Choice is part of what makes videogames such a unique storytelling medium. While some games have very obvious consequences for your actions, or a clear cut divide between what’s right and wrong, others live in the grey areas, and that’s what makes games like The Walking Dead or Virtue’s Last Reward so captivating. The visual novel genre has long been one to explore this kind of branching storytelling through seemingly innocent choices, and Psycho-Pass: Mandatory Happiness is no different.
One of a handful of pure visual novels localized and released on English game consoles, this is a spinoff of the hit dystopian sci-fi anime series which aired back in 2012. The first season was penned by Gen Urobuchi – the less popular second season was not – who actually had his start writing visual novels with the company Nitroplus. It’s quite fitting that Nitroplus have collaborated with 5pb on this game, with Urobuchi returning to help adapt his creation to a different medium.
To that end, you play as one of two characters created for the game. Nadeshiko Kugatachi is a robotically calm and serious inspector whose had her memories wiped away, while Takuma Tsurugi is a criminal-turned-Enforcer with a love for old school detective tropes and a missing childhood friend he desperately wants to track down. You follow them, as well as the main cast of the anime series, through a series of cases that end up tying together in a larger plot involving a mysterious AI hacker.
Though the game takes place around the beginning of the first season, the story runs parallel to that of the anime, so there can be a benefit to watching the anime before playing. There are some twists in the game that hit you harder if you’re familiar with events and characters from the series, and there’s also one moment in the game that outright spoils a twist from late into the anime. That said, even if newcomers don’t do that, the game does a good job of developing the dense, intricate world of Psycho-Pass, and also provides a handy index of terminology and character/locations to help initiate the uninformed. It just has an extra layer of depth and enjoyment for fans of the anime.
If you’ve played similarly text heavy visual novels like Ace Attorney, Danganronpa or Zero Escape, you’ll find it relatively easy to get into the swing of Mandatory Happiness and the genre. However, where those games had gameplay elements like puzzles and crimescene investigations to break up the story, Mandatory Happiness is almost purely story from beginning to end. You’re strapping in for 3-5 hours and making various decisions that affect your relationship with characters, the outcomes of cases and events, and ultimately, which ending you see.
Many choices in the game involve the current investigation and how you want to proceed. Your decisions might set the team back, leave the case unsolved, or even lead to a sudden bad ending. These cases, and the choices you make as you play, really capture the high intensity of the investigations you see in the anime. Even though it’s all portrayed through text boxes and character portraits, you feel a great sense of urgency throughout the entire game, which is helped by the fantastic cast of returning voice actors and background music from the anime series.
While you’ll certainly want to pursue multiple endings and story paths, the very nature of visual novels might make it hard for some players to do so. Virtues Last Reward had a brilliant feature that gave you a visual branching path of story scenes and decision moments that you could hop between to get every scene you missed. It’s a feature that I wish was present in more of these games, because the fact that it isn’t here means you’ll have to manually keep track of your own progress. This boils down to lots of save file management and skipping around, and for players who are new to the genre, it might be a lot to handle.
Still, it’s a worth the effort, as the story you’re rewarded with is amazing. Urobuchi does a great job of exploring the world of Psycho Pass and the Sibyl System in new ways and from perspectives that we never got in the anime. It outshines the 2nd season in many ways. Existing characters get nice moments of characterization, but our new characters get mountains of it. Following Tsurugi and Nadeshiko through their journeys and seeing what they go through makes them shine as some of the most interesting characters in the entire series.
Whether you’ve been a fan of Psycho-Pass for years, or you hadn’t even heard of the series until you saw this review, Mandatory Happiness is well worth checking out. Though you can play it as a newcomer, it’s a far more rewarding experience if you’ve watched the anime.
Version tested: PlayStation 4