Trigger Happy Havoc: Danganronpa Trilogy — Experience Points
As someone who isn’t a particularly big fan of visual novels, I have always found myself mysteriously interested in Trigger Happy Havoc and the other Danganronpa games. It’s difficult to browse a game store and not immediately be drawn to their bizarrely ominous packaging — and it certainly doesn’t hurt that the series is so well-loved by so many folks, professional reviewers or otherwise. The problem for me, however, was that aforementioned “visual novel” tag, haphazardly pinned to its metaphorical lapel. After several years of temptation and reservations, I finally caved and sought out a copy of the recently released Danganronpa Trilogy for PlayStation 4. This is my experience with it.
Trigger Happy Havoc is the first game in the Danganronpa series of visual novels. It was originally released on the PSP, but has since made its rounds to the Vita, PC, and most recently, the PlayStation 4. It follows fifteen students who wake up inside of the seemingly abandoned Hope’s Peak Academy, a high school known for only accepting students that are the “ultimate” in their respective field. Each of the fifteen characters had believed themselves to be accepted into the academy, but are quickly thrust into a death game where they must kill to survive while following the strict rules set out by their delightfully insane ursine headmaster, Monokuma. Those who survive the murders are then made to investigate the crime scene and take part in a class trial in order to discern the identity of the killer using evidence found throughout the school. If they succeed, the killer is executed, and if they don’t, the class is executed and the killer is set free. Basically, everything is freaking nuts and you have to figure out how to make it less nuts.
The Best Thing in Trigger Happy Havoc is…
The overall feel and tone of the game. I usually think terms like “game feel” are just superfluous buzz words invented by people who are too lazy to come up with a better way to describe what they’re playing — or be like me and ramble on incomprehensibly until something halfway intelligent comes out. That said, it’s hard to describe Trigger Happy Havoc without talking about how it feels. Everything from the ever-present cameras and turrets always aimed at the cast of characters, to the borderline insane qualities each of those characters possess feel like they belong here — and it all feels just right. The art style, the music, and the setting all lend itself to creating a nigh perfect atmosphere.
Easily the best moments in the game occur during the executions. You might think that a character you may or may not love being literally destroyed beyond recognition by an anthropomorphic bear with a surprisingly big budget might be tough to watch, but you’d be wrong. These scenes are always over-the-top, funny, and animated in such a unique, beautiful way that you can’t help but think, “Damn. When’s the next one?”
The tone of the game does a good job bordering between comedy and horror. This is largely due in part to the awesome cast of characters. As an “ultimate” in their field, these characters often exude their ultimate quality, and are almost entirely designed around it. The player character, Makoto, is the “Ultimate Lucky Student,” who regularly finds himself escaping hopeless situations by the skin of his teeth, while Byakuya is the “Ultimate Affluent Progeny,” and regularly makes the rest of the cast painfully aware that he is better than them. While this one-dimensional approach could be seen as a detriment to the game’s narrative, I think it works really well in Trigger Happy Havoc. In fact, the hilarious characters are likely the biggest reason you should play this game in the first place.
The Worst Thing in Trigger Happy Havoc is…
The gameplay. There’s no way around the fact that this game just isn’t that fun to play sometimes. You might be thinking, “But, it’s a visual novel. You don’t play them. You read them.” Sure, Trigger Happy Havoc is a visual novel on the surface. But, it’s actually a mini-game collection disguised as a visual novel.
While the cutscenes and dialogue are definitely what players are meant to focus on, more often than not, they will be trudging through five floors of Hope’s Peak’s boring, uninteresting hallways (fortunately, you can fast travel after reaching a location once, but you still lose the option from time to time), or contending with another round of Hangman’s Gambit. Screw Hangman’s Gambit. To be clear, it’s not all bad. I like the Nonstop Debate game, which requires players to find contradictions in character testimonies by using evidence, or even other testimonies, that prove them wrong. Closing Argument is also a really fun game that has players piece everything together by placing panels into a manga that Makoto then presents as a cool, little animated comic book at the end.
But, those might actually be the only two parts of Trigger Happy Havoc I regularly enjoyed playing. Other games include a weird rhythm game/boss battle thing that is so forgettable that I forgot the name, and the dreaded Hangman’s Gambit — which is just a timed nonsense game of hangman. Outside of class trials, players don’t have much to do besides walk to the next cutscene or hangout with the occasional buddy. Even during investigations, Makoto is more or less railroaded into all of the clues — Hell, on several occasions, he is literally pulled around and told, “Click on that. It’s a clue.” I do know that the gameplay improves with each entry, so I’m not too worried about the rest of the trilogy. But, Trigger Happy Havoc really let me down here.
The Most Surprising Thing in Trigger Happy Havoc is…
The phenomenal voice cast. It is a genuine shame that the English cast is only credited as the production company that dubbed the game, because they did a fantastic job here. I know a lot of folks will likely play the game in Japanese — I was even tempted to. But, I implore you to give the English cast a shot. It’s well worth it just to watch a group of generally respected actors try to one-up each other in sounding crazy.
The standout here is definitely Brian Beacock, who plays Monokuma. As far as I can tell, he doesn’t have too many standout roles, but has been in pretty much everything. I recognized him as Haruta from ToraDora, but he also plays a lot of Digimon and apparently gets around as an impersonator, too. Regardless, Beacock clearly had a ton of fun playing Monokuma. The bear’s lines are delivered with vibrant energy and personality, and his laughs are practically intoxicating. If nothing else, go look up a cutscene and watch this guy overact better than any of the other actors in this game. Dude is freaking awesome. As an aside, the other standout is Erin Fitzgerald, but it’s kind of a spoiler to say who she plays. But, when she finally shows up, she practically steals every scene she’s in. Witnessing Fitzgerald’s pure insanity is a treat.
The Dumbest Thing in Trigger Happy Havoc is…
How predictable it is. Billed as a mystery, it’s unfathomable to think that many people will be scratching their heads throughout the first entry in Danganronpa. Pretty much every twist is telegraphed (blatantly) from the beginning of the game, with the most shocking one being so completely random, that even the game kind of just ignores it. What’s more, you can pretty much guess exactly which students will survive to the end within the first chapter based on their actions and presence.
Now, I’d like to clarify that being dumb isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Case in point, this game being so predictable. Trigger Happy Havoc, while bordering on horror, is definitely meant to be seen as a comedy. Characters are quipping all the way up until the final, tense moments of the game and the main antagonists are literally jokes incarnate. What I’m getting at here, is that even throughout its most serious moments, Trigger Happy Havoc manages to become a parody of itself — and I think it’s better for it. Whether its Monokuma saying “There are sixteen seats, but only fifteen of you. That couldn’t mean anything,” or the narrative trying to convince us that the character who’s really good at solving crimes and finding clues doesn’t know what their ultimate skill is, it works within the parody presented by Trigger Happy Havoc perfectly. It’s really silly, basically.
And Finally, The Most Average Thing About Trigger Happy Havoc is…
It’s skill system. Throughout the game, Makoto will be able to hangout with some of the other students and give them gifts in a pseudo dating sim mode called Free Time (In fact, beating the game actually unlocks a mode where it’s all you do). Doing so will net Makoto new skills that he can equip during Class Trials. Awesome, right? Well, sort of.
Basically, all of the skills are broken as hell. Some of them are actually so overpowered that it feels like I accidentally put in a cheat code (There is even a skill called Cheat Code). Some of these are genuinely really interesting, however. When your game is just a bunch of mini-games, you have to get creative in what your skills do, and that’s just what Spike Chunsoft did. There are some standard ones, like doubling your Influence Gauge (your health meter), but also really crazy ones like limiting your choices during a debate to narrow down your options. It’s unfortunate that the skills feel like cheating, because it’s clear a lot of work went into them. But, they do at least add a fun variety to replaying the game. Also, the best skill (the aforementioned doubling of your health) is gained by having Byakuya regularly tell you that you suck. It’s kind of.. awful, in an awesome way.
My experience with Trigger Happy Havoc was generally positive despite not enjoying the actual gameplay — which I think is pretty high praise for a video game. The characters are really fun to get to know, before and after they inevitably die. The story, while completely predictable, is bonkers in some of the best ways. And, the game’s cutscenes are nothing short of fantastic. I am really excited to continue playing the second game in the trilogy. With the promise of improved gameplay, and even crazier events, I can’t wait to share my further experiences with the Danganronpa Trilogy.
Note: So, this is the first Experience Points. It’s kind of an experiment for a less formal review structure. Basically, I just come up with a bunch of general talking points that I want to discuss about on the game and structure them out like they are above. It’s not nearly as in-depth as I’ve been with previous games, but they’re easier to write, and I think once I get it down, they might be more interesting. The way I see it, anyone can write a review. As a result, you can find reviews everywhere. But, you can only find me here. If Experience Points allows me to be more casual and share my more intimate thoughts on a game without getting all formal about it, it might let me create a more personal environment on the Mjolnerd. I hope you enjoyed it! I will be experimenting with it throughout the rest of the Danganronpa trilogy. So, this likely won’t be the final format. Hopefully, I’ll figure it out before I’m done with the third game, though!