By Jack . February 15, 2014 . 5:00pm
It finally happened. Murder is afoot at Hope’s Peak Academy, and Makoto Naegi, the Ultimate Lucky Student, is fortunate enough to be the prime suspect. Now it’s my job to help him investigate the crime scene and defend himself in a class trial, or he’ll face execution.
Since DanganRonpa is a very story-heavy game, I’m going to keep spoilers at an absolute minimum here. No killers or victims shall be named, and details to the crime will be as a vague as possible. Those discoveries are half the fun, so I’m definitely not going to ruin them.
Now I’m an unreasonably devout Ace Attorney fan, so when I heard that DanganRonpa shares some elements with the series I got pretty excited. Are they similar? Well, yes and no. It’s got investigations and courtroom battles, but there’s some interesting twists that make DanganRonpa stand out.
Before Makoto can prepare his defense, he needs to look over the crime scene for clues. Investigations work the same way as the rest of the game up to this point: first person view with a cursor to select objects. It’s a pretty standard affair, and works just like an Ace Attorney game. A nice touch is that you can press the triangle button at any time and circles will appear around all interact able objects. No pixel hunts here.
Perhaps the biggest difference between Ace Attorney and DanganRonpa’s investigations is the pacing. Within minutes of looking around, I had amassed a sizeable pile of evidence (referred to as ‘Truth Bullets’ in the game) to peruse. It makes sense, as Monokuma has given “whenever I feel like it” as the deadline for starting the trial, so there’s no time to waste.
With so much happening, it can feel like an overload of information. Mercifully, you’re free to check Makoto’s electronic handbook at any time for some review. It’s important to be aware of all the facts too, as the game assumes you’re paying attention to every bit of info. There’s so much information, in fact, I felt like I had figured everything out a little over halfway into the investigation.
DanganRonpa is a different flavor to the video game murder mysteries I’m accustomed to. While you can certainly figure things out ahead of time in Ace Attorney games, there’s usually at least one revelation waiting in court that’s hard to see coming. In DanganRonpa’s first case, I managed to identify who the killer was, how the murder went down, and the way the evidence was hidden. The first chapter is a little simple, sure, but I was surprised at how detailed all of the evidence was. After collecting every clue I could find, Monokuma announced that court was ready to convene.
Before the trial officially begins, you’re given some prep time to review all your evidence. I really like that this opportunity exists, because to me it says that the developers actually want you to have things figured out beforehand. Makoto’s no Phoenix Wright, DanganRonpa’s court rides a consistent train of logic; no bluffs, magic powers, or sudden revelations are required.
Court began with a Nonstop Debate, a group discussion about the murder, and I had to point out any inconsistencies with evidence, Ace Attorney style. Unlike Ace Attorney, however, there are a few added twists. The conversation moves in real-time and will continue whether you spot a fault or not, meaning that you have to be on your toes and familiar with the evidence. Every debate loads you up with a couple pieces of evidence, and from there you have to figure out which one to fire at a statement.
I mean “fire at a statement” literally, by the way. Statements have to be manually aimed at, and since the conversation is always moving, you have to be careful not to miss. In addition to aiming, firing the gun has a delay to it. Often I had figured out the correct statement to shoot, but reacted too slowly and had to repeat the discussion. Thankfully this isn’t a huge deal, as conversations can be accelerated—complete with squeaky sped-up voices —and the time limit for repeating discussions is quite forgiving.
Nonstop debates aren’t the only trick DanganRonpa’s sleeve, however. To mix things up, Makoto is often asked to answer multiple choice questions, present evidence, and play various mini games like Hangman’s Gambit. Despite being a simple mechanic, I really enjoyed answering the questions. They often force you to recall a tiny detail that wasn’t explicitly shoved in your face, providing good motivation to always be paying attention. Hangman’s Gambit has you shoot different letters to fill in blanks on a word, and while it’s interesting, sometimes the word is too shorthanded or vague for the mechanic to be completely intuitive.
My favorite variation is the closest thing the game gets to boss fights. This being a class trial, it’s not exactly being run by professionals. The best moderator we’ve got is Monokuma, and he’s more than happy to allow emotional breakdowns and wild accusations. If someone gets out of control, you have no choice but to fight back. That’s where “Bullet Time Battles” come in.
When a classmate goes on a verbal tirade, things switch to a rhythm game where you have to time your button presses correctly in beat with the music. Your opponent’s insults act like bullets that fly towards you, and you have to lock onto and destroy them with good timing. It’s a great way to portray the verbal battle, and it’s sweetened by the finish. One last contradictory statement will fly at you in slow motion, and can only be destroyed with the correct evidence. Firing off that last truth bullet for the death blow is extremely satisfying.
If I had to make one complaint about the court sections, it’s that the balance between its logic and action aspects seems a little skewed. Neither element is particularly difficult, especially in the first chapter, but I spent a lot more time trying to shoot the statement I wanted rather than figuring out which one needed to be shot. One reason this might be is that the evidence pool you’re given is pretty small, so it’s easy to deduce what evidence is going to be important, as well as what kind of statements to keep an eye on.
In fact, I’d highly recommend cranking the difficulty level up for your playthrough. This allows less room for error, more evidence to pick from, and a few other bells and whistles to raise the stakes. The game often gives you a taste of the highest difficulty whenever it introduces a new concept, and I found myself wishing I had played through the whole game that way.
Imperfections aside, the class trial was by far the strongest section of DanganRonpa. There’s never a dull moment here, and the gun aesthetic makes things interactive in a way I wouldn’t expect from a visual novel. That’s not to say the rest of the game is bad at all, but rather they all serve as build up to the main course. It’s a climax that’s frenetic, rewarding, and wholly unique.
Food for Thought:
1. My advice for the trials is to be calm and take your time. Unless the answer is blatantly obvious, hear every conversation through at least once before firing an answer. Don’t be fooled by the big scary numbers counting down—you’ve got plenty of time.
2. There’s a concentration mode that slows down time, making it way easier to hit statements and figure things out. It’s so helpful that I couldn’t decide if it felt like cheating or not. It doesn’t seem required though, so I can deal with it.
3. All of the class trials are fully voiced, a very welcome change compared to the repetitive voice clips featured everywhere else.