The wickedness of little girls has been well documented both in classic literature and in modern games, from Great Expectations to Rule of Rose -– and straight into the memories of our own high school days, when we moved in clandestine societies governed by unspoken laws. This theme gets a Roaring Twenties kind of patina to delectably twisted effect in Mousechief’s Dangerous High School Girls in Trouble, a pleasingly innovative hybrid between an RPG and a stat-based card game.
It’s been some time in the making, too. In an interview with Gamasutra back in 2006, developer Keith Nemitz said he was inspired by "a night of parlor games with friends." The phrase "parlor games" reflects a certain vintage sensibility that is eloquently on display in DHSGiT, but it's Nemitz's musing during said parlor games that birthed this game's real stroke of cleverness –- "The bigger idea struck me later, that you could swap out combat in RPGs with different kinds of conflict resolution mechanisms," he told Gamasutra. "This idea opens up the RPG experience to allow any kind of story genre."
Opens it up indeed. There’s not one brutish attack or action to be had in the whole of DHSGiT, but plenty of nasties, in that way particular to crafty young things. The game's set in a rather forbidding old boarding school, where a series of accidents and a shifty school nurse sends the player character investigating, recruiting on her way an all-girl pal posse, each with her own talent. Each girl has four attributes –- glamour, rebellion, savvy and popularity -- and each helps with certain techniques to expose the school’s corruption "like layers of spoiled paint hidden under fresh." They’ll do this by fibbing, taunting, exposing secrets, and making power plays, leveraging info learned along the way against competing girls and nefarious adults.
The game is played on what looks like a vintage game board, complete with tarnished silver playing pieces that let the player know where available events are. The storyline guides your exploration, and most events trigger a confrontation –- your girl's skills against her opponent's. Your girl -– I chose the sullen-eyed, wheelchair-bound minx Eleanor -– will snag up to three allies among her classmates, each with a different distribution of stats. When you're in a confrontation, you'll select the appropriate girl to deal with the situation, advancing the story if you win. If one of your girls is defeated, though, she's retired from your party for a fixed period of time. In a particularly nasty twist, the gals can pick up "boyfriends," which essentially take the hit for the young lady so that she can stay in the party if she's defeated.
Your girls can flirt, taunt, fib and expose, just like real high school girls, and the allocation of her statistics will make a girl more successful at one type of attack than another. The "expose" game involves guessing a sentence after revealing a fixed number of symbols; the "fib" game involves the ol' shell-swap game to hide the truth from less-savvy opponents; and both flirting and taunting require choosing the right comeback. With taunting, your girls can only choose comebacks they know, so in this case, the more they're exposed to, the more likely they are to be successful in the future.
It's not altogether perfect: the game mechanics, and how or why certain tactics work, are a little opaque; and since the story’s somewhat nonlinear, there’s none of the enforcement that would make it somewhat clearer how the plot pieces fit together, or how the various characters are involved -- and there are a good many of them to keep straight. One can get at least an adequate command of this information with a little persistence and experience, though, so while the nuts-and-bolts could be tighter, the looseness doesn't detract from the feats of innovation going on here.
From the scandalous adults to the multifaceted molls on offer (I particularly like the dark-haired flapper gal smoking in the girls' room), there's a delightful level of sophisticated detail on display for what is, essentially, a casual game. And as an alternate take on the old RPG chestnut of a powerful character party, DHSGiT is a hearty success. Those high school days were our crash course in conflict, after all, a time when teens bear up under some of the most vicious aggression campaigns they'll ever experience in their lives –- the idea of importing these types of "attacks" for a PC game mechanic is a stroke of genius. In many ways, more dangerous than a haunted ruin, more lethal than the blade of a sword, and more terrifying than the shambling undead is a high school girl, and this charmingly stylish, elegantly macabre title takes a spot-on snapshot, preserved like a sepia photo, of the creature in her natural habitat.
N.B.: DHSGIT contains occasional scenes, carried in text with static images, that describe or hint at violence or sexual situations, and in one case, a combination of the two. Although not ESRB rated, the developer suggests it be treated as rated "T" for "Teen," but you should be aware that young adult novels, similarly aimed at teens, do sometimes confront violent and sexual themes directly.