Uh, I got nothing. Pretend this is a quippy and humorous remark about the rising prevalence of high-schooler-on-high-schooler violence in entertainment, with clever references to things like Battle Royale and The Hunger Games. After all, levity is important every now and again. So, now that we’re all mentally limbered up, let’s dive in.
As always, the review is provided in video format and transcribed directly below.
I went into Danganronpa with practically no expectations. I’d heard it was good, I was visually familiar with the Monokuma character, and I knew that trials were involved in some way, but beyond that... not much else. So I popped in the game one day, not really sure what to expect. After a few hours, I realized I was in for a dark, cruel tale, one of murder, mystery and, perhaps most importantly of all, despair. What a cheery note to start on.
Hope’s Peak Academy is an elite high school that accepts only the best of the best, the “ultimates” in their respective fields. I mean this quite literally, because every student has the title of “The Ultimate [blank]”, be it the Ultimate Programmer, the Ultimate Pop Sensation, the Ultimate Martial Artist, or the Ultimate Lucky Student. Coincidentally, you take the role of that last one, as Makoto Naegi. You got into Hope Peak’s by sheer luck. Your name was picked by lottery, because the administrators for some reason would like to afford a normal student the opportunity to attend such a prestigious establishment. Makoto enters Hope’s Peak on his first day, and immediately loses consciousness. After waking up, he discovers that all exits out of the school (including the windows) have been bolted shut. Makoto quickly realizes that he is not alone, having been trapped inside with fourteen other students, who are all colorful characters in their own right. Of course, the fellow hostages report experiencing the exact same series of events.
Before long, the group is approached by Monokuma, a black and white talking teddy bear (or robot, whatever). Monokuma informs them that, while all their needs will be provided for here in the school, escape from Hope’s Peak is quite impossible, given one exception: if any student kills another, the murderer will be free to leave. Naturally, that’s not all. After a hypothetical murder, the whole “class” partakes in a trial, in hopes of identifying the guilty party. Should they finger the wrong suspect, everyone but the actual murderer will be executed, and the killer sent on their merry way. On the other hand, if the identity of the murderer is correctly deduced, only they will be executed, and everyone else will continue to live inside the school. Obviously, the students are outraged. Some curse and yell at Monokuma, while others insist it’s a joke, a kind of entrance exam. Unanimously, they all agree that no one will be murdering anyone. But that wouldn’t make this much of a video game, so as the days tick by, it isn’t long before a corpse turns up, and then another, and another, and another.
The meat of the game is the murder investigations and subsequent trials, which basically take the form of a free-for-all debate where everyone is a suspect and anyone is free to present evidence. Unsurprisingly, along with their linked executions (which I’ll get to in a minute), the trials are the highlight of Danganronpa. It’s a format that’s similar to Ace Attorney, if a little more restricted. You present your argument through a minigame that involves shooting conversational statements with your “truth bullets”, that is, contradictory pieces of evidence.
There are other minigame variants as well, such as a rhythm based game (when someone just won’t listen to reason) and a motion comic that the player pieces together at the end of each trial. The exact path each trial takes varies on a case by case basis. Sometimes you’re trying to puzzle out the identity of the killer from a list of suspects, other times you’re pressing a specific suspect until they slip up and reveal their hand, but let it be known that, by the end of any trial, the result is rarely what you would expect (barring one notable exception, being the game’s first murder).
With such a heavy premise, it would be disappointing if Danganronpa didn’t deliver with gratuitous death and brutality. After all’s said and done, I can sit back and say that I was not disappointed. The murder scenes are as bloody and graphic as called for by the situation, but the peak of Danganronpa’s violence is the post-trial executions of the convicted parties. Every murderer gets their comeuppance in a vicious, cringe-inducing and usually thematic manner.
Now, some executions are better than others (the first in particular threw me for a loop with its sheer ferocity), but all of them are among Danganronpa’s most memorable scenes. However, while I had no problem with this, it is something of a double edged sword if you’re too squeamish around death and more death.
