Spike Chunsoft’s murky exploration of teenage murder – Danganronpa – has always been a favourite series of mine. Mired in dark psychology, the Playstation Vita series examines the human reaction to game theory, and the demands of self-preservation, all wrapped up in a quirky anime ridiculousness. The latest entry in the series is a spinoff – Danganronpa Another Episode: Ultra Despair Girls. Set between Danganronpas 1 and 2, Ultra Despair Girls takes the established visual novel formula and twists it into a third person shooter, losing none of its narrative drive in the process.
First let me warn you – this game is dark, probably the darkest in the series. And this is a series that has teens murdering each other as a hook; a series that blatantly discussed necrophilia in the second game. If you get queasy at discussions of child abuse – and child sexual abuse – you will find this game… uncomfortable. Its themes are heavy, and they’re handled with some measure of sympathy, but I wouldn’t exactly call it sensitive. There’s also one highly questionable “motivation” minigame, which is essentially a rape torture minigame, and a battle where you have to strip the clothes off a grade school girl to win. Both feel strange and unnecessary, out of place in an otherwise serious exploration of child abuse, to the extent of pointless gratuity. I didn’t like those sections.
Otherwise, Ultra Despair Girls follows the established narrative of Danganronpa, placed after the first game but before the second. You play as Komaru Naegi, younger sister of Danganronpa’s protagonist Makoto Naegi. After The Biggest, Most Awful, Most Tragic Event in Human History (™), Komaru was abducted as a means of motivating Makoto during the Hope’s Peak killing game. Locked up for over a year and a half, with no idea where, why, or by whom, Komaru has become set in her routine of waking up, getting dressed, and yelling futilely at the door, before lazing in her apartment all day.
After unexpectedly being freed by the Future Foundation, Komaru is captured by some deranged kids who want to kill all the demons (adults) and make a paradise for kids on Towa Island. They force an exploding bracelet on Komaru, then set her free to be hunted for sport. Here Komaru meets bookworm/survivor/serial killer/Future Foundation intern Toko Fukawa (yes THAT Toko Fukawa) and together they resolve to escape Towa Island and its army of murderous robot bears.
If you’re not familiar with the story, you’ll get lost fast. Ultra Despair Girls is very embedded in the Danganronpa narrative, and you really need to play at least the first game, and ideally the second, to know what’s going on.
The story plays out mostly through visual novel-style dialogue exchanges and sporadic cutscenes, both of which you can read through or skip. If you accidently skip something you can always check the transcript to go through whatever was just said. Not all of the dialogue is fully voiced, however a great majority of it is, which must have been no easy feat for those involved. Sometimes you’ll find notes or books in the levels that spark a conversation between those present, and this can lead to sometimes funny, sometimes tragic, sometimes touching character development.
The plot is intricate, sure, and definitely relies on a knowledge of the universe and backstory, but it tells its tale well. It’s definitely as good as the stories of the previous two titles, and is told with an immediacy that is not present in those previous, more retrospective narratives. The lore and characterisation is invaluable to fans, and will no doubt be vital to the inevitable third core Danganronpa game.
Ultra Despair Girls departs from the series’ established visual-novel-with-periodic-investigations gameplay, shifting rather unexpectedly into the third person shooter genre. And, as a third person shooter, it’s very average.
The only weapon Komaru has access to is the hacking gun – a modified megaphone that has a variety of effects on mechanical targets. Initially, all it can do is Break (damage) robotic Monokumas, however you gradually gain eight different types of Truth Bullets, with varying effects. For example, the standard Break deals damage, while the Paralyse damages and stuns in a radius, and the Dance makes the enemy, well, dance. On top of that are the utility bullets, Move and Detect, which affect the environment and are used in puzzles. Move is the most used, operating vending machines for ammo and health refills and objects used in puzzle rooms.
Your only enemies will be the robotic Monokumas, which come in a variety of shapes and sizes. From stock attack bears, to alarm bears that bring allies, or bombers that explode, or jetpack bears that zip around flinging fireballs, or large ball-shaped bears that roll around – they’re all a variation on the bear theme. Attack patterns are very simple and repetitive, which is explained by them being robots, but it hardly makes for the most exciting foes to fight. No matter what the type, a swift Break to the glowing left eye will score a critical, often killing the weaker types outright. A critical will also grant you a boost to your next Break, which can come in handy when nobody is looking you in the face.
Alternatively, you can take the pesky bears on in close quarters using Genocide Jack’s scissors. At a touch of the triangle button, Toko will apply a taser to her own temple, summoning her serial killer alter-ego for a limited amount of time. As Genocide Jack, you can attack rapidly and powerfully, slicing up those mechanical bears, or charge your attack for a stronger hit. The more you attack, the more your Fever gauge charges, enabling a powerful attack that consumes the gauge. Toko does not take any damage, but each time she is hit she loses a chunk of her Fever meter.
Occasionally, you come across puzzle rooms, which task you with killing all the enemies in a set way – usually with a single shot – relying on environmental hazards like pools of water, gaps, or explosives to eliminate them. Most are relatively simple, but some require more thought. You start by activating an arcade machine, which lets you have a glimpse of the room ahead and designates which ammo types you can use. Then you have to observe, formulate, and execute your plan of attack. These are all about positioning, and while there is no penalty for failure, success increases your overall grade at the end of the chapter, netting you better stuff.
Variety in combat is a bit of an issue with Ultra Despair Girls. The small selection of weaponry, coupled with the handful of enemy types and long campaign means that repetition does become a little bit of an issue. While some strategy can be necessary to approach battles with multiple enemy types and the half-dozen boss battles, it’s not quite enough to keep it fresh. Your arsenal can be upgraded in a variety of ways, however, with each offensive bullet type capable of accepting two upgrades. These are bought from the rare shops, and increase either damage, stock, or speed – in varying combinations of values. Some combinations of upgrades work well together, giving you a good or excellent boost to all of an individual bullet’s attributes, on top of whatever you’ve slotted in. Additionally, Toko’s attacks can be upgraded in shops, allowing for faster, more powerful, or longer lasting attacks. As you level up, you also gain points which you can use to equip skills that you find around the world.
There are a variety of collectibles to find, including memos that contain exposition, hit lists which you can trade in, extra skills to equip, and hidden images to find. None are particularly well hidden, but they’re not necessarily easy to find either. Killing enemies can also net you Monokuma coins, which are used to buy bullet or scissor upgrades.
Controls on the Vita are a mixed bag. Fine movement with those tiny nubs is a far-off dream, so you’ll often find it difficult to aim. Landing a precision eye shot vacillates between almost impossible to endlessly chainable, depending on a hair’s difference in aim. Running feels too slow, aiming feels too slow, the camera moves too slow, and loading is too slow too. Despite this – or maybe because of this – the game itself is quite easy. Combat is a breeze, and the puzzles aren’t very taxing either. On the flip-side, there are no checkpoints, and save points are a bit sparse. They are also Monokuma-coloured duck shaped training potties. Um.
Ultra Despair Girls is a strange mish-mash of multimedia presentation styles. While it adheres to the technicolour block look of the series, most of the game is in 3D, with models and animations and all that jazz. Animation is a little stiff, but the models are nice and cleverly reflect the series’ distinct aesthetic. In-engine scenes sometimes give way to prerendered 3D cutscenes, lending a bit more detail, but still falling short of the series’ 2.5D presentation. Luckily, there are some sections (particularly execution scenes) that still include that beautiful 2.5D style, even if it does sometