Title: Danganronpa Another Episode: Ultra Despair Girls
Publisher: NIS America
Developer: Spike Chunsoft
Release Date: 9/1/2015
Danganronpa is a series notable for its witty writing, offbeat sense of humor, and a combo of a murder mystery and rapidfire debate the lend it far more interactivity than other tiles in the visual novel medium. So naturally, one would expect the newest entry in the series to be yet another story-driven adventure game, right? For once common logic fails us, as Ultra Despair Girls, which is more a side story taking place between Danganronpa 1 and 2 rather than true sequel, is an action game in the vain of such titles as Resident Evil 4. This shift may throw off longtime fans of the series, but does it change the formula enough to offer anything to gamers not already invested in Danganronpa’s world of absolute hope and despair, well then, read on and find out!
Ultra Despair Girls is simple enough in its execution, from the game’s opening scene players are armed with a gun that resembles a megaphone that shoots “hacking” bullets capable of destroying the various Monokuma robots that serve as the game’s primary antagonists. The gun comes equipped with only two types of Truth Bullets, which take their name from the term used for trial evidence in previous Danganronpa games, to start, “Break,” a typical damaging type of ammunition, and “Move”, which allows players to interact with various machines found throughout the game’s bleak urban environment. Over time more types of bullets are added to the player’s arsenal, but the basic flow of battle never really changes, as you will be spending most of your time running, stopping to shoot, and repeating this until every enemy on the battlefield as been thoroughly dealt with. While fun, as I never truly got tiered of the often frantic run and gun gameplay Ultra Despair Girls provides, there is a repetitive element to all of it, simply because, even with new bullets being added every few hours or so, combat often remains the same and can grow repetitive over time. While the player can also switch control from Komaru, the game’s primary protagonist, to the murderous “Genocide Jack” with a press of a button. However, the fact that Jack is completely invincible and does enough damage to down bosses in a matter of seconds often drains much of the fun from the game itself.
Thankfully, this being a Danganronpa game, puzzles return in full force to challenge the brains of those looking for a break in between rounds of shooting robot bears in the face. These puzzles come largely in two flavors, Monokuma elimination rooms, in which the player is challenged to destroy every enemy in the room in a single move and challenges given out by the game’s murderous children that often consist of simple logic puzzles and games. The former are more common than the latter, and are typically solved through creative use of various Truth Bullets to combat armies of Monokumas without simply blasting your way through them, though this s an option for those sick of dealing with puzzles for whatever reason. These puzzles range from simple, using the push back bullet to detonate a bomb to eliminate all foes in the room at once, to silly, activating holograms to lure Monokuma into a pit, but are almost always easily solved with just a minute or so of thought and a well-placed shot. Problems only arise when timing becomes a factor in puzzle solving, and a misplaced bullet can lead to failure even when the proper solution found. This can be frustrating at times, but takes away little from what is honestly one of the game’s most interesting features.
The second type of puzzle mentioned above are far more forgiving for error, and typically consist of using a Truth Bullet that can see invisible clues on walls and floors. To gather clues to a puzzle’s solution and then implementing them. Typically, these puzzles are rather simple, such as graffiti in a room full of navel rings telling you to look through three of them at once to find where the real key to the next room is located. Sometimes diving into the realm of completely obscure solutions, as seen in another puzzle. Where the solution consists of matching graffiti on portraits to a key written elsewhere, then assigning each portrait a number between 1 and 4. Then in turn using that number combination to open an electronic lock. While this can be annoying, often upon finding a solution to one of these puzzles, a head-slapping moment of “why didn’t I think of that in the first place!” can often occur. Lend more to being happy that you’ve figured it out, rather than dwelling on the frustration that may have mounted in trying to find the answer in the first place.
