Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc

Who amongst us can honestly say that they don’t enjoy a good murder mystery? From the ‘whodunnits’ of an Agatha Christy novel, to the ‘locked room’ mysteries of BBC’s Jonathan Creek – the murder mystery narrative has a long-running and deep history within our culture. It is a style of storytelling that has been reiterated time and time again in books, TV, movies, and even as a marketable experience.

Video games don’t often attempt to replicate murder mysteries, and when they do, they are often uncomfortable and incomplete translations. Games are designed to be replayed. If your character dies or fails in a game you are usually allowed to retry a challenge over and over until you succeed and move on. This is fine for action-based games where repeating a maneuver over and over until you get it right is akin to mastering a skill. But in a murder-mystery, being able to replay scenarios in which you can simply accuse every character in the game systematically until the guilty party is caught, completely ruins any sense of drama. Being able to brute-force your way through what are supposed to be logic puzzles is a big problem with designing mysteries in games. So it is with all of this in mind that I am coming out and saying, Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc is absolutely the best murder mystery game I have ever played.

Danganronpa is part visual novel, part murder mystery drama. The central premise is as follows: you play as Makoto Naegi, one of 15 high school students who wake up and find themselves locked up inside the highly prestigious, and elitist, boarding school known as Hope’s Peak Academy. Nobody remembers how they got in there, just that they were all accepted into the school for being an ‘ultimate’ example of something in their field (eg. ultimate fashionista, ultimate martial artist, ultimate swimming champion, etc). Soon after waking up, the characters are summoned by a mysterious animatronic bear known as Monokuma, who tells the students that they will spend the rest of their lives in the school and will be set free only on one condition: that they murder a fellow student and get away with it.

Danganronpa cycles periodically between several phases of gameplay. Before the murders you play out story events talking to your fellow students, getting to know what is good, flawed, and vulnerable about each of them. After a murder takes place you must gather evidence by examining crime scenes and listening to the testimonies of your classmates. Then comes the ‘class trial’ – the means by which Monokuma determines whether or not the murderer got away with it. If classmates reach a consensus and manage to pin the murderer, then the murderer will be executed immediately following the trial. Get it wrong however, and not only will the murderer walk free but they will do so at the cost of the other student’s lives.

Danganronpa’s large cast of characters can never trust one another.

What Danganronpa does to draw you in is stage a series of murder mysteries to be solved – each time drawing from the same pool of increasingly dwindling characters. You come to understand the strengths and weaknesses of 15 different characters, each entangled in a horrible game of life, death, and deception. As you solve each individual murder mystery you also edge your way closer and closer to the ultimate truth, the answer to why these characters are all being forced into this incredibly cruel game. I won’t give any more about the plot away, but just know that the payoff is genuinely great.

The music and sound direction in the game does a lot to keep you feeling appropriately uneasy throughout the entirety of the game. Being locked in the trial, throwing accusations around, trying to get to the truth and pinpoint the killer is accompanied by appropriately edgy and dramatic chords which are hammered out in an anxiously fast tempo. But the music I actually found most discomforting was the song they played as you roamed the school in downtime, when no murders or trials are taking place. I don’t know how to quite describe it, other than to say it’s like elevator music played on a synthesizer from the bottom of a haunted lake. Something about it is faux-calming in a way that reminds you, that no matter how pleasant everyone seems now, these characters are planning elaborate murders as they exchange pleasantries with you.

There are actually quite a few different gameplay styles mixed together in Danganronpa: from the dating sim mechanics of managing time with characters and giving gifts, to rhythm game mechanics during one-on-one confrontations with accused characters. This is the kind of thing that could make a game really messy and awful to play, but the difficulty of each different playstyle is balanced and simple enough that it actually serves to prevent the pacing of the story from ever becoming too slow. Despite the range of gameplay styles that have been cherry-picked for the game, I sincerely believe that absolutely anyone could play and enjoy this game even if they had no experience in any style of game whatsoever. Danganronpa is an excellent game that I think is perfect for handheld and mobile devices. In any situation where you can imagine yourself reading a book, you could be playing Danganronpa. A choice that is absolutely worth making.

Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc  is available now on Playstation Vita, iOS, and Android. This was a review of the Playstation Vita version.