WARNING: some spoilers ahead. Easily enough to spoil plot but not puzzles. You have been warned.
A deadly judgement... A deadly deception... A deadly betrayal... A deadly riddle, a deadly defense, a deadly faith... A deadly...class trial...!
The first installment in the Danganronpa series, Danganronpa: Trigger-Happy Havoc is a 2010 visual novel game developed and published by Spike (now Spike Chunsoft). The player assumes control of Makoto Naegi, a student who has been invited to attend the prestigious Hope's Peak Academy. Enrolment is strictly by invitation only and students must already have been the "Ultimate" in their field; Makoto's name was pulled in a lottery, making him the Ultimate Lucky Student. Upon arrival, Mokoto passes out, and awakens inside the school with fourteen other students - the students are now completely locked in, complete with steel plates over the windows. The students are greeted by Monokuma, an apparent black-and-white teddy bear who can talk to the students. It soon becomes clear that Monokuma is (a puppet of) the mastermind behind the "game" they are to play: in order to be let out of the school, a student must murder another student and get away with it. A short time after each murder, the "class" takes part in a trial to determine who the guilty party is - if the guilty party is correctly identified, they are executed; if not, the guilty party may leave the school and the remainder of the group are executed. Aside from Makoto, the students are "Ultimate Swimming Pro" Aoi Asahina, "Ultimate Affluent Progeny" Byakuya Togami, "Ultimate Gambler" Celestia Ludenberg, "Ultimate Programmer" Chihiro Fujisaki, "Ultimate Fanfic Creator" Hifumi Yamada, "Ultimate Fashionista" Junko Enoshima, "Ultimate Moral Compass" Kiyotaka Ishimaru, "Ultimate Baseball Star" Leon Kuwata, "Ultimate Biker Gang Leader" Mondo Owada, "Ultimate Martial Artist" Sakura Ogami, "Ultimate Pop Sensation" Sayaka Maizono, "Ultimate Writing Prodigy" Toko Fukawa, "Ultimate Clairvoyant" Yasuhiro Hagakure, and Kyoko Kirigiri (whose Ultimate talent is not immediately revealed). The game was originally developed for the PSP but has since been ported to the PS Vita, PS4, Android and iOS, and the three major desktop OSs via Steam. It received two direct sequels and several spin-offs, as well as adaptations into manga, anime, and novels.
The biggest thing about this game that I want to tear to shreds is its treatment of some social issues. Bearing in mind that I played the English localisation (released in 2016) I'm going to raise two points with a TL;DR that the localisation staff should have known better. I hesitate to add the devs of the original game should have known better for two reasons: 1) I don't know the content of the original, and 2) I'm not sure how much was acceptable in Japanese culture at the time1. The first (relatively minor) thing I want to make note of is a two-line piece of dialogue between Toko and Yasuhiro, where Toko makes mention of the fact that she was raised by a father and two mothers - Yasuhiro's response is basically "that's messed up!" and the idea is immediately shelved. No further dialogue, no discussion later on, and the hanging implication is that's why Toko has so many issues and it's where her DID began. The audience is left to fill in the gaps with backstory and lore instead of being told "oh no, that's actually wrong, she's not messed up because she was raised by a polyam family, she's messed up because her dad was abusive". There's not much excuse for leaving this bit hanging like this in 2016 and there's no excuse for such an important part of someone's backstory to be completely misrepresented with the real representation hidden behind wikis and fandom theories.
The other point is a lot stronger. Case 2 again heavily features Toko and we get introduced to her other personality, Genocide Jack (or Genocide Jill, the game seems to toss a coin each time the name comes up). A Hangman-style game helps Makoto gain some clarity as to what Toko's gone/going through - gained through a six-letter word. This six-letter word (which I will not repeat here, look it up yourselves) is not only a slur towards people with a certain mental disorder, it's not even the right mental disorder. Great job on the localisation. I don't know what word or phrase they used in the original, Japenese version, but the English word is one that could (and should) have been easily avoided. Toko's DID is eventually used as a plot point in quite a few cases - and in a positive way - but IMO there's nothing in the game worse than the usage of that word, and this includes some pretty horrific executions. It's a pity that these two issues were treated so badly in the game, because otherwise there's some pretty good discussion, deconstruction, and debate around some other social issues. Murder 2 discusses the toxic aspect of masculinity, as well as gender constructs (still very relevant today). Murder 4 discusses suicide. Murder 5 discusses, in general, hope vs. despair. I expect the same out of the next two games when I get around to them.
