad to see them go. In between investigations, the player can hone in on characters they particularly enjoy and these mini vignettes fill out their personalities. Danganronpa’s character depth helps the player invest in the world and care about the outcome.
The interesting setup and strong characters would have been enough to carry the game, but the gameplay elements form a nice compliment. Danganronpa cycles through three sections: exposition, investigation, and trial. The first two, exposition and investigation, have the player walking around the world in a first person perspective interacting with people and objects. There’s more than a little walking simulator DNA here, but the perspective and dingy colors establish a haunting mood. The trial is the most interactive part. The player plays a serious of mini games designed to piece together clues found during the investigation phase. Most of the games get at the player’s understanding of the clues and how they fit together. For example, one mini game has the characters speaking. The player must select the right fact that counteracts a phrase being said. This isn’t the deepest gameplay and one of the minigames stumbles a bit, but it neatly includes the player in the business of figuring out the mystery. I occasionally felt confused about the answers, but they largely made sense.
…and that’s the strongest aspect of Danganronpa. If the game indulged in the leaps of logic endemic in many other Japanese series, the mysteries and solutions would have felt unsatisfying. Instead, developer Spike Chunsoft took the time to come up with logical solutions to its puzzles and understandable motivations for its characters. It makes sense in the way that good murder mysteries should. It rewards the incredible interest that its unique premise generates making the player want to continue to solve the overarching mystery of how everyone got into this mess in the first place. The only time it falters is at the end and, even then, that’s only for a piece of the big reveal. In all the ways that matter, Danganronpa nails it.
With Danganronpa 2 coming out on Steam (the series has primarily been Sony handhelds) in a couple of weeks, now is the ideal time to pick up the original. My only hesitation on recommending this game is the violence. While there is no gore, there is a great deal of blood and brutal deaths. If you’re okay with that, the intriguing mysteries, clever characters, and unique set up will grab you until the end.