Developer: Spike Chunsoft, Abstraction Games
Publisher: Spike Chunsoft
Platform: Windows 10
Version: None Available (latest patch – unknown)
One of the strangest, but most engaging visual novels I’ve played, Danganronpa: Happy Trigger Havoc is a game where players take on the role of Makoto Naegi trapped in his high school, Hope’s Peak Academy, along with fifteen other students. The circumstances from which you came to end up within Hope’s Peak are shrouded in mystery, and you will spend a portion of the game working alongside the other students trying to discover how it is that you came to be trapped within its walls. Not content with simply trapping the player inside an ominous high school, Danganronpa also has players solving the murder mysteries of Makoto’s classmates. There is an omnipotent figure referred to throughout as the mastermind who has promise to free any student who can kill another student and get away with the crime. A student must kill another and then deceive everyone by eliminating the evidence and incriminating another student. As such, much of the game has Mokoto and co hashing it out in debates trying to discover the truth of who done it after every murder. It is through this series of mysteries that Danganronpa both tells its story and makes for a fairly compelling video game.
The strongest element that contributed to my enjoyment of Danganronpa was how it utilizes different elements of horror. For starters, the entire school’s layout features many narrow connecting hallways. While there is nothing inherently scary about a hallway, having to turn the corner from one claustrophobic space to another in an environment that doesn’t feel quite right gave me a growing sense of anticipation that I was going to happen upon something unpleasant. This was aided by each room being separated by a door opening animation, which helped to increase that tension of the unknown as I moved throughout the school.
In addition to the structure of the school, the way every room is designed gives the entirety of Hope’s Peak a feeling of the uncanny. A school is a familiar setting to many, and that is no exception here, however there are several rooms that feel peculiar. While some rooms are perfectly normal, others feature abnormalities such as sealed off windows, dim lighting, or misplaced objects. Upon noticing these irregularities I couldn’t help but wonder what else might be amiss and that got my imagination working against me. Having the player’s brain work against them is a pillar of good horror atmosphere design, and the sense of the uncanny combined with the structure of Hope’s Peak really lends to giving Danganronpa a permeating sense of dread throughout.
Equally important to the design of the setting in Danganronpa, the brutality of the killing lends itself excellently to the game’s horror styling. Each murder committed by the students is progressively more merciless than the previous. As a result I grew increasingly concerned with the prospects of future killings. Thinking about what horrors I might soon have to witness really put me on edge, and similar to the environment had my imagination working against me. What really sealed this was how many of the murders were done with simple everyday objects. Because many of them were believable, instead of fantastical, I couldn’t immediately dismiss them as fantasy and that left a lasting feeling of unease in me. While I may not sound positive about it, I found the sensation of dread really engaged me with Danganronpa in the kind of way where you can’t look away because I had to know what happens next regardless of how bad it might be.
Next, Danganronpa has an excellent sense of pacing, barring the opening of the game (see below for more details). Following each of the game’s class trials there are moments where school life carries on peacefully. Upbeat music plays giving way to moments where Makoto is able to interact with, and learn more about his fellow students. These moments of calm help to accentuate the more uneasy moments of the game. If Danganronpa was constantly demanding players to keep doing trial after trial, and witness a each grotesque murder one after another without pause the action would become overwhelming and lose impact. For this reason, Danganronpa feels like it has a good sense of pacing.
The final positive element I’d like to touch on is Danganronpa’s English voice acting. Despite being a Japanese game, the English voice overs are quite good. All of the trials are fully voiced, and each character has a distinct personality that comes through their voice. The characters don’t feel comical over the top, or jarring due to constantly delivering lines poorly. For many who would default to a Japanese dub this won’t be a problem, but I appreciated the English performances not being steeped in mediocrity.
My major criticism against Dangaronpa is how the game starts, specifically how slow it starts. Unlike many other pieces of media, both in and outside of video games, Danganronpa has a gradual start that lacks some kind of driving excitement to grip the player’s attention. Were I the kind of person who played the first hour of a game and then decided if I was going to continue playing I would have likely stopped playing Danganronpa. What is supposed to serve as the big exciting moment in the opening is dragged out tirelessly with repeating dialogue that over explains what is going on. What follows the introduction to the game is more quiet time, which works wonders in the later parts of the game, but following a somewhat lackluster opening act causes this to feel lethargic. While the rest of Danganronpa has fantastic pacing, the opening is far too sluggish and the game would have been aided greatly by presenting a moment of greater excitement to players as its lead in.
The other criticism I had of Danganronpa was, for lack of a better term, how Japanese the game feels. I’d assume that many of the factors that contributed to my perception are not a problem for others, so please be mindful of that while reading. The first thing that stood out to me was how characters will needless repeat certain lines of dialogue, even if they aren’t particularly important. I’ve noticed this with anime and other Japanese games, so I always assumed it was either a cultural thing, or a translation problem. I’m not sure which it is, but it slows down the delivery of dialogue in a number of sequences, which I found annoying in a nagging way.
The next contributing factor I had for how Japanese the game feels is how overt the innuendos are. Again, I’m unsure if this is a translation problem, or a cultural thing, but there is no subtlety to any sexual innuendos in Danganronpa. They come flying straight for you and hit you straight in the face. What could be funny were it delivered in a more indirect fashion fell flat for me because of how on the nose the delivery was. While it may not be the case for some, it was something that bothered me.
Finally, the use of Japanese idioms, regardless of how much it makes sense in the context of the game, made the game feel more Japanese. The biggest example I can think of was how certain characters go on about having or saving honour. While honour in one’s self and family is a big cultural milestone for Japan, to a Westerner that doesn’t mean a whole lot without understanding the context for which it is used. This can create a bit of misunderstanding for players who are less acquainted with these idioms. As with the other minor gripes I had, seeing these idioms culminated in portions of the dialogue having a very jarring delivery for me, which took me out of the game. These kinds of interruptions never stopped me dead in my tracks, but I would imagine others who are less acclimatized to Japanese culture, or media to experience similar problems while playing Danganronpa.
I would absolutely recommend Danganronpa to most. The opening hours are quite slow, but once you push through that the game becomes a rather engaging experience. The atmosphere and overall unsettling nature of the story in combination with the pacing, barring exception to the opening, and English voice acting made Danganronpa one of the most enjoyable visual novels I’ve played. Unless the overtly Japanese nature of some of the dialogue is a massive turn off I’d recommend grabbing this game and giving it a go.