So what about the rest of the game? In terms of the writing, aside from the aforementioned it's a pretty good murder mystery (although it flagrantly breaks one of the Ten Commandments of Detective Fiction) with some elegantly-concealed foreshadowing in practically every part of the game. The storyline also quickly establishes itself as a case of "anyone can die" and it's not immediately apparent who (apart from Makoto) gets to wear the Plot Armour. So that at least is nifty because it does keep you guessing if you haven't got (or, in my case, refuse to have) a sharp eye for detail. Ditto the remainder of the twists (the game is not just about whodunit, but also "whydunit" and "howdunit"). Once again, though, it's marred with unnecessary, over-the-top sexual references. They seemed to be aiming for comic relief but a lot of the references were just... timed really badly, I guess is the best phrase. Toko especially in the late game drops a lot of these, which is more-or-less in line with her character but at the same time I felt her character had already been very well established and she didn't need to reinforce it over and over. She wasn't the only, ahem, culprit in this, but she was one of the worst offenders.
Once again, a Spike Chunsoft game has showed itself to have a very good soundtrack (another one I've smashed on repeat on my iPod. Yes I still have an iPod.) and very clever graphics. When they're not avatars talking one-on-one to you (i.e. Makoto), the characters are represented as paper-thin cutouts. Then again, so is the bulk of the scenery. It was rather satisfying watching every wall, floor and ceiling, every bit of furniture, and literally everything else in a room magically construct itself into a semblance of normalcy every time Makoto moved from one room to another. A gorgeous style. And again on the audio, the dub was rather passable - there were a few parts that were rather unconvincing but in general the VA was done well. Special mention to the actors who did VA for Junko, Toko, and... ugh... Hifumi. Hifumi is creepy as fuck and a lot of the lines he says are very stereotypically otaku - no, actually, they're way over-the-top stereotypical otaku, especially in the way(s) he talks to or about the female characters. Some of these actors must have been paid a lot to say some of the shit they said.
I'd like to close on a (probably slightly misquoted) quote from my friend, who had already played through and was keen to watch me do the same: "Rule 1: Don't get attached to anyone. Rule 0: Get attached to everyone." An interesting idea to take into such a video game, but I'd like to disagree a little with it in that the characters I got attached to survived comfortably - one of them had plot armour (Makoto, of course), and the other showed no signs of being a murderer or murderee. It's hard to not get attached to anyone but most of the characters I just couldn't relate to and had no emotion when they died (except for Hifumi - live on stream, when he was shown dead on the floor I let out the biggest, evilest cackle you can imagine).
- Graphics: 8/10 They were fun. A bit simplistic, and not what I'd expect from a visual novel but they were kinda cool.
- Sound: 9/10 God the soundtrack was good. And for English voice acting, it was a really rather good sonic experience.
- Playability: 7/10 The learning curve was good, but there were frustrating bits, especially in the trial sequences. (I'm taking into account my playing experience being disjointed.)
- Lastability: 8/10 I haven't tried out School Mode but the plot was good enough for me to keep playing, so there's good replayability.
- Plot: 7/10 Chapter 2 was not great. I can't give it more than a 7 because of this. But I can't rate it less than 7 because the rest of it was great.
- Overall: 39/50 = 7.8/10 A more horrific, and more adult, Phoenix Wright with similar logic, but a good game to keep me intrigued.
I am not attempting to excuse this kind of thing, but rather explain it. Similarly, the n-word was tossed around more than pigskins back in the 1800s and while we recognise that as a bad thing now, it was arguably more acceptable back then.