As an avid watcher of TV murder mysteries, I think I'm particularly skilled at fingering the culprit early on in a series. It's all about following the evidence and anticipating plot twists.So, when I started the visual novel/murder mystery game Trigger Happy Havoc: Danganronpa, I thought: I got this.
Boy, was I wrong.
NIS America and Spike Chunsoft have crafted a dark, murder mystery that not only drew me in, but outwitted and surprised me with plot twist after plot twist.
The story starts innocently enough. You play as Makoto Naegi, a perfectly average student, attending a perfectly average high school. When you receive a surprise invitation to attend Hope's Peak Academy, Japan's most prestigious high school, you decide to transfer.
You find out quickly that everyone attending Hope's Peak Academy is famous in their own right, except you. One student is a karate master, another is a baseball star. There's a successful romance novelist, a fashionista, a renowned fanfic writer, and so on. Of course, each one of them has their own extraordinary personalities too: snotty, outgoing, shy, calculating, and perverted.
At first, I thought: oh, this is a game about precocious high school detectives, isn't it?
The game gets dark pretty quickly. As Makoto, you discover that the school's headmaster is a nightmare-fueling teddy bear named Monokuma, and he has a penchant for theatrics. He instructs the student body that they will be playing a deadly game: stay at Hope's Peak Academy forever, or murder another classmate without getting caught and go free.
Whenever a murder occurs, it triggers an investigation. As Makoto, you can't murder anyone. You're not that kind of guy. But, everybody else can.
This is where you talk to different students, gather evidence, and begin to create a narrative of who, what, when and why the murder occurred in the way it did. Then, the class trial begins.
Every class trial is made up of various mini-games: Endless Debate, Hangman's Gambit, and Bullet Time Battle.In "Endless Debate," you literally shoot down your classmates' assertions about the case with your refuting evidence.There's also "Hangman's Gambit," a fill-in-the-blank game, that presents evidence in a novel way. "Bullet Time Battle" is a rhythm game that emerges during certain intense scenes when a classmate becomes unhinged and won't listen to reason.
These mini-games might sound cheesy, but most of them are fun. Sometimes, I had to snatch up assertions from opponents' arguments to reveal their contradiction. Other times, my classmates would get on the wrong track, and I had to present evidence to reroute them. When characters presented new evidence that took the trial in a new direction, those mini-games often lead to some interesting outcomes.
But, finding the culprit is bittersweet. Headmaster Monokuma puts on a show of killing the guilty party that's both elaborate and gruesome, and the aftermath of which makes returning to the "regular school life" of hanging-out with friends a mixture of regret and relief for Makoto. After all, you never know if you are becoming buddy-buddy with the next victim, or the next killer.
During my time with the game, I found myself trying to cheat the game so I wouldn't miss out befriending characters that wound up dead. Before the first murder took place, I decided to use my free-time to chat up one of my female classmates. She seemed like a sweet, athletic-type girl. After a scripted greeting, the game let me choose to spend more time with her. We ended up exercising together. I could tell we grew closer as friends because, after I gave her a gift, she told me all about her intense workout regimes.
Gift giving is a super helpful way to build relationships and to power-up your character. Coins that you can use to buy presents are scattered around the school. There are lots of things, such as hair pins, baseballs, and books on jujitsu, at the school's store. If you give the right gift to the right person, they become more candid with you. Give the perfect gift and you also earn skill points that give you an advantage during the intense murder trials.
Anyway, after the first murder occurred, I realized that hanging around with this jock girl was a huge mistake. One of the characters I was curious about, but thought I'd get to know later, was the victim. I regretted missing out on my chance to interact with that character. Additionally, I didn't get to make friends with the killer because Monokuma executes culprits once the trial ends.
So, I cheated. After I inferred who the killer was, I reloaded my game, talked with the victim and the killer, gave them perfect presents, learned about their pasts, and then (and only then) allowed the murder to occur. It worked, and I felt pretty relieved.
I felt very good about myself too. I had successfully predicted the murderer before going to trial and earned some skill points. My TV murder mystery skills had helped me outwit this video game..
My cheating ways wouldn't last. When I tried my plan for the second time, the killer was not who I thought it was at all. Reloading my game would add another couple of hours, so I took the loss. The next trial after that, I was wrong again. The main plot line and the murder trials unraveled in ways that I had never, ever imagined. Ever.
In turn, I let the story and the trials take me through the super twisty plot.
Yet, despite its engaging story and courtroom drama, the control scheme leaves something to be desired. Although you walk around first-person through most of the school, the targeting reticule must be used to open doors, climb stairs, look for clues, and examine things more closely. I consistently tried to climb stairs or pass through open doors, instead of targeting and selecting them, up until the very end.
The game's environments can look pretty drab or confusing. In classrooms, desks and chairs appear distorted. Room furnishings are bland. Objects that look interesting aren't always the things you can interact with, other times they lack detail. With the characters looking great (especially during cut scenes), it's just too bad the environments don't have a little more polish.
Nevertheless, Trigger Happy Havoc: Danganronpa remains a very engaging murder mystery that will continually surprise, and upset.
Trigger Happy Havoc: Danganronpa releases February 11, 2014.
I'm also trigger happy havoc-ing on twitter @marshnaylor