Thrillers have had a place in literature, cinema and television for quite a long time. In video games, not so much. The closest the medium usually gets is in the form of some sort of horror-themed game.
With the PlayStation Vita title Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc, a great whodunit mystery can be had (though at the expense of any real exciting gameplay).
Relying heavily on story and a stylistic manga-style presentation, Trigger Happy Havoc has players taking on the role of Makoto Naegi, a rather average (though ultimately lucky) student who joins a rather exclusive high school called Hope's Peak Academy, along with 14 of his "ultimate" peers.
However, it becomes apparent that hope is the last thing the group of students will enjoy during their stay. Thanks to a maniacal robotic teddy bear named Monokuma, the students are pitted against one another as the only way to graduate from the academy. They not only have to murder a fellow student, but get away with it as well.
For those thinking that's a bit too dark and graphic (and they'd be right), don't jump to conclusions. The game isn't about going around killing classmates in order to get an "A". Rather, it's to figure out who the killer is. It doesn't take long for the group of 15 to begin to be whittled down one by one. To discover what is going on a player needs to pay attention to detail, nurture relationships with other classmates and find little bullets of truth. After all, Naegi's life - and those of his fellow students - depends on it.
Gameplay itself is (for the most part) relegated to conversation sequences with classmates and wandering around the Academy. Of course, as a visual novel this should come as little surprise. There is no combat and no running from a would-be killer. Instead, murders occur as part of the story and in a Matlock/Phoenix Wright type of exchange, each killing transitions to a trial amongst the remaining students. Should the killer be discovered through analysis of each person's testimonies and debates compared to whatever "Truth Bullets" Naegi was able to uncover, then the game continues as the remaining students attempt to fight despair and uncover the mystery behind Monokuma and the Academy.
However, should the wrong student be convicted, it's game over for everybody.
Thankfully, while a lack of industry-standard action is very noticeable, the game's writing and cast of characters do well enough to carry it through. Each student is a caricature of one stereotype or another (ie: jock, fashionista, introverted writer, etc.) and have well-formed personalities for their roles. Monokuma, too, was well fleshed-out (as fleshed-out as a maniacal teddy bear robot can be, that is) and serves as a fine antagonist right up to the twist at the end. Don't worry about not wanting to read on, by the way. No spoilers here.
NIS America really went out on a limb taking the time and resources required to adequately localize a game for a Western audience and using them on a game like Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc. As far as it is from the mainstream, it'll be a wonder if it will gain anything other than a mild cult following. Then again, the publisher has a knack for taking fringe Japanese titles and finding they have some level of success in the West.
As far as this game goes, it might not be action packed, but it's unique and captivating through to the end.
Publisher: NIS America
Developer: Spike Chunsoft
Platform(s): PlayStation Vita
Rating: M for Mature
Release Date: February 11
Score: 3 stars (out of 4)