This made me feel the ultimate despair.
Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc is a cult classic that became famous in the West for an online game of all things, which served as the first entry point into the series for an English-speaking audience. It was officially released in English on PlayStation Vita three years later and is now finally finding its way onto Nintendo systems for the first time on Switch. This is a game that I have a lot of complex emotions about the first time I play it in 2021, and unfortunately that is only made worse by the fact that the Switch version has some pretty clear issues involving one of the cheapest and laziest port- Reveal jobs I’ve seen before.
For those who don’t know, Danganronpa is a crime visual novel with a limited cast of recurring characters. It starts on the first day of school with freshman Makoto Naegi preparing for his first day at Hope’s Peak Academy, an elite high school where every student is an “Ultimate” – someone who is the absolute best in a certain talent . When he arrives, Makoto discovers that the school is not what it appears to be, and he and fourteen other Ultimate students are trapped in a sadistic game led by a mechanical teddy bear named Monokuma.
Monokuma explains that they will be forced to spend the rest of their lives on Hope’s Peak, and he will only allow someone to escape if they murder a fellow student and get away with it. Once the murder occurs, of course, the surviving students must fight back in a class process in which they try to determine the identity of the murderer – known as “the blackness”. If they successfully expose the black man, the criminal will be executed. If they fail, the black guy and everyone escapes different is executed instead.
The gameplay is divided into three phases: school life, investigation and the class exams. During school life, you spend a lot of time watching cutscenes from the main story and hanging out with your favorite characters to get to know them better. Once a corpse is discovered, the investigative phase begins, in which you investigate the crime scene for evidence and search the rest of the school to investigate the clues.
The class exams are Danganronpa’s bread and butter, and this is where the gameplay really shines and stands out from other crime series games. Rather than a simple testimonial where you can carefully cross-examine one character at a time, class exams are defined by the non-stop debate where everyone tries to say their peace of mind on events at the same time. The non-stop debate takes place in real time and is actually also a kind of first-person shooter; The evidence you have gathered is presented as literally “truth balls” and you need to fire the correct truth ball at a contradicting statement.
Careful aiming and timing are important as irrelevant chatter from characters in the room (known as “white noise”) physically appears on the screen and gets in the way of your bullets. Since this all happens in real time and an actual timer runs out, great importance is attached to being able to find out the secret quickly under pressure. This encourages the player to really pay attention to the details of a case rather than wasting time flipping through every piece of evidence to suddenly see a contradiction.
There are also two mini-games that appear in class exams: the Hangman’s Gambit, where you answer a question by quickly shooting the correct letters, and the Bullet Time Battle, a game with a bad rhythm. Neither of these mini-games are very good, with Hangman’s Gambit tending to be hilariously simple, and Bullet Time Battle being so incredibly frustrating that I’m pretty sure the beat’s timing isn’t programmed right. Fortunately, these mini-games are rare, and each only appears once per attempt on average. I think it’s telling that the sequel Danganronpa 2: Goodbye Despair drastically changed the way these two mini-games work, literally calling it a brand new mini-game “(Improved) Hangman’s Gambit”.
But in a visual novel, nothing is more important than the story, so let me describe Danganronpa’s narrative in a little more detail than usual. The story’s greatest strength is that the entire game takes place with the same core group of characters. Unlike most crime novels, which introduce new characters to take on the roles needed for each subsequent case, Danganronpa’s recurring storyline offers unique opportunities to make each case important to those who propel it. Each character has a chance to evolve than you normally get to see in this type of game, and the fact that the killer is always someone you’ve spent time with and got to know adds to the stake of any mystery. Victims are not faceless nobody, and killers are people you may have trusted.
Besides, the circumstances of any murder were never really easy. It’s difficult to go into detail without spoiling the story, but there was always a twist in the plot that took any case beyond the simple question, “This person killed this other person.” The captivating storylines and character motivations that slowly emerged as the game progressed made me feel like I was seeing more, and once the game really got going I fought it out of hand despite all the problems it had.
And boy, did it have problems.
