As the games industry has advanced and many game makers have learned to embrace their creativity, we've started to see a lot more games that aren't about those old mainstays: shooting things or avoiding things. In the last few years in particular, we've seen substantial growth in games that are about nothing but looking at things or talking to people.
One might argue the adventure game genre has had the "looking at things and talking to people" market pretty much sewn up for many years now, but it's not quite that simple, and titles like the upcoming Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc for Vita make that abundantly clear.
Danganronpa, you see, isn't really an adventure game, though it incorporates many of that genre's trappings. Neither is it a pure visual novel, though you do spend a lot of your time tapping the "X" button to advance text. It's not a dating sim, either, even though there's a relationship mechanic in place, and despite the presence of "skill points" and special abilities it's not a role-playing game, either. It's a curious mishmash of things that is wonderfully distinctive and distinctly wonderful.
Such blurred lines between different types of game is nothing new for developer Spike Chunsoft, of course; we're talking about a developer whose best-known previous work includes the visual novel-cum-mind-bending puzzle games 999 and Virtue's Last Reward, but whose portfolio also includes curious and underappreciated titles such as the Ace Attorney-meets-Trauma Center hospital life sim Lifesigns: Surgical Unit, baby-making RPG series Conception and, oddly enough, the 3DS StreetPass Battle game, better known as Warrior's Way in the States.
But what is Danganronpa? Well, simply put, it's exactly what I said before: it's a game about looking at things and talking to people. Or, more accurately, it's about investigating murders and then yelling at people.
To explain too much about Danganronpa's premise is to spoil some of the surprises, so I'll refrain from doing that too much here; suffice to say, it makes use of a setup that combines elements of Spike Chunsoft's own 999 and VLR series and Team GrisGris' Corpse Party, then throws in a bit of Ace Attorney and Persona for good measure. Essentially, you'll be spending your time doing one of three things: investigating things, hanging out with people in an attempt to get to know them better, or shouting at them in an attempt to uncover the truth behind each of the game's cases.
Central to each of the game's chapters is a murder mystery. One or more of the cast gets offed -- some distressingly quickly -- and then it's up to you to figure out what happened and argue your case in a "class trial" that culminates in a reveal of who the killer actually was.
It's the class trials that give Danganronpa some of its most interesting scenes and mechanics, and it's all down to the distinctive and very stylized way Spike Chunsoft has chosen to depict these confrontations. Rather than taking Ace Attorney's effective but relatively slow-paced, measured and cerebral approach, Danganronpa's trials are fast-paced, chaotic and sometimes confusing -- much like a real argument.
Since depicting the chaos of a real argument literally using little more than text and character portraits is not particularly easy, Danganronpa adopts an abstract, metaphorical approach through a selection of different game mechanics to represent different stages in the debate. Non-Stop Debates simulate everyone in a group trying to get their own thoughts heard; Hangman's Gambit simulates attempting to come to a conclusion about a specific concept while other things are whirling around inside your head; Bullet Time Battle represents overcoming someone who is resistant to your point of view or what you want to say and, at the end of each case, you'll sum everything up by explaining events in order by arranging them as a comic strip.
Japanese developers have shown themselves a number of times over the years to be particularly open to the idea of using abstract game mechanics as metaphors for what is actually happening. We see this most frequently in the heavily abstract nature of most Japanese role-playing games' battle systems, but Danganronpa takes this approach when it comes to character interaction and conversation. In this case, it makes use of a metaphor that most gamers are very familiar with: a gun.
Mechanically, it works and makes a surprising amount of sense, too; throughout the investigation sections of the game, you load up on "Truth Bullets" which you'll bring to bear during the class trials and literally use to shoot down weak points in the other characters' arguments. Since the Non-Stop Debates in which you use most of your Truth Bullets are, as the name suggests, non-stop -- i.e. dialogue advances whether you're ready for it to do so or not -- you'll have to use your skill and reflexes to carefully take aim and precisely fire your counter-arguments at specific words and phrases in a character's testimony. As the game progresses, too, you'll have to deal with "noise" -- other people shouting what they think while someone's trying to make a point, depicted as purple text flitting across the screen and often getting in the way of the very arguments you're trying to dismantle. Essentially, it's a depiction of cutting through the crap, getting to the point and using what you know to disprove someone else's assertions.
The game makes no attempt to explain why it's adopted the gun-and-bullet metaphor for these segments, and in many ways it's better that way. It's just how the devs have chosen to depict these things, and by divorcing the mechanics from the narrative context, they can be used as a tool to help tell the story rather than being a key part of the ongoing plot. In other words, they're used in the same way that things like mime or other stylized performance techniques might be used in a stage show, or how clearly physically impossible feats are used in otherwise realistic anime: you don't question these things while you're watching, since they're just part of the storytellers' toolset, though consider them out of context and they might sound a little strange.
Strange or not, though, Danganronpa's effective use of these mechanics helps tell a genuinely mysterious, compelling tale with some surprising twists and turns along the way. It doesn't pull any punches, and it makes excellent use of its central theme of despair -- not in the unrelentingly bleak way that Corpse Party did, but via the arguably more effective means of repeatedly allowing its characters to build up hope, then completely and utterly crushing that hope in ways you wouldn't have thought possible.
But that's a story for another day. Suffice to say, Danganronpa's particularly worth keeping an eye on if you were a fan of Spike Chunsoft's previous work, and Vita owners hungry for a compelling story to while away the hours with will almost certainly want to nab themselves a copy of this when it releases on February 11. Watch out for our full review nearer the time, and in the meantime, watch your back...