Before you decide to play Psycho-Pass: Mandatory Happiness, you have to ask yourself an important question: how much do you love the cyberpunk anime series about a dystopian future governed by thought control? If you’re unsure about the show, or haven’t seen it at all, this game isn’t for you. It doesn’t ease new people into the experience at all, instead throwing them into its near-future world, assuming they already know the deal. It’s not a good starting point.
But if you’re already a fan of the series and are itching for more, Mandatory Happiness is a great way to get your fix. Just be prepared to do a lot of reading.
For the uninitiated, Psycho-Pass takes place in a futuristic version of Japan that has essentially become one big, nearly crime-free surveillance state. An all-knowing computer system called Sybil keeps a watchful eye over the country, and citizens are subjected to regular brain scans to measure their emotional state. The idea is to catch criminals before they actually commit a crime, Minority Report-style. The Public Safety Bureau is this world’s version of a police force, trying to stop violent acts before they actually happen. The force consists of two types of investigators: calm, clear-headed inspectors, and enforcers, a special group of so-called “latent criminals” who serve as their subordinates.
The show also has one of the best opening credit sequences ever:
Mandatory Happiness takes place during the early portion of the first season of the show. Though it features a number of familiar faces, it mostly stands apart as its own thing, and doesn’t dig too deeply into any of the big, overarching narratives from the debut season. Instead, it gives you the choice to play as one of two new characters — inspector Nadeshiko or enforcer Takuma — and also shifts the setting from Tokyo to a much quieter man-made island. The characters experience the same story, but from different perspectives. (I played as Nadeshiko, a disturbingly robotic amnesiac.)
Like the best crime dramas, Mandatory Happiness tasks you with solving a series of seemingly unrelated cases — a missing high school student, a mother kidnapping her child — but ties them together in a way that’s very satisfying. By solving these smaller cases you’re actually learning more and more about a much more sinister threat, a strange entity known as Alpha, which will use any means necessary in an attempt to make people happy.
You won’t actually be doing much investigating yourself, though. Mandatory Happiness is a visual novel, which means that for the most part, you’ll be reading text while looking at static images of characters and scenery. (There is voice acting, but it’s all in Japanese.) The majority of the story is non-interactive, but at a handful of points in each chapter you’ll be tasked with making a decision. Things like which investigation team you want to be on, who to hang out with on your off day, and whether or not to take a pill to even out your mood. Mostly these decisions boil down to managing your hue — the color of your psycho-pass — to ensure that the stress of the job doesn’t get to you.
For a series that’s all about investigating crimes, it’s hard not to be disappointed by this lack of, well, investigating. Psycho-Pass takes place in a fascinating future where the police have lots of cool tools at their disposal. Drones that can canvas entire cities, a vast database that keeps track of every citizen’s mood, and even talking guns called dominators that can only be fired at someone after their hue indicates they’re a latent criminal. You don’t get to play with any of those in Mandatory Happiness.
But if you can get over this, there’s a lot to like about the game. It’s essentially one big, long episode of the show, albeit one where you have to read and make a few choices. Psycho-Pass takes place in a world that tries to paint everyone in black and white, but the series excels by portraying those gray areas in between. Mandatory Happiness asks some strange, often tough questions, many of which only make sense in a world like this. Is a mother with postpartum depression the equivalent a criminal? Is a troubled teen doomed for life? Should a detective be cold and unfeeling, or guided by emotion? In Psycho-Pass’ world there’s almost always one, final solution to these questions, but coming to grips with that can be difficult.
Mandatory Happiness is pure fan service, but the best possible kind. It might not make you feel like a detective (hey, there’s always Phoenix Wright for that), but it does provide a sharp, satisfying, dark, and challenging story that is up there with the best that Psycho-Pass has to offer. Even if you don’t have much say in how things play out, it’s incredibly stressful — you might need to check your hue after playing.
Psycho-Pass: Mandatory Happiness is available now on PS4 and PS Vita.