Danganronpa’s writing seems to have great difficulty managing the flow of information to the player and I was often frustrated with what the narrative was focusing on. An important reveal towards the end of the game is so much anticipated that I would be really shocked if someone reached the ending without predicting it. she will predict this revelation before it happens.
But when the time for the reveal finally comes, great emphasis will be placed on the shock of the reveal itself, and an actual half hour of dialogue is only spent trying to get the in-game characters to take the reveal at face value. So much time and energy is wasted bringing the characters to conclusions that you, the gamer, have drawn hours before, and then when someone finally asks what it all means – a question you’ve no doubt been asking yourself for a long time – they are simply told it doesn’t matter and the game never brings it up again.
Characters in Danganronpa have a terrible habit of not asking questions that any sane person would ask, and accidentally making moments that could have been smart, feel like mistakes. A particular part of the story depends on learning new information from the victim’s death message, but that twist brings with it the problem that there is no explanation of how the victim was White this information. The message itself doesn’t make any sense, and there is no reason for the victim to have said it, and none of the surviving characters address this issue, so it feels like a story hole, although a major reveal much later in the game is a reason for the figure to know this. It’s a deliberate premonition, but because no one seems to be asking the questions a sane person would ask, it feels like a mistake.
No character suffers from this problem more than Makoto himself. Since he is the point of view character, everything that happens in the story is filtered through his thoughts and actions, and he is quite slow at recording. He never takes on the premonition that the game is spoon-feeding you, and sometimes he actually refuses to investigate certain things during an investigation to keep the player from discovering something the writers don’t want to know.
I remember precisely one point where the characters were all looking for a missing person, and I was sure they were in a storage room nearby. When Makoto arrived at the storage room, he found that the door was locked and only remarked that it was “strange” and did not want to question it any further. When I gave up and left the room, I ran into another person in the hallway who said the missing person was found in the storage room. A good point of view character should help the player notice details in the story, but Danganronpa’s main character spends more time actively holding the player back.
What’s up with the switch port? Well, somehow there are some pretty significant frame rate issues both with walking around school and during class tests. The frame rate in Trials gets especially bad towards the end of the game as white noise fills the screen more aggressively, making it difficult to properly aim your Truth Orbs. I know that’s technically the whole point of white noise, but I feel like a drop in game performance wasn’t the way the developers wanted to increase the difficulty.
It’s bizarre enough that porting a PSP game to Switch would have problems, but that version also happens to be based on the anniversary edition released on mobile in 2020 and some pretty significant problems are inherited from it. The new section of the character gallery has been bizarrely carelessly treated, and the language lines are labeled with subtitles that appear to have been generated by speech recognition software. “Lies will get you nowhere” is labeled “Lies will know you better” and “I refuse to vote” becomes “I escape the voice”.
It gets even worse in the actual script of the game, where there is a bug that results in every line of dialog with a percentage symbol simply not loading. The dialog stops where the icon would be and completely skips the rest of the text box until you move on to the next line, which makes some conversations completely incomprehensible. This bug also exists in the mobile version of the game and has still not been fixed based on a currently running YouTube playthrough of the iOS version. The only conclusion I can come to is that this version either wasn’t tested from start to finish, or that they just didn’t care enough to fix such an obvious and critical bug in two different versions of the game.
I find it very difficult to sum up danganronpa by whether I like it or not. Its overall structure – both narrative and gameplay – is so resourceful and unique that it feels fresh even a decade after it was originally released, but I spent a lot of time playing the game feeling frustrated and overwhelmed. Still, I was forced to keep coming back to it; I didn’t want to put it down and right now, as I write this review, I’m already two chapters in the sequel. It’s a game that I believe by and large does not achieve its full potential, but it also manages to rise above its own failures with its strong sense of style and ingenuity.
Unfortunately, I’m much less at odds with the quality of the switch port, in particular. While none of the issues are significant enough to really prevent someone from enjoying this game, the fact that such fundamental issues from an earlier version have not been addressed makes it difficult to justify that version to others. I think Danganronpa is worth researching and trying out for yourself, but I don’t recommend doing this by playing a port of the mobile version that is performing poorly on Switch.