The trace bore fruit.
Kanae, a young mother suspected of child abuse, had disappeared with her infant son Yuya. Fortunately, our analyst Karanomori found that baby goods bought with Kanae’s credit card had been delivered to a derelict apartment block in an abandoned district of the city.
When we reached the apartment, we kicked in the door and told Kanae to put Yuya down. This only seemed to agitate her more, and she screamed curses at us as she raised her son above her head in a blind rage. My character, a stony-faced woman named Nadeshiko, pulled her Dominator on Kanae. Her Crime Coefficient Level was over 300, with no chance of recovery. The weapon transformed into Eliminator Mode and the safety clicked off. Nadeshiko pulled the trigger, and Kanae exploded into viscera, coating the walls and her child.
But it wasn’t over yet. The trauma of his mother’s elimination — at my hands — increased Yuya’s Crime Coefficient to 115. Not even six months old, Yuya was now a Latent Criminal and would be transferred to a detention centre where he would be raised by the Ministry of Welfare. Although they would do their best to rehabilitate him, he’d always be a second-class citizen, quite literally from cradle to grave.
The case was closed. Nadeshiko’s colleagues praised her for a job well done. I felt like dirt. This is just one of the many, many ways an early case in Psycho-Pass: Mandatory Happiness can play out.
A spin-off of the cerebral anime series Psycho-Pass, Mandatory Happiness takes place in Japan during the early 22nd century, a dystopic vision of the country as a re-isolationist technocracy. The citizens of this Japan are governed by the Sibyl System, a nation-wide computer network able to evaluate its subjects’ innate potential, as well as criminal probability (the aforementioned Crime Coefficient level), through instant biometric scans. Sibyl’s will is executed by the Ministry of Welfare’s Public Safety Bureau, who are essentially the nation’s police force, as well as the series’ anti-hero protagonists. The workload of the MWPSB is split into two roles: Inspectors, detectives who carry out enquiries and investigations, and Enforcers, Latent Criminals who serve as hunting dogs and trigger fingers for their Inspector superiors.
Set during the first half of the anime’s first season, Mandatory Happiness concerns a spate of crimes that have hit Sado Marine City, a self-sufficient artificial island off the coast of Honshu. Each case is different and, on the surface, seem to have nothing to do with each other, except for the presence of an earnest young man named Alpha, who promised to help the perpetrators achieve true happiness.
To aid in their investigation, the MWPSB recruits the protagonists, two original characters who you must choose between. There’s the hot-tempered and good-hearted Enforcer Tsurugi, or the cold Inspector Nadeshiko, a reserved woman who is logical to the point of sociopathy. Both have their own narration, approach and motivations, as well as several different endings depending on which of their ideals you pursue. They’re both fairly well-rounded; Tsurugi is much more likable than Nadeshiko, but the icy Inspector tends to have more startling tricks up her sleeve.
The first half of the story sees the MWPSB investigating various crimes throughout Sado Marine City, while trying to uncover the identity of the mysterious Alpha. You’re often given choices on how you’d like to approach each investigation; i.e., will you canvas the neighborhood to shake down potential witnesses, or will you stay at HQ and go over the collected data? You aren’t actually doing any detective work, though; Mandatory Happiness is a traditional visual novel through and through, and one that only allows interactivity through set choices rather than play mechanics or puzzle solving. That’s not to say it’s not a satisfying experience; there are so many different and fascinating ways each scenario can play out that it’s fun to go back and try a different approach, even (especially?) if you think things may take a disastrous turn.
The game’s second half ditches the “Crime of the Week” format and follows a game of cat and mouse between the MWPSB and Alpha. The stakes are raised here, though a little too much for my liking. Eventually, when the fate of the world hung in the balance, I couldn’t help roll my eyes and wish there were more small-scale, individual crimes to solve. That said, the ride itself was pretty compelling, and the narrative raises numerous questions about the philosophy of happiness. It doesn’t quite answer any of these questions (how could it?), and I do wish the game dug a bit deeper into these themes, but it still provokes a lot of thought about the nature of free will and satisfaction within a surveillance state society. I was particularly impressed with the myriad ways the story can conclude, each of which brings a nice level of closure to the game’s overarching plot.
There’s also the protagonist’s “Hue” to look after. Hue is a visualization of one’s current mental state; think a novelty mood ring that isn’t a novelty. Stressful or traumatic incidents will darken your Hue, and at key points you’re offered the option to take a refreshing mental supplement to counteract the pressures of the job. Your Hue also has an effect on the story, and depending on its shade, you may find certain options closed off. For example, your superiors might not allow you to take part in a field investigation if they think you’re a liability, and will confine you to data analysis at HQ. However, letting your Hue reach a dark state is the only way to pursue certain paths through the story.
All of the core characters from the anime are present in Mandatory Happiness, from fussy lead Inspector Ginoza to green recruit Akane. Even secondary Enforcers like Yayoi and Kagari get equal screen time. They all look great, too, with huge animation cel-quality portraits that blink and move their mouths as they speak. All characters’ dialogue suits their individual roles, and it’s fun to spend time solving crimes with them, but the only problem is that Tsurugi and Nadeshiko never truly fit among them. Such is the rub with original characters who don’t appear elsewhere, and I never really felt like I was part of the team. In fact, the plot was so focused on the new characters that the core cast seemingly had little agency in the story’s proceedings.
This brings me to my other issue with Mandatory Happiness: It never truly feels like Psycho-Pass. The anime series is a fiercely literary work that sees its heroes and villains trade Kierkegaard and Sartre quotes more frequently than they trade blows, something of a trademark and arguably a major draw. There’s a little bit of this present in Mandatory Happiness, with slight nods to The Tale of Genji, Ovid’s Metamorphoses and the works of Tanith Lee, but not nearly as many as fans of the series would come to expect.
The overt literary and philosophical references aren’t the only key aspect missing from Mandatory Happiness: None of the body horror or gore is present. Instead, the game is content to fade-to-black and “tell, don’t show” when somebody explodes. This serves to make the game an oddly sanitized take on Psycho-Pass’ gritty dystopia. With that said, I admit I was relieved to find the game devoid of the source material’s penchant for sexual violence.
Mandatory Happiness’ visuals are strong, but it was obviously produced on a limited budget. Aside from blinking and mouth movements, the game is virtually devoid of animation, and no minor characters or townspeople have portraits or voicework of their own. Even the series’ trademark drone robots are spoken of but remain unseen. A late-game chapter describes an army of drones on the fritz, but we’re shown nothing aside from an empty street. Sadly, these budgetary constraints make what should be a bustling megalopolis feel like a lonely ghost town. The sound design is a little iffy, too: The voicework is largely excellent, while the soundtrack is made up of original tracks mixed with pieces from the anime. Though they’re good, there’s a gap of silence when a song ends before it loops again, somewhat like the Redbook Audio of the Sega CD days. It’s a little jarring.
I enjoyed my time with Mandatory Happiness, although I came away from it feeling a bit sullen. Licensed games rarely tend to add much to their individual franchises, but Psycho-Pass’ creator, Urobuchi Gen, got his start writing visual novels for Nitro+, the studio that paired up with 5pb to develop critical darling Steins;Gate. Taking that into consideration, Psycho-Pass and 5pb seem like a match made in heaven, but the result of this pairing is ultimately, well, just another licensed game. Though Mandatory Happiness is an above-average visual novel in its own right, it woefully underutilizes its setting and suffers from mediocre writing. A little more love could’ve made this one an essential visual novel, but as it stands, it’s still a pretty good cyberpunk adventure.