Sometimes the best way to recommend a game is to break it down to its component parts. Take Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc, out today for the PlayStation Vita.
I started playing late last week with no real plans to review it, and wound up sinking 20 hours into it, finishing up yesterday afternoon. That doesn't happen often. Needless to say I liked the game, and I wanted to tell you guys what it's about. (You can also check out Richard's import preview from last summer.)
Mostly Clue the movie, but also a little bit Clue: The Game. Danganronpa is a visual novel-style mystery, and the setup is killer: A group of Japanese high school students are locked in a high school together and forced into a deadly contest. In order to be released from the school, one student must kill another one… and get away with it. Every time a murder takes place, the other students (including the main character Makoto, whom you control), must investigate the crime scene, interrogate one another, and then try to uncover the truth during a deadly class trial. If the majority identifies the guilty party, that person is executed and the game continues. If the majority picks wrong, the murderer is set free and everyone else is executed.
There's a perverse thrill in watching teenagers kill one another for the entertainment of a scary overseer. While the obvious current cultural touchstone for Danganronpa is The Hunger Games, it feels more like Battle Royale, particularly in the glee with which it inflicts violence and suffering on its youthful cast. This game is often a pretty nasty piece of work, much like Battle Royale was. The murders, brutal as they are, are artfully presented, but there's a certain tawdriness to it all... the way it revels in stylish killing, how the still-art images of female characters are so often framed as upskirt shots, a grotesque fixation on dashed hopes and squandered potential... that sort of thing. That tawdriness certainly has an appeal, however, and as you watch the many murders and executions, you may find yourself ghoulishly looking forward to the next one. (Just me? Well. This is awkward.) Engrossing as it is, the game might not make you feel awesome about yourself.
Not only does Danganronpa lift a lot of aesthetic flourishes from Persona 4, it feels at times like a perverse high school simulator. You'll have free time to hang out with and get to know your classmates better, which feels all the more bittersweet since you never know which one'll get knocked off next. For all the life-or-death histrionics going on, most of the murders and motives are stand-ins for the characters' real social anxieties, which will feel familiar to Persona fans. And really, the game just looks and moves a lot like Persona 4 Golden, and the art feels similarly shiny on the Vita's bright screen.
Danganronpa is actually a remake of an older Japanese PSP game that never made it to the West. It's the work of Spike Chunsoft, the same people behind the Zero Escape series, which includes the Vita game Virtue's Last Reward that Jason so enjoyed. Danganronpa feels very similar to VLR, with its visual-novel aesthetic and diverse, colorful cast. It's also got a mascot that gleefully presides over the characters' misery, this time a two-faced bear named Monokuma. Monokuma rules.
The class trials at the end of each chapter play out a lot like the courtroom battles in the Ace Attorney series. The mechanics are different—Danganronpa has a lot of goofy arcade-style minigames where you play rhythm games and shoot "truth bullets" into contradictory testimony—but the overall vibe is very much the same. Someone made a contradiction! I object! Here's what really happened! Techno music! The mysteries in Danganronpa are much more logical and therefore easier to solve than anything in a Phoenix Wright game, but that actually works for the flow of the game. The pulsing, irresistible momentum of the class trials never got old for me over 20 hours of play.