Monokuma is easily my favorite talking animal ever in a video-game. There, I said it. And he’s just one of the many things that make Dangan Ronpa not just the best visual novel to come out in a while, but the best game on the PlayStation Vita. Sex, murder, betrayal, imprisonment, sacrifice; these are just some of the themes explored. And not only are these themes interesting, they are utilized in a way that meshes gameplay and narrative properly. This is a perfectly paced tale. At no point did gameplay feel irrelevant or monotonous, and at no point did the dialogue drag on too long without interaction. In many ways, this is the Phoenix Wright game that Capcom was never talented enough to make. In short, if you have a Vita, you better have Dangan Ronpa.
The story behind Dangan Ronpa is as morbid as it is hilarious. A mix between Persona and Battle Royale, fifteen high school students attending a prestigious institution are all knocked out and end up in the main hall. They are then told by Monokuma (a sadistic talking bear), that they can either live out the rest of their days within the confines of the school, or murder someone and leave. The loophole, ladies and gentlemen, is that in order for the murder to be successful, they also have to get away with it. As you can imagine, just like in Lord of the Flies, the students become more and more hostile, and the inevitable occurs.
But the fun doesn’t end there. Most of the time, players will be conversing and learning more about the other characters, as well as finding clues as to who the mastermind behind this whole operation is. And let me tell you, you’ll be guessing until the very end. After a murder occurs, the player finds clues and then goes to a class trial. These trials work more like tribunals and end up being long debates between all the students. While Ace Attorney is by no means a horrible interpretation of this, I found that Dangan Ronpa didn’t have me guessing the culprit off the bat, and that each conclusion I made wasn’t ignored because the trial went in a proper pattern.
It reminded me of Primal Fear. I (the character Makoto) would make one assumption, another would pop up in a timely manner that left me thinking and guessing. It’s just like a good thriller movie. In the trials, you use “truth bullets” or evidence to use promptly during debates. There are also other portions, including a fill-in comic to summarize the case as well as a rhythm mini-game added for good measure. But what’s most amazing is this is, in essence, a visual novel game. When first playing 999: 9 Hours, 9 Doors, 9 Persons, the endless text and lack of puzzle solving became frustrating and tedious. DR, on the hand, always has moments between barrels of text that allow for interactivity. Even if it’s something as simple as walking back from the gym, there is no point where players will forget, this is a video-game. And for those who think there’s no replayability in this title, it adds an alternate story after you complete it the first time.
The Vita has a host of interesting titles, but Dangan Ronpa is the first to innovate without taking away what makes it great: its story. There are also tons of pop culture references including some from Lord of the Rings, McDonald’s, Dragon Ball and more. The writers at NISA have done a fantastic job here, and this makes the anticipation for Dangan Ronpa 2 all the more painful. Trigger Happy Havoc: Dangan Ronpa is a strong argument that there need to be more visual novels localized here in America. It also pushes Japan back on the innovation list, a pedestal they have eluded for many years. Oh, humanity! Oh, Dangan Ronpa!