Of course, Danganronpa’s cast would need to be large enough to accommodate the regular drops in population. Including Makoto, fifteen students have been locked in Hope’s Peak. While this isn’t ludicrously big, it’s not a small number either, and at the time I was a little worried about keeping everyone straight. There is some “wait, who is he again?” at first, but the game’s effective at giving everyone distinctive looks and personalities.
Doing the math, fifteen students gives room for several pairs of victim and murderer before the game runs out of characters, meaning that many of them are fleshed out to a reasonable extent. Similar to Persona’s Social Link system, the player can walk around between cases and spend his time getting to know the other trapped students. All are characterized pretty accurately by their “Ultimate” titles, some being more complex than others, but no one manages to feel completely flat. Obviously, the repeated survivors get more scenes and stronger development simply because they are alive for a longer period of time, but Danganronpa makes do with what it has and it comes out pretty well.
The standout character that everyone would remember, though, is not a student. Rather, he is the students’ overseer, Monokuma. Putting aside a pretty great musical number that accompanies his appearances, Monokuma is single-minded but entertaining, jovial but unsettling. Sometimes he acts like a strict but surprisingly normal headmaster, then at the flip of a switch his eccentricities start to bloom. Making light of horrific moments, encouraging the kids to squabble amongst each other, all while pulling the strings and trying to push his little game towards its preferred conclusion. There’s a method to his madness, and he makes sure to uphold the rules that he himself has put down. He even aids the murder investigations, in a way, by providing body discovery announcements, autopsy reports and general hints. But make no mistake, Monokuma is not an ally.
Danganronpa largely focuses on the school’s whodunit murder mysteries, but there’s more to the story. Bigger questions like “Who (or what) is Monokuma?”, “Why have the students been trapped here?” and just generally “What exactly is happening?” plague the narrative as it progresses, and become a focal point of the final trials. This makes for an intriguing double dose of mystery and conspiracy, with the grounded and fairly self-contained investigations plus the big picture controversies combining to create a constant atmosphere of tension and uncertainty. Even when you know what’s going on… do you really? The slow trail of information breadcrumbs constantly changes the plot landscape, keeping you guessing practically until Danganronpa’s conclusion.
Previously, I’d favorably compared Danganronpa’s trials to Ace Attorney, another game that revolves around solving mysteries and convicting criminals. However, in comparison to Ace Attorney (which coincidentally I had played for the first time right before starting Danganronpa), I couldn’t help but feel that Danganronpa was treating me like an idiot. It would take half an hour to talk through a pretty obvious line of reasoning, one that could be covered in a single presentation of evidence in Ace Attorney, as if to beat it over the player’s head what was happening and why.
It also didn’t always feel like I was actually in control of the trial’s direction, rather as if I was simply playing out a part in a pre-constructed story, because the correct pieces of evidence for the respective situations are made almost painfully obvious by the game’s design. I was never agonizing over which information was relevant to the topic at hand, as I was during my favorite parts of Ace Attorney. Danganronpa attempts to circumvent this lower difficulty by injecting more active gameplay into its trials, but that brings with it a whole different host of issues.
Frankly, some of the minigames in Danganronpa’s trials just weren’t very fun. If I was to describe them succinctly, it would be “simplistic to the point of boredom and tedium”. To clarify, I don’t think they were ever too difficult (I have no recollection of ever being in danger of an actual game over). No, no, it’s more that they weren’t terribly engaging.
Regularly tap a button in an unchanging tempo? Select letters to spell out a word in a stripped-down version of hangman? The point is, Danganronpa isn’t a game I would recommend for, well, its gameplay, because it feels somewhat dull. The only minigame that I really didn’t mind was thankfully the most frequent: the previously mentioned “Nonstop Debates”, wherein you shoot your “truth bullets” at snippets of conversation that don’t exactly jive with the facts.
