Zero Escape Phoenix Wright 4 Golden.
Danganronpa is an interesting game to review. I say game, but it almost barely qualifies- you see, Danganronpa is yet another (increasingly common, but still rather rare in the west) visual novel- you know, it’s of the same ilk as the Zero Escape series (999 and Virtue’s Last Reward). As a matter of fact, it’s by the same developer (Spike Chunsoft).
Considering the incredible story that 999 and Virtue’s Last Reward tell, as well as the high pedigree involved with Danganronpa, you might just trick yourself into expecting something as staggeringly incredible as one of those two games. In that case, you would be very, very disappointed. Danganronpa is good, you see. It’s very good, as a matter of fact. It’s just, considering we’ve had what might just be the very best this genre has to offer, it does feel a little flat after that. Comparing any game to the absolute best in its genre is always a bad idea- after all, shouldn’t each title be assessed on its own merits? But when one considers that this game too is from the same folks who got us the amazing Zero Escape games, the comparison stops being so unfair, and makes a little more sense.
"Danganronpa takes a welcome leaf out of Persona 4's book, by allowing the player to use a handy quick travel system to any part of the school that they might want to. For those who want the immersion that comes with walking around to each part of the school individually, that option is offered too, and you can explore the school fully in a well realized first person mode."
It’s not a favorable comparison to Danganronpa, per se. If you are expecting a story that hits you as hard with some ‘holy fuck!’ moments as Virtue’s Last Reward, and especially 999, did, then you will consider the money spent on buying Danganronpa to be money wasted. But if you just go in expecting something similar, but different enough to at least be appreciated on its own merits, you will enjoy what Danganronpa has to offer.
Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc is a murder mystery. It uses a trial system similar to Phoenix Wright, and although the anime trope characters and the over the top humor with which it deals with the situation at hand might seem to make light of it, the subject matter the game deals with can often get very serious, very dark, and even very disturbing. In every single case, the only thing between the truth coming out, and it being lost forever, is you and your ability to prove and convey it, and a lot of cases raise the stakes to make it a literal matter of life and death, so that you feel a legitimate pressure on you as the proceedings continue.
Not all of the cases actually carry that kind of weight- notably, the first case, when resolved, will elicit a cry of exclamation from you, and not the good kind either. But by and large, the cases all feel serious and sombre enough, and you feel the weight of the proceedings on you, as you, the ‘Ultimate Lucky Student,’ are charged with investigating what is going on.
Said investigation is carried on by exploring and investigating parts of the Hope Peak Academy, the school where the game takes place. Danganronpa takes a welcome leaf out of Persona 4’s book, by allowing the player to use a handy quick travel system to any part of the school that they might want to. For those who want the immersion that comes with walking around to each part of the school individually, that option is offered too, and you can explore the school fully in a well realized first person mode. As you solve more and more cases, more and more portions of the school open up for you to explore (and these portions need to be investigated for the cases you are confronted with then) in an almost Metroidvania type gated access/reward system.
"On the whole, though, Danganronpa works. It's a unique blend of Persona, Phoenix Wright, and Zero Escape, and while there were instances where I was cringing or rolling my eyes, there were other instances where I felt legitimately invested in the story."
Solving murders is not the only thing you’re doing either. Danganronpa puts a huge emphasis on character interaction and development, allowing you, the player, to buy gifts for people all around the school and unlock what, to use another Persona 4 analogy, can be best termed as ‘Social Links,’ optional sequences that let your character get closer to theirs. All of this character interaction and development is ultimately meaningful and enriches the game experience- you see, in this game, anybody is fair game, and a character that you had come to be close to and appreciate might be found dead the next day. Whereas ordinarily, you would at most feel a detached sense of shock, in Danganronpa, you can feel legitimately sad when someone dies based on how well you knew them.
It’s just as good that the murders and the trials around them are interesting, because the actual school life is rather boring and banal, and if it were all that the game was about, would easily lose your interest. The star of the show in Danganronpa is the character interaction, and the murder trials themselves- I want to say that the murders themselves are exciting, but it’s a very mixed bag there. Some of them are legitimately chilling, but others feel highly contrived. Some of them feel almost insulting to the intelligence (the first batch is particularly guilty of that). And as a rule, how much the murders impact you as a player depends on just how invested you were in the characters involved to begin with.
On the whole, though, Danganronpa works. It’s a unique blend of Persona, Phoenix Wright, and Zero Escape, and while there were instances where I was cringing or rolling my eyes, there were other instances where I felt legitimately invested in the story. I cannot honestly say Danganronpa is the best in its class at all- whether you chose to club it with Phoenix Wright, Persona, or Zero Escape- it’s not, and next to those three behemoths, it even feels rather average. But then again, I don’t think it should be compared to those three to begin with, except as a point of reference. All said and done, it provides for an entertaining, fun visual novel experience, and anyone who wants an exposition heavy title on their Vita would be best served by picking this one up.
This game was reviewed on PlayStation Vita.
Emphasis on characterization and character interaction pays off with murder sequences; murder trials are exceedingly well done; great quick travel system; deft mix of Persona 4, Zero Escape, and Phoenix Wright
Cringe worthy and over the top in its sheer anime-ness some times; the plot is often contrived and downright insulting to the intelligence; the solutions to many murders are rather poor and lame; the side activities in the game are boring and trite; the beginning of the game is slow
Appreciated on its own merits, Danganronpa is great, and recommended to all those who want a nice, exposition heavy title on their Vita.