The word “sacrifice” has negative connotations, and understandably so. No one ever wants to give up the security that comes with what they already have. But anything and everything new comes at the cost of something else. This is a concept Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc Anniversary Edition implements to ample success. Inevitably, some sacrifices are taken a bit too far, but the majority are worthwhile exchanges, resulting in a very solid foundation for a series that has since fittingly flourished.
Danganronpa follows a group of high school students who have been locked inside Hope’s Peak Academy for an indefinite period of time. They’re given two choices: either they remain inside the school for the rest of their lives, or a single student can leave if they successfully commit murder and get away with it. As students succumb to the call of freedom, dead bodies are found, thus beginning an investigation to catch the perpetrator, lest they go free and leave the rest of the students to be executed in their stead.
Investigations have the player, as Makoto Naegi, gather testimonies from fellow students and search for clues across the school in the vein of point-and-click adventures. Heavily stylized 2D objects and characters on top of a 3D background provide a striking visual flair in exchange for some hitbox hijinks. While relatively minor, there are still enough instances of slightly unclear hitbox detection to be a smidge irritating. A scan feature that points out what can be interacted with is helpful, but it also succumbs to not showing the item’s actual hitbox, making it get all the more hectic in crowded areas as the flat objects overlap in the 3D space.
Streamlined dialogue is also sacrificed for a sense of interactive conversations. You can “react” to respond to a specific word or phrase in a longer string of dialogue, but selecting something doesn’t affect the way the story plays out or what the students think of Makoto. Instead, it’s required to go through all reactions, making conversations with multiple choices repetitive as you speak to the same person again to select a different option. But you can easily forget these imperfections because investigations are relatively short and not where the primary gameplay lies. That honor goes to the underground “trials.”
Trials, in which the students use what they know to attempt to uncover the killer’s identity, completely forego a typical visual novel execution in favor of a variety of puzzle-like and reflex-based segments. Players may have to spell out a crucial keyword, get through to an unresponsive student in a short rhythm game, and recap the timeline of the case comic book-style by filling out its missing panels. These help keep trials engaging by being sprinkled between arguments, which make up the majority of the trials.
In arguments, students present their ideas, which are displayed across the screen. The player must correct any misunderstandings and contradictions by presenting evidence or other students’ statements. This is done by literally shooting the incorrect testimony with the correct information. Danganronpa‘s slightly too narrow hitboxes make their return with the targetable statements, but the “concentration” ability to slow everything down allows argument segments to be appropriately challenging. While the entire system is highly unorthodox, its successful and accessible execution results in its uniqueness and memorability. In addition, you can equip special skills that further improve playability during trials, such as a skill that steadies the crosshair’s aim. To unlock these skills, players have to use their free time in between investigations and trials to become friends with their fellow classmates.
Incorporating a relationship-building feature that most games set in high school try to include is one area that Danganronpa doesn’t attempt to sacrifice. Impressively, the writing for these scenarios is, for the most part, not needlessly ego-rubbing, resulting in predominantly enjoyable moments of character exploration. Increasing your friendship with the other students also rewards you with the aforementioned special skills, adding a gameplay incentive to the relationship-building. This results in thematically appropriate conflicting feelings over seeking out students who you feel may be next to die to increase their friendship before they may get murdered, as well as concern that the characters you grow attached to may end up betraying everyone and become murderers themselves. With these factors in play, it isn’t easy to complete everyone’s scenarios on a single, especially first-time, playthrough. But a simulation mode that unlocks after completing Danganronpa gives ample opportunity to finish up any and all events you may have missed and carry those unlocked skills over to a new playthrough.
Other extra content in Danganronpa, such as a concept art viewer and a music player, encourages further replays. The coins you obtain while inspecting the school and for clearing trials can be used to unlock individual illustrations and songs, which proves enticing for completionists and casual fans alike, as the soundtrack is phenomenal across the board. There aren’t as many voice lines to unlock because only the trial arguments are fully voiced, but it’s entirely excusable considering how Danganronpa‘s extensive soundtrack’s distinct air emotionally elevates scenes.
Ultimately, everything about Danganronpa is highly elevated: the story’s stakes, the characters’ tropes, and even the unique factors of its gameplay. While these sometimes won’t stick their landing, such as some rather exaggerated character stereotypes, the game’s foundation is very strong. It’s no surprise that Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc Anniversary Edition is joined by three other titles, because the sacrifices made for this first entry in the series pave the way for improvements down the line while remaining an unforgettable experience in its own right.