Despite the gruesomeness of Danganronpa’s murders and executions, it chooses to stretch its censorship muscles in strange places. I am, of course, referring to the pink blood. Every crime scene and butchered corpse looks like it was the handiwork of an overenthusiastic painter, failing to evoke dread or horror but, instead, something like humor. What’s even more baffling is that the game does feature normal, red blood in other sections. At one point, you come across a room covered in red bloodstains. For some reason, in a game about fellow high school students brutally killing each other, the creators thought that giving the fresh victims a proper blood color would be going too far. Is this a small complaint? Absolutely, but it annoyed me to no end.
The Voice Actor
Bryce Papenbrook has become a fairly prolific anime voice actor as of late. He’s been cast as the lead role in the English dubs of such popular series as Sword Art Online, Attack on Titan, Blue Exorcist and Fate/stay night, as well as hosting sizable roles in many more, such as Durarara. Papenbrook also lends his talents to Makoto Naegi, Danganronpa’s player character.
There’s just one problem: I don’t like Bryce, and never have. Nothing personal, but I find his acting chops lacking. He sounds young but unrealistic, stilted, as if constantly trying to inject more emotion than necessary into his lines. This isn’t helped by his constant casting as fairly loud and courageous characters, like Kirito and Eren. In fact, the only role of Bryce’s that I’ve actually enjoyed was his performance as Theodore in Persona Q, a blubbering, nervous assistant, not a young teen oozing confidence and heroics. Of course, this is all completely personal preference, but considering I usually don’t mind English dubs, Bryce sticking out as one of my few repeated disappointments might be worth noting.
The Loose Ends
And then, there’s the way Danganronpa wraps up. I hope this doesn’t become a trend, my complaining about endings that end too soon. (See, this will be me trying to talk about the ending of a game while being vague enough to avoid spoilers, which is never very fun.) Looking back on Danganronpa, I get it, they were going for a more ambiguous finale, because ambiguity can be hopeful. If the scene had continued on for even a few more seconds past where the credits began, each player’s outlook on the ending could have been very different.
So, in what I assume to be an attempt to placate as many people as possible, Danganronpa ends in a way where I feel like the story is not over. They cut it off just as some loose ends were potentially about to be tied up. Now I put this in “Bad” instead of “Ugly” because I think reactions to this ending could differ on an individual basis. And I know, I know, there is a Danganronpa 2, and I hope it clears up my complaints, but this is a review of the first game, taken completely on its own merits.
And I’m not even done talking about how the game screws up its climactic finale. It throws twist after twist at you, which is fine in and of itself because at least that answers questions. By the end of the game, you have so many questions, and it takes most of them head-on. The “who”, the “what”, the “when”, the “where”, the “why”… all answered with a fair degree of believability. But the “how”, the how, that goes completely and infuriatingly unexplained.
Danganronpa made plot promises, if that makes sense. It built up certain revelations to be on a nearly inconceivable scale, and when it comes time to make good on those promises, it handwaves them away with literally a “does it even matter anymore?”. Yes, Danganronpa, it does still matter, because the story that you have served me is now unquestionably full of holes, holes that I can’t help but notice. Again, I don’t know, maybe some of the stuff I’m complaining about is further explained through some later entry in the series, but I really have no idea, and it doesn’t matter for this review.
Danganronpa was a good game, there’s no doubt about that. I enjoyed it all the way through. But, when it comes to rating it, I’m torn. I liked the story (up until it came time to deliver at the end) and I liked the murder mysteries and the intrigue and the characters, but I didn’t like how it treated me like I had trouble following basic logic, how it handed me so many answers, how it ignored what I consider to be vital parts of the story. Really, the majority of my issues lay in how the game handled its conclusion.
My heart says A, but my mind says B. So, after a furious back and forth, and after taking everything into account (as well as my own subjective enjoyment), on a scale from F to S, Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc gets the A rating. Considering my ending woes are truly the only big complaints I have, I would feel bad labeling Danganronpa with anything less. I wasn’t fully satisfied by the way everything came together, but ultimately the journey to that point was so unique and so entertaining that I would be lying to myself if I didn’t highly recommend checking this game out (for those of you that miraculously own a PS Vita). Needless to say, I plan to purchase a copy of the sequel very soon, and to check out the anime as well, so a review of that will be forthcoming, at some point.
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