Graphically, Ultra Despair Girls is a fine looking title, though not worthy of hanging among the best looking games on the Vita at the moment. The game’s gloomy urban environs are well rendered and creepy looking, like dead bodies, which here are depicted in bright neon to avoid being too grisly, line the street in blood soaked piles and the city itself has fallen into ruin and decay. This lends to the game a depressing atmosphere that helps to hammer home the theme of despair that is so important to so much of Danganronpa’s story telling. In terms of characters, the models used here are a bit odd looking at times, with our heroine Toko Fukawa looking especially strange at times, but this might have more to do with the shift to 3D from the cardboard cutout style used in Danganronpa 1 and 2. What is possibly the most offensive part of the shift, is despite the fact that the game has moved to 3D it still features the lengthy rounds of speech that its adventure game predecessors did, leading character to standing around in random places and blabbering at each other for minutes on end. This leads to long breaks in gameplay that could have been sped up or portrayed through cut scenes but instead drag on for far too long. This isn’t to say the dialogue is bad or cheesy, it’s actually just as clever and funny as any previous DR game, but the effect isn’t quite the same when it is coming from the mouth of awkwardly modeled characters instead of 2D cutouts.
Finally, we arrive at the most important aspect of any Dangannronpa game, the story and dialogue. I’ll begin by saying that I’ve never played a game that was more “for the fans” then Ultra Despair Girls, and would even go so far as to say that the game actually expects you to have played both Danganronpa 1 and 2 before so much as touching it. For example, without spoiling to much, even from the outset you are expected to know not only that Komaru is the sister of the protagonist from Danganronpa 1, who Byakuya Togami is, and that secondary heroine Toko Fukawa has a second personality who is ALSO a serial killer. Similarly, Ultra Despair Girls also spoils the entirety of Danganronpa 1’s plot, up to and including revealing who the mastermind behind the game’s events was. So if you haven’t played at least DR1, then I would advise against picking up Ultra Despair Girls till you have. It will make the experience that much more interesting and prevent spoilers from ruining an excellent story in the process.
Anyway, spoilers and prior knowledge aside, Ultra Despair Girl’s story is great and the best part of the entire experience. Aside from fleshing out just how the events of Danganronpa 2 came to pass, it also is the first time in franchise history in which fans have been given a look at the “real” world, as the first game takes place within the confines of a closed school, and the second a remote island with no connection to the mainland. This world, as a whole, is a hellscape of blood red skies in which corpses line the streets and children murder adults on the command of the Warriors of Hope, a band of five children devoted to the principle that all adults are evil and thus should be killed for their crimes against children.
Though over a dozen new characters are introduced throughout Ultra Despair Girls, with most of them being relatives of characters from the first game, the most interesting of them are the Warriors of Hope themselves. A band of RPG obsessed children, each of them having a title of a class from the Dragon Quest series of video games. All bearing backstories that are horribly dark and depressing even for Danganronpa, The Warriors of Hope have motives and actions are that are interesting in a way that is far different than the mastermind behind the events of the first two games in the series, in that they are actually understandable and thus pitiable. I found myself being more than a bit sad about these kids, despite the fact that they were ultimately terrible people. Who had ordered the death of hundreds of people as retribution for the awful things adults had inflicted on them in the past. The character Kotoko, the Warriors of Hope’s Fighter, is notable for having an incredibly depressing past as a child actor. Who was implied to have been sexually assaulted by her manager and others, and thus is triggered into a frenzy anytime anyone so much as mentions the word “gently” to her. I understand the motive in giving Kotoko such a backstory, as there is little more awful that a child can experience then what she had gone through. It seems a bit too horrible even for a game like Danganronpa that revels in such horrors at times, and I’m still not sure how I feel about it.
In all, this is a game for fans of Danganrona, who will likely enjoy the story, characters, and themes greatly. But for everyone else, there isn’t much here for you. While this is by no means a bad thing, as every game is not for every person, but I’ve never seen a game so unfriendly to newcomers as Ultra Despair Girls. From the story, which is steeped in franchise lore and jargon, to the characters, who for the most part make no sense if you are not familiar with the first game’s cast, this is a game that makes no effort to cater to outsiders. That in mind, Ultra Despair Girls gets an 8.0 for fans of the series, and a 6.5 for everyone else.
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