Danganronpa Trigger Happy Havoc is a graphic-novel style adventure game for the PS Vita. But honestly, that description doesn't do it justice. A better way to describe is this: take the gameplay of Phoenix Wright Ace Attorney and various rhythm games, mix it with the concept of Battle Royale, (or The Hunger Games if you need a more American example) and throw in some over-the-top violence and copious amounts of blood, and there you have it. It's a unique, strange and sometimes uncomfortable game, but if you're a fan of murder mysteries, it's one game you'll have a hard time putting down.
The game takes place at Hope's Peak Academy, a super-exclusive academy where only the best of the best students can attend. You play as Makoto Naegi, a completely average high school student who, through sheer dumb luck, is invited to attend Hope's Peak. But upon his arrival, he finds himself, and all the other students, trapped inside the academy by Monobear, the sadistic robotic teddy bear headmaster. And if things weren't bad enough already, evil bear reveals that the only way for the students to escape is for one of them to kill a fellow classmates in cold blood and get away with it. Once a student is murdered, the entire class is put on trial to determine who the killer is. If the class gets it right, the killer is punished with a gruesome and over-the-top execution. But should the class get it wrong, everyone but the killer gets executed, leaving the guilty party as the last man or woman standing and free to walk away. In this case, it's not kill or be killed; it's kill, then get killed yourself. It's such a disheartening situation that even when you win, it doesn't feel like much of a victory.
In addition to Makoto, there are 14 other prisoners/classmates for you to interact with. Each of these students is a prodigy at the very top of his or her field. For example, there's the Ultimate Baseball Star, the Ultimate Programmer, the Ultimate Martial Artist, and so on. Most of the characters fit into your typical high school archetypes: jock, bully, preppy, popular kid, but they don't feel like the usual cookie-cutter cliches. They're all very memorable and have their own unique personalities and quirks and all break their respective stereotypes in interesting ways. Even the characters who die early in the game are surprisingly fleshed out and likable. This is another area where the game really shines. After all, the inevitable deaths of these poor kids wouldn't hold much weight if you're not attached to them. And you do get attached to them. In fact, the game requires you to form a connection with them in order to progress. It's a great way to get the player emotionally invested in the game, and it makes those more shocking and poignant moments all the more impactful, especially if one of your new best friend turns up dead. And while we're talking about the characters, the voice acting, especially in the trial segments, is also well done, though there are a few questionable vocal choices...
Gameplay takes place in three phases: exposition, investigation and the trial itself. In the exposition phase, you explore the academy and get to know your classmates better, either by buying them gifts or via dating sim style question and answer interactions. But befriending your fellow prisoners is not just for story purposes, sometimes these classmates can give you special abilities and skills you can use in the trial to make things a little easier. Once a student turns up dead, the investigation part of the game begins. In CSI-esque fashion, you'll investigate, via good old-fashioned point and click gameplay, every aspect of the crime scene and collect evidence, testimony from your fellow classmates, and anything else that might be of use in the trial.
The trial itself is where the majority of gameplay takes place, and also where the game gets its name from. The characters will start talking nonstop, with various lies or contradictions highlighted in yellow. You must pay close attention to what they say and use your evidence, or "truth bullets," to literately shoot down, or refute, their inconsistencies or alibis. (Danganronpa in Japanese literately translate to "bullet refutation.") There are also other various mini-games, such as a hangman-style game where you shoot down letters to form a word, and a rhythm-based game in which you have to shoot down your opponents accusation in time to the music. All in all, it's an extremely unique and entertaining way to frame a trial, even if some of the games tend to move too quickly from time to time.
Aside from the unique characters and concept, the game also has a unique style to it. It's presented in a 2.5-D perspective, in which the characters exist on a 2D plain while the environments themselves can be explored in 3D. It's reminiscent of a diorama, or the 3DS without all of the eye-ruining eyestrain. The backgrounds themselves are surprisingly colorful for such a dark game, and do a great job of portraying the "schoolhouse gone mad," environment the game projects. The character models also have a unique look to them, with some characters being a little more "over the top" than others. Even the electronica music, which I find reminiscent of the Persona series, matches up to the tone of the story perfectly, ranging from tense and unsettling in the acadey exploration, to energetic and fast-paced for the trials.
Danganronpa Trigger Happy Havoc is not a game for everyone. But for mystery buffs, graphic novel fans and those gamers looking for something a little more "out there" than your typical shooters and platformers, this is a fantastic, if not at times depressing, game. And with a sequel already confirmed by published NIS America to be released later this year, fans will have plenty more twisted classroom mysteries to solve.