Publisher: NIS America
Developer: Spike Chunsoft
Medium: Digital/Vita Card
Words fail me when it comes to Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc. It is, without a doubt, one of the strangest, most disturbing games I've ever played. It horrifies me that it exists. And yet…I kind of like it.
Actually, that's really understating things. I kind of love it. I'm not sure what that says about me, but I know this: there's a lot more to Danganronpa than I was initially expecting. I mean, it's a visual novel game about a bunch of archetypal students trapped in a school by a homicidal bear, who in turn expects them to kill each other off one by one — or en masse, depending on how things go. The only way it could be more stereotypically "LOL Japan" is if there were girls in tiny dresses being raped by tentacle monsters…and, come to think of it, one of the teenage students is referred to as a Gothic Lolita, and one of the other students is overly fond of his hentai porn. (Apologies for what the preceding sentence may do for your browser's content-based ads.) So, you know: LOL Japan.
But that's oversimplifying Danganronpa far, far too much. It's undoubtedly an odd game, but it's also incredibly complex. It borrows from a wide range of influences, from the obvious — say, Battle Royale or the Corpse Party series, along with 999/Virtue's Last Reward — to the surprising (i.e. Ace Attorney, old arcade shooters and rhythm games like Hatsune Miku or DJ Max), with an end result that's wonderfully addictive.
Though "wonderful" is probably not the correct word to use in this case. There's little about Danganronpa, content-wise, that's wonderful, at least in any positive, uplifting sense of the word. It's incredibly dark, and occasionally brutal. True, they don't show anything too gory (the blood here is all hot pink), but they don't need to — without giving anything away, I can tell you that the first murder scene is incredibly bloody, and it only gets worse from there.
What makes it so playable, however, is the way it incorporates those surprising influences. Not only is the story engrossing, it keeps you hooked by making your character's life literally depending on you paying attention. If you want to survive, you need to not only know what's gone on, but also have the ability to recall them all, Ace Attorney-style, with the clock ticking down and your life on the line. Not only that, you have time your time your interjections so that you can literally shoot down erroneous statements, and then, to deal the damning piece of evidence, you need to be able to master a fast-paced rhythm mini-game.
(Though of those three influences, the rhythm mini-games are by far the least fun. Until you figure out what you're supposed to do, in fact, they seem like a massive, pointless pain. After you figure things out, they're merely a little annoying.)
Also, apropos of nothing other than I'm mentioning the things I like about Danganronpa, I have to say that the game looks fantastic. You don't usually see color palettes that combine bright pastels and even brighter neons, but that's what you get here, and it's far more visually appealing than it has any right to be.
For that matter, the whole is far more appealing, period, than it has any right to be, and I say that as someone who doesn't usually have the stomach for terrifying M-rated games. No matter how disturbing it may be, Danganronpa is also quite well-written, and it knows how to engage you so that it's more than just going from Point A to Point B by way of lots of gore (and yes, that's a jab at Corpse Party). It's an unsettling journey, but it's probably one worth taking.