I’m playing a visual novel that stars high school students physically and psychologically pitted against each other by a sadistic, faceless higher authority figure binding them with the allure of freedom and the constant fear of death and betrayal. What game am I playing? If you answered 999, Virtue’s Last Reward, or even Corpse Party, then you are wrong. Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc takes place in (what appears to be) Hope’s Peak Academy, home of only the most elite students Japan has to offer… And you. The protagonist, Makoto Naegi, is your standard faceless teenager that happened to win the opportunity to join this elite school as part of a random drawing. Unlike most of his schoolmates, Naegi has absolutely zero special skills or remarkable characteristics apart from his apparent luck in being picked to join Hope’s Peak, hence he is dubbed the “Ultimate Lucky Student.” Other such “Ultimates” reside in the school with equally-wacky titles such as the “Ultimate Biker Gang Leader,” the “Ultimate Swimming Pro,” and even the “Ultimate Fanfic Creator.” After much proselytizing from the main character on how lucky he is to be part of that elite academy, he steps foot into the school and faints, awakening to find that all is not what it seems: He and fourteen other schoolmates meet in a soiree of confusion, fear and uncertainty as a deceptively-cute headmaster named Monokuma explains their current predicament in no uncertain terms: they are trapped. Trapped indefinitely inside the very school they wished to attend, with only one option for escape: kill. More precisely, kill and not be caught by the rest of the student body. The game can best be described as a strange amalgamation of 999, Phoenix Wright, and some elements of Persona hewed in. The first comparison shouldn’t come as much of a surprise as both games were birthed from the twisted minds over at Spike Chunsoft. The game plays like a standard visual novel for the first half of every chapter and abruptly segues into a morose version of Ace Attorney where you gather clues about each murder, pointing out contradictions later on in the classroom trial and ultimately piecing all of the information you’ve gathered to finger a final suspect. The characters are but the emptiest of empty vessels and simply serve two purposes. Firstly, to provide the player a fetishistic reference to an understandable common context he/she can latch on to; hence the fifteen initial students presented to the player are relatable, one-dimensional caricatures that the player has probably seen in other media (i.e., anime “archetypes”) or in real-life, perhaps drawing upon his/her experience as a forgettable, nondescript high school student with no discernible skills or abilities (already assumed). Secondly, as each character has unique strengths and inevitable character flaws, they inevitably serve as glorifed storyline cues and ways to advance the plot. To be fair, you do get to know more about each characters’ respective back-stories by building relationships in the game’s “free time” mode, a more shallow take on Persona’s “Social Link” dating-sim aspect wherein the player receives the option to seek the rest of the game’s cast leisurely strolling about the campus. Once you’ve found your target, the game mechanically asks you if you “want to spend time” with that character, which pulls up a choice to give your “date” a gift. Gifts are trinkets that can be won on the game’s solitary capsule machine, which the player can discern and match up to his current date as to what little curio is appropriate to hand out. Positive responses give you additional Skills and Skill Points that make the “lawyer-y” parts of the game a little easier. This, however, exposes an inherent issue with the genre—one can spend easily spend 30 hours taking the “scenic route” in Danganronpa, talking to each and every character, pushing every switch, opening every door; but invariably it will always be the same character that triggers the next sequence in the plot. I realize at this point that deconstructing the mechanics of a visual novel of all things isn’t really giving the game any justice. Ultimately, the game provides the player with a linear path from point A, the opening, to point B, the conclusion; with several false endings strewn throughout. It’s shallow entertainment and isn’t supposed to let the player in on the true meaning of the human condition or anything like that. I suppose a more legitimate reason to fault the game is because it tries to do too many things at the same time. Instead of presenting evidence directly and pointing out contradictions like in the Ace Attorney games, one of the class trials’ (many) mini-games has you shoot “evidence bullets” towards statements that fly by the screen to point out inconsistencies in your classmates’ statements. Then after that you get to play hangman (Hangaroo for the plebians out there) by shooting letters that fly into the screen to suss out key words that turn the case around. Then after that you play a rhythm mini-game reminiscent of Bust a Groove to shoot down any further objections. After you’ve proven your point, you get to rebuild the whole scenario as it played out by putting panels on a little comic sheet that illustrates what really went down during the case. If this all sounds incredibly convoluted to you, that’s because it is; and the same confused design ethos follows through the other mini-games and distractions that permeate this title. They don’t appear frequently enough as to hinder the rest of the game, but are definitely jarring experiences. Danganronpa’s aesthetics shine on the Vita’s OLED screen, with crisp character portraits and bright UI elements that take more than just mere inspiration from Atlus’ Persona 4. And for once, high school kids in a Japanese game look vaguely like high school kids should—i.e., not like toddlers with bolt-on breasts. That said, the audio side of the presentation fares just as well, with a variety of aurally-pleasing tracks that range from cheery to spooky to downright terrifying. The English voice-acting team also deserves similar praise as each character’s voice is spot-on and adds a lot to the game’s ambiance. Maybe I’m a sucker for this particular subset of the genre, but I had a hard time putting Danganronpa down. There’s nothing particularly sophisticated about the game’s plot, game mechanics, or presentation; but as someone who barely reads fiction, I’m assuming my experience with the game wouldn’t be that far from what most would feel reading a good novel from cover to cover. Perhaps it’s because my current living situation mandates I live a boring, vanilla suburban life but I simply could not lay my PS Vita to rest until I reached each chapter’s conclusion and find out what messed-up situation these kids get into next. Thanks to the folks at NIS America for providing us with a pre-release copy of Danganronpa. Class starts tomorrow on the PlayStation Network and at your friendly local Datablitz or iTech-type retailers.