The game is basically fine. It oozes personality with a distinctive aesthetic that's serviceable at worst and compelling at best. It boasts some clever twists and well-done mysteries. It's also a bizarre mishmash of mechanics, some of which work and some of which don't (the "Re: Action" system is flat-out the worst attempt at conversation branching I have ever seen in a game) featuring paper-thin characters and a bevy of plot holes. (There are also a few moments that are shockingly insensitive or offensive, but that's another story.) It borrows heavily from influences including Ace Attorney, Zero Escape, Persona 4, and Battle Royale, but almost always in shallow ways that fail to emulate what made them great. The end result is entertaining, flashy, and kind of dumb.
[Gamasutra:] A lot of the characters fit into really strong stereotypes. The concept of being "The Ultimate" whatever means they stand out as stereotypes. Can you talk about why you went in that direction?
[Game Producer Yoshinori Terasawa]: What were we thinking about? It's hard to answer that! [laughs] The scenario writer, Kazutaka Kodaka, he's the one who basically thought of those stereotypes, and he created those characters. He's the one who thought it up. When I spoke to Mr. Kodaka, I requested that he make [the player character] Makoto as non-special as possible, and make the other characters stand out in their own way a lot, and that's why there's this balance. That's how Mr. Kodaka was able to create these characters.
Unlike a lot of other visual novels, there are a lot of other gameplay elements such as free exploration, and the trials having multiple different gameplay elements. Did that grow from the story or did those ideas come first?
YT: It was originally a basic visual novel, but visual novel games are not that popular in Japan anymore, either. So we figured that if Dangan Ronpa were to be just a visual novel, it would not be as popular we wanted it to be, these days. So that's why, in order to show that the game is really interesting, we decided to add a lot of different features -- after the scenario was written.
—Christian Nutt, Dangan Ronpa: Death, stress, and standing out from the crowd
Still, there's a ton of potential here. If they've learned from their missteps, the sequel could be amazing. So we just have to wait for the Danganronpa 2: Goodbye Despair reviews, right?
Well, here's the problem. The English-language outlets that cover these kinds of games tend to love them rather unconditionally.
"Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc is easily one of the most intriguing games I've played in quite some time. It’s as if Persona and Phoenix Wright got together and had a little demon spawn that I didn't want to put down -- no matter how disturbing it can be at times. For fans of adventure/visual novel games, this is an easy must play on Vita this year. But it’s also a great entry for those who tend to find this type of game a little on the slow side and well worth the time."
—Wesley Ruscher, Review: Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc
"It's a seductive mystery with a winning cast, a handful of great surprises and an undeniably appealing tawdriness at its center. The cast is great, the voice acting is strong, and the writing is bizarre in a very good way. The court battles have a dizzying momentum."
—Kirk Hamilton, Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc: The Kotaku Review
"Danganronpa's exactly the sort of thing I've come to expect from Sony's handheld in recent months: a memorable, stylish and effortlessly cool experience of the kind you simply don't get on any other platform. It's a brilliant game, a wonderfully crafted murder mystery, and one of the most engaging stories I've had the pleasure to plow through in recent months."
—Pete Davison, Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc Vita Review: Don't Despair
"If anyone ever again argues with me that games can't hold literary merit, I'm going to point them to Danganronpa. . . . Danganronpa is ultimately the richest game narrative I've experienced in some time, and it's a game I'm going to need to play through a couple of times to fully comprehend its full value as a work of storytelling. . . . [T]he game is the greatest melting pot of philosophical concepts that I've come across in a game to date. . . . In short, Danganronpa is a strong contender for my favourite game ever."
—Matt S., Review: Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc (Vita)
And so on and so on. Even the reviews that admit the game isn't perfect tend to only complain about minor details:
"Danganronpa isn’t without flaws: It desperately needs an option to turn off the back touchpad during the trial scenes, panning around a room can at times be awkward due to the set camera angle, and with as much voice acting is present in the game, I would love to have had every line of dialogue voiced. Yet those are small bumps along what’s otherwise a fantastic (and fantastically twisted) trip through a tale of despair and hope. If titles like Gravity Rush and Tearaway are reasons to own a Vita for any standard gamer, then Danganronpa is a must-have for those of us fueled by a love for experiences a little less ordinary."
—Eric L. Patterson, EGM Review: Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc
Danganronpa is exactly the sort of game the gaming literate should like. Its unique aesthetic makes it feel like the work of an auteur. While most of what's in it is recycled, there's nothing else out there with this particular combination, so it feels like it's full of bold experiments. It's loaded with references to games you already like and it's from a developer known for quirky titles. It has many, many words and some intelligent plot twists. It's even got an unnecessary Japanese title (the title means "Bullet Refutation"; they easily could have translated it to "Bullet Points").
If your favorite games aren't all named "Call of Duty" and none of them are playable on an iPhone, then Danganronpa slides in alongside games like Shovel Knight, Super Meat Boy, and Psychonauts as a symbol of everything good about videogames. But the problem is that these aren't just symbols - they're games, too, and imperfect ones. Shovel Knight is too punishing for its steep difficulty curve. Super Meat Boy lost sight of its own admirable design goals and its levels got too big. And Psychonauts... okay, Psychonauts was really good. The Meat Circus level was awful, though.
I'm not supposed to say these things. Not if I want to be seen as a "core" gamer who loves indies and innovation. Most reviewers won't say them either. (Except for the Meat Circus thing. It's okay to hate the Meat Circus.) And most reviewers aren't saying the bad things that there are to say about about Danganronpa either, so how can I trust them to tell me whether Danganronpa 2 is any better?
I did find one, though.
"[Danganronpa] happily follows in the genre's footsteps--sometimes for better, sometimes for worse. If you're looking for a narrative-driven experience unlike just about anything else out there, Danganronpa delivers handsomely and weirdly. . . . As far as entry points go, Danganronpa is a great one, even if 999 and VLR are better games. If you like what you see here, more strangeness awaits you. Danganropa's tongue-twisting sci-fi (or is it?) narrative will have you constantly second guessing, and while the game-y parts aren't its strongest point, they work well enough."
—Patrick Klepek, Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc Review
Patrick Klepek gives Danganronpa a very even-handed review, listing out both its strengths and weaknesses and arriving at the conclusion that the game is flawed but worthwhile. I trust this. I'm looking forward to seeing what he thinks about Danganronpa 2.