Psycho Pass: Mandatory Happiness is a bit of a mixed bag. On one hand, it is a faithful story told in the world of the acclaimed cyberpunk anime, and will probably please diehard fans. But on the other, it’s an incredibly thin visual novel experience that drops the ball in a few key areas, especially when compared to other entries in the genre that have made their way to the west.
The main story of the game takes place within the first 8 episodes of the anime, so newcomers shouldn’t be totally lost. But for the uninitiated, Psycho Pass takes place in a future Tokyo where crime has basically been undone with the implementation of something called the Sybil system, which continually monitors people’s emotions and feelings. While the nuances are fairly complex, the moral of the story is that if your emotional state deteriorates to the point where it is all but certain you will commit a crime, you are either sentenced to be captured, or you are executed on the spot. Enter the Public Safety Bureau, a team made up of Inspectors and Enforcers who do the dirty work of the Sybil System. Enforcers themselves have been labelled “latent criminals” due to their own mental state, and so are often utilized by the Inspectors – who don’t want to get their hands dirty themselves, for risk of deterioration.
If it sounds a bit convoluted, it kinda is. But as you immerse yourself in the world of the game, it all blends together pretty seamlessly into one of the best cyberpunk worlds I’ve seen recently. Players have a choice between two characters, Inspector Nadeshiko Kugatachi or Enforcer Takuma Tsurugi. Each character acts a certain way, and has their own paths to follow, so fans will definitely want to see both storylines through. The main arc revolves around these two as they hunt down a psychotic hacker named Alpha, along with some help from the cast of the main anime series. I’ve mentioned how “cyberpunk” the game is, but it really is hard to overstate how true that is. The game is worth looking into alone if you’re interested in AI, hackers, dystopia, or virtually any other major trademark of the genre; Mandatory Happiness hits them all at some point.
It’s hard not to talk about the story too much in this review, especially seeing as how visual novels are almost entirely story, and this one perhaps more so. While the story itself is a good representation of the source material, and certainly has its fair share of good twists, overall I felt that it didn’t live up to it’s potential, and moreover had many choices and “turning points” which make almost no difference to the narrative, no matter which way you choose to play it. The individual cases themselves were great, building on dark themes and subject matter that games rarely ever touch on, and were the clear highlight of the experience, possibly even delivering some of my favorite gaming moments of the year. But as the overarching narrative plodded on, and the two new characters got more time in the spotlight, it eventually devolved into a bit of a predictable mess, despite the amount of mystery the writers were clearly going for.
Which brings me to the other negative draw of the game: there just isn’t that much to do. While I understand that reading through the story is the primary gameplay system of a visual novel, in recent years we have seen other examples of the genre eschew this trend, and add a bit more gameplay variety in the process. Danganronpa included elements of exploration and the Virtue’s Last Reward series has always been famous for its integration of puzzles. Yet Psycho Pass has none of these amenities, and is content to merely be a high quality slideshow, with a few genuinely engrossing moments. It’s a shame too, given the rich lore and world of the source material, that eager fans won’t be able to navigate the world with any sense of freedom. Hopefully that game comes out eventually.
On the plus side however, Psycho Pass is at least great to listen to and look at. Crisp anime visuals and well animated transitions give scenes extra oomph when needed, even if you might have to use your imagination some of the time. The voice acting itself is top notch, and thanks to a great translation you still get a good feel for the emotions each character is trying to convey, even if it’s spoken entirely in Japanese. Also worth mentioning is the soundtrack. Taking a few cues from the anime, the soundtrack goes between calm, soothing music, with strings and piano in softer moments, and dark industrial scores when things get a bit more serious. It is all excellent scoring, and something I legitimately want to seek out on disc.
In the end, your enjoyment of Mandatory Happiness really comes down to how much you are willing to put up with for a good story. While it is packed with memorable moments, characters and themes, it loses a bit of it’s lustre with its bare bones gameplay and a lacklustre main story. Fans of the series will probably be delighted to see their favorite characters – solving cases alongside them, but a world this rich deserves to be explored more than this. I sincerely enjoyed my time with Psycho Pass, but I’m not sure everybody would.