Licensed games are always a mixed bag. They offer the enticing promise of immersing oneself in an established setting, but are often rushed, shoddy messes of poor game design that serve to dash the collective hopes of their intended audiences. For every Batman: Arkham Asylum that comes along to break the mold, there are a hundred variants on Aliens: Colonial Marines…or, heaven help us, Dragon Ball Z: Sagas. So it was with some mild trepidation that I started playing Psycho-Pass: Mandatory Happiness, a visual novel based on the 2012 anime series developed by 5pb. The developer certainly has a good track record, having worked on popular genre staples such as Steins;Gate, and fortunately this pedigree helps to elevate Mandatory Happiness to something worthwhile for fans of the Psycho-Pass franchise…although, this comes with some caveats. Much like Psycho-Pass: The Movie, Mandatory Happiness is a slightly disposable, yet ultimately enjoyable look at another facet of the Psycho-Pass universe.
The world of Psycho-Pass is essentially an anime version of the film Minority Report, sans Tom Cruise, along with a healthy dose of other cyberpunk influences. It’s the future, and a newly isolationist Japan has implemented a new system of government known as the Sybil System. Under Sybil, a person’s mental state can be measured and quantified via cymatic scans of their brain activity to form their Psycho-Pass, which indicates said individual’s current state of mind via a color-coded Hue and their likelihood to commit a crime, known as a Crime Coefficient. Those with a certain Crime Coefficient are dubbed “latent criminals” and are subject to a life in rehabilitation or, should it come down to it, execution on the spot by the Public Safety Bureau. Armed with special weapons called Dominators, Sybil’s eyes and ears in the PSB are able to measure a person’s Psycho-Pass and dispense justice accordingly. To increase their effectiveness, the PSB utilizes trained latent criminals, called Enforcers, as glorified hunting dogs, able to sniff out crime while under the strict guiding hand of their Inspectors.
Mandatory Happiness’ plot runs parallel to the first season of the anime series, and focuses on a pair of new characters. The first is Nadeshiko Kugatachi, an amnesiac Enforcer who lacks understanding of human emotion. The other lead is Takuma Tsurugi, an Enforcer who is investigating the disappearance of his lover. Both leads join the PSB’s Division One around the same time, coming into contact with the cast of the show’s first season in the process. Akane Tsunemori, Shinya Kogami, Nobuchika Ginoza and company are all present and accounted for, and their personalities and dynamics are transcribed faithfully, but the emphasis is largely placed on the new leads. After being called to the new setting of Sado Marine City to investigate a bizarre kidnapping, Division One eventually gets pulled into a conflict with a mysterious entity known as Alpha, a hacker who seeks to bring happiness to mankind through twisted means.
The story of Mandatory Happiness is fairly interesting, and Psycho-Pass fans will find familiar themes and concepts being explored. It begins much like the early portion of the series, proceeding in an almost episodic fashion through a number of seemingly isolated cases that all present unique moral dilemmas and potentially gruesome outcomes. At one point, for example, there is a case involving a mother kidnapping her two-year-old child after leaving behind signs of apparent abuse. Depending on decisions made during the case, the child can be rescued and the mother taken into custody…or the infant could be labeled a latent criminal while being clutched by his mother’s severed arms, the only pieces of her left intact. The subject matter at hand is often dark and troubling, although muted somewhat by the game’s T rating. For a series that opens with a man swelling and popping like a blood-and-gore filled balloon, Mandatory Happiness is largely content to simply tell rather than show, leading to the proceedings feeling oddly lighter and softer when compared to its source material. It’s a bit disingenuous, to say the least.
Eventually, the curtain is pulled back and antagonist Alpha comes into the foreground; this is where the story loses a lot of its luster. Without giving too much away, Alpha is a classic cyberpunk trope and meshes well with the Psycho-Pass setting, providing something fresh for Mandatory Happiness to set itself apart from the pack. Unfortunately, despite being the mastermind behind the sequence of events in the game’s first half, Alpha isn’t terribly compelling as a villain on his own. Since the majority of the plot’s key twists and revelations are based on Nadeshiko and Takuma’s history with Alpha, a lot of the late-game drama can fall flat if you aren’t particularly invested in them. Nadeshiko spends a good chunk of the game channeling Lieutenant Saavik from Wrath of Khan, and while the other characters lampshade her emotionlessness with wisecracks and teasing, at no point did I ever find her to be engaging. I found Takuma to be a little more likeable, as he provides a human foil to Nadeshiko’s robotic nature and has a more personal motivation behind his quest. Still, both characters are fairly typical anime characters and rarely rise above their pre-established personae.
