The Danganronpa franchise is a twisted, vulgar little thing. Rife with problematic politics, egregious erotic fanservice and some truly breathtakingly ill-judged swings at far heavier themes than it really has any right to tackle, it is in many ways a reprehensible, amoral and quite appalling series of games. And it’s bloody great.
A visual novel so trashy that even people who avoid the genre like the plague ought to get a kick out of it, the original Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc Anniversary Edition remains an imperfect diamond, a marvellously depraved multiple-murder-mystery that revels in the sheer strength of its cast and the sick, nasty premise; reminiscent in some ways of classic manga Battle Royale but with a little nod to the long-running Saw series of movies, too.
So what’s the story? Why so worked up? Without spoiling a thing – which is very tricky with a game this twisty – you take on the role of Makoto Naegi, admitted to the mysterious and prestigious Hope’s Peak Academy alongside 14 of Japan’s most impressive “Ultimates”; the likes of Byakuya Togami (Ultimate Affluent Prodigy), Toko Fukawa (Ultimate Writing Prodigy) and Chihiro Fujisaki (Ultimate Programmer) are admitted alongside Naegi, with their and the rest of the class’ various proficiencies coming into play across a typical school year.
Of course, we are lying through our digital teeth. This is no normal year at all. Almost as soon as he enters the school, Naegi finds himself locked in with the rest of the students and a sinister little bear named Monokuma, who informs the class that they’ll be playing a “Killing Game” for their freedom. The rules are simple – kill another student and get away with it and you’re free to go, while the rest of the class will be executed. Get caught, though, and it’s you who’ll be put to death while the “game” continues. Macabre and pretty far-fetched, but Monokuma doesn’t hesitate to demonstrate his control of the situation on those who push back…
What we have here, then, is a paranoid environment exacerbated by the already big personalities of the various Ultimates. You’ll explore Hope’s Peak in first-person style, chatting and investigating in a style akin to the Ace Attorney series. You’ll need to dig deep to collect evidence (and Monokoins, the game's currency) for the Class Trials, called at Monokuma’s whim and thrusting you into, well, a trial. These play out as dynamic interrogations, presented as the various characters blurt out their takes on the situation; facts and conjecture literally fly around the screen and you, armed with your Truth Bullets, must blast the contradictions. As a (fake) example, say the suspect in question was stabbed but one of the testimonies mentioned bullet holes – you’d take your “Victim was stabbed” truth bullet and fire it through that statement, piercing it with reality. It’s a clever, evocative and exciting system.
Less brilliant, sadly, are the minigames that make up the other aspects of the trials; the Hangman’s Gambit is the worst offender of the lot, making you spell out a crucial word to progress by blasting the various letters of the alphabet as they fly across the screen entirely too slowly. It might be okay if it had any relevance to the game in any way, but it’s just an extraneous way of padding out the trials. There’s a rhythm-action game that sees you pressuring the culprit into a confession that does a better job of simulating the intensity of such a situation, and the trial-ending reconstruction of the events that occurred via a manga that you fill in piece by piece is always entertaining.
Outside of the murders, you're able to spend free time with each of the students and form a bond with them, unlocking new skills that can help you turn the tide of a Class Trial — but be mindful that your blossoming relationship could well be brought to a sudden, bloody end at almost any time. Exploring Hope's Peak is simple, and while it's only a small environment the ability to fast-travel is present to expedite things.
It's still an ace-looking game even 11 years after its debut — the heavily stylised pop-up environments and excellent character art have aged like fine wine, and the soundtrack by Masafumi Takada is as brilliant as ever. The real star, though, is the story, and as much as we enjoyed the journey, we have to be honest — we felt that it didn't stick the landing, with muddled motives and a confusingly vague, almost hand-waved denouement.
Still, the post-game unlockables go some way to extending Danganronpa's life, and this Anniversary Edition adds an illustration gallery feature. Plus, of course, there are two major sequels to play if you need more gore on-the-go.
Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc offers a memorable Killing Game with fantastic, iconic characters, a genuinely funny and smart script, and some superior twists and turns along the way with well-earned emotional hooks and at times shocking violence. It's funny, it's dramatic and it's very problematic, so exercise some caution — this is resolutely not a game for kids, but even adults will struggle with some of its less savoury or more overtly brash, thoughtless content. It's not enough to mark the game down in any way, but readers should be aware that this is not a tactful piece of software, which for some will ward them away but we suspect for others is a major selling point. We urge you to check the game out for yourself, as it is, quite frankly, a classic in the visual novel genre.