Danganronpa started out as a PSP game, but was ported to other platforms such as iOS and Android. Eventually, the original game was packaged with its sequel for a Vita remake, much like the constant repackaging of the God of War franchise. NIS America localized the Vita version because being on the most current Sony handheld would get the game enough points for approval (and let’s be honest, the only people who still use a PSP are taking advantage of how hackable it was). Sony Computer Entertainment America hates visual novels with a passion, which is why the library of games specifically for the Vita has been so wanting. Sony might hate visual novels over at Japan as well, but the Vita has a fairly robust library of them probably to avoid surrendering that market to PCs. Thankfully, the game has enough gameplay to get around SCEA’s animosity and we finally get to play a solid game (legally).
Subtitled “Trigger Happy Havoc,” the game is about a prestigious school which both promises graduates success in life and handpicks for enrollment students who are already superstars in their own right (which may lead one to wonder how much the school has to do with shaping the students into winners). The player takes the helm of Makoto Naegi, a painfully normal highschool student because Japan is required by law to have a guy who constantly makes a point of talking about how average he is. Being an unremarkable beta male, he was enrolled because he won a lottery and his superhuman talent designated as “luck.” Suffice to say that when our hero sets foot in this prestigious school, things start to go sideways really fast.
Not only have Makoto and his new classmates been trapped in their new school, they are overseen by an insane mechanical headmaster with a simple rule for graduation: Kill a fellow student, and get away with it, then the killer goes free. Oh, and for good measure the surviving students who failed to identify the killer are put to death. Naturally, the student body is less than inclined to go along with this game, but the headmaster throws in proper motivation to make the students desperate. It doesn’t hurt that the student body has a nice mix of personalities to bounce off each other and bring out the worst under pressure, which reminds me of Sartre’s “No Exit” but has the catharsis of someone actually doing something.
The game has two parts: there’s the visual novel/story progression/date sim aspect and there’s the class trial. During the more visual novelly side of gameplay you explore the school, the cast interacts with each other to develop the main plot, and the player gets Free Time to make their own connections with fellow students. One on one time with other students in Free Time gives you insights into those characters you might not get in the normal story, funny anecdotes from their life, and bonuses which help you in the class trial. Specific characters confer specific skills, which are passive abilities to improve performance, but all characters can increase Skill Points to equip more skills at the same time. None of these skills will exactly make or break your game, and unless you’re an ass who looks up guides first there’s no way of knowing who will give you what kinds of boosts.
Some may wonder, “If they’re not essential and there’s no way to know what I’ll get, then what’s the point?” To me, this allows the player to create their own subplot in the context of the main story. The player can take a tactical or an emotional approach to making friends, they can try to get to know a little about everyone or develop strong friendships with one or two characters. Focusing on specific characters creates a unique tension as the likelihood of that character becoming a victim or a murderer increases. There’s something oddly fitting in using a skill to avenge a friend’s death, and bitter irony in using a talent against a friend who has blood on their hands. Alternately, a player could withdraw altogether, broken by their experience and possibly making Makoto a hypocrite who talks about friendship and sticking together but fails to walk his talk. Yes, you can replay completed chapters to farm for skills and points, but that undermines the tension and psychological endurance run of playing the game from beginning to end. Besides, there’s a better way to farm that stuff after you finish the game.
When a murder has been committed, the player then investigates and gathers evidence both in what they can find/observe as well as through the accounts of other students. Unless you’re a complete knob you’ll probably get a pretty clear picture of the crime and even who did it, but you don’t get to flip out and start punching the killer’s teeth in. Arguably, you don’t so much play Makoto as you are that part of himself which can look at the situation objectively… struggling to get through the clutter of his emotions and fatigued psyche. While you are told there’s a limited amount of time, fear not, the game runs on JRPG logic and the actual trial will not commence until you have gathered all the evidence you need to make your case.
Once the trial commences, the player is tasked with picking apart contradictions and lies. It’s not enough for the player to know the truth, the real goal is to persuade. Thus, if the player makes too many mistakes their influence wanes to the point nobody will listen and it’s gameover man. Admittedly, this can be annoying when game mechanics goes against common sense, like the first trial when I made a solid case and the killer threw a hissy fit. I didn’t understand the mechanics of that part (because the instructions didn’t adequately explain the tempo markers are how you do everything and locking on was the only way to destroy their nonsensical ravings) and somehow the killer becoming a sputtering mess negated a mountain of damning evidence. On the other hand, sometimes you have to let a game be a game. Still not as bad as the invisible walls in games which are ostensibly about exploration.
There’s also a good reason why ultimately it all hinges on the player by means of Makoto: while some of the students are sharp enough to have it all figured out, everyone has their blindspots and quirks which keep them from getting it right all the time. It’s not long before you get the hang of the mechanics and on top of the increasingly complex crimes the gameplay portion gradually throws new things to keep you on your toes. Overall, very effective at keeping the player engaged. The big finale had one of those moments where gameplay and story melded together perfectly and I always love it when that happens.
Suffice to say, it’s a well made game very close to perfection as it tackled a unique premise and mechanics to keep it interesting and avoiding the pedestrian feeling a conventional visual novel can foster. The creators knew the characters well enough to create scenarios where a character breaking down and resorting to murder felt consistent and not a case of character derailment because the plot desperately needed it. Hell, I was rolling my eyes at one relationship between two characters, and it wasn’t long before my jaw dropped at the well played turn of events. Oh, and the game is littered with references from everything to Mario to Attack on Titan and all kinds of good stuff that figuring them all out could be a game in itself after playing the main story.
Speaking of finishing the main story, once you beat the regular game a new gameplay mode opens up. School mode is an alternate story in which the gang is pressed into an extensive series of construction projects and we learn that normal boy Makoto Naegi is also a foreman, master craftsman, and electrical engineer. There’s not much to it, you assign characters rooms in the school to search for parts, put on clean up duty, or let them rest before they crash. This mode is ideal for filling out the Report Card with all the fun facts about your classmates, and School mode also has its own date sim element which allows the player to get unique endings and for a present you are given their underwear.
Yes, they give you their underwear. Yes, even the guys. Shut up.
All said, great game with a thriller angle and doesn’t get stuck in the mindset that it has to be dark 24/7. It’s a great addition to the Vita library and the sequel is slated for a North America release in the Fall. You can’t go wrong with this game, unless you absolutely refuse to enjoy anything Japanese. In which case I have to wonder why you even bothered reading a game review with the very Japanese title. If you can, try the game. Yes, there’s an anime, but I doubt it can convey the tension of the situation as well as being a participant in dire circumstances.