Compounding the issue is that the writing in Mandatory Happiness lacks a certain…punch, for lack of a better word. On top of the occasional grammar or spelling error — ranging from missing punctuation to missing words — the weak writing serves to undermine the characters’ personalities and dampen the dramatic impact of the story. Even in the game’s final act, when it begins to pay homage/blatantly rip off Neuromancer and the plot is at its most dramatic, the significance of events is rendered less effective by rote prose and dialogue. It’s unfortunate, as taken at face value, the story is a really interesting addition to the Psycho-Pass universe: it’s just a shame about the execution.
Gameplay-wise, Mandatory Happiness is a pretty typical visual novel. At the beginning, you can choose between either Nadeshiko or Takuma, and playing through both of their routes will help you to form a more complete grasp of the story. There aren’t any puzzles or mysteries to solve, but rather a number of branching decisions that lead to different outcomes and a number of endings, both good and bad. What makes Mandatory Happiness unique is the inclusion of a character’s Hue, which is affected by the decisions you make during each case. At certain points, you will be offered the choice of taking a mental supplement or attending therapy sessions, and whether or not you do so can have a positive or negative effect on your character’s Hue. Depending on your Hue’s shade, characters will react differently to your behavior and different options and routes will become available. Play your cards wrong (or right, depending on your point of view), and you may even find yourself catching the interest of a certain white-haired, Criminally Asymptomatic individual. There are quite a few different ways to experience the events of Mandatory Happiness, although I would encourage making a save at each key decision point to avoid accidentally locking yourself into a bad ending (which did happen to me on one of Takuma’s routes). The fast-forward option that allows you to skip through text also comes in handy.
The presentation of Mandatory Happiness is nothing to write home about, but it is solid nevertheless. Character portraits look like they were lifted straight out of the anime, meaning they’re crisp and clean looking, although they don’t animate much other than blinking. The background images also look very nice, although again there isn’t a lot of animation going on and they oftentimes appear weirdly sanitized compared to the events being described in the game. You’d think that, for instance, a horde of robotic drones shaped like dragons would merit a little more pizzazz, but alas. Fortunately, the soundtrack does a lot to elevate some of the tenser moments. It’s largely comprised of tunes from the show, but it’s hard not to get pumped up when that killer main motif kicks in. I would recommend messing with the audio settings at the beginning of the game, as the initial audio mixing is a little off, especially during sequences involving helicopters where the sound of whirling rotors drowns out both music and dialogue alike. Speaking of dialogue, most of it is fully voiced in Japanese, and the delivery is, for the most part, quite good. A few issues worth mentioning include occasional moments of lag (which seem to occur more frequently if you’re skipping through text, but there is a second or so that’s noticeable whenever the game needs to load a new character portrait or line of dialogue) and tiny menus — artifacts of the game’s Xbox One origins — which are rather egregious on the Vita’s smaller screen.
There is a bare-bones assortment of extras in Mandatory Happiness, mostly consisting of audio snippets and concept art that can be unlocked by playing a rudimentary sliding puzzle/matching minigame accessible from the main menu. By matching portraits of Psycho-Pass characters, you’ll help a chibi Akane capture a suspect and earn points that can be spent on unlocking new extras. It’s a fun little time sink, although there isn’t much depth to it and unlocking everything will probably take more time than it’s worth. There’s also a handy collection of tips that unlock whenever a new piece of terminology is introduced, which can serve as a handy primer for Psycho-Pass neophytes. While I would recommend at least watching the first season of the anime before playing Mandatory Happiness, it is nevertheless nice that the game includes such a feature.
In conclusion, Psycho-Pass: Mandatory Happiness is a passable extension of the Psycho-Pass universe that will prove enjoyable for hardcore fans of the series and visual novels in general. Unfortunately, an assortment of minor issues prevent me from wholeheartedly recommending this game, as it’s held back by a weak script and a lack of polish and additional features that would make the experience more worthwhile. If you don’t have an interest in the property, or are coming off the highs of more accomplished fare such as Danganronpa or Zero Escape, or even 5pb.’s other work, you may be better off seeking happiness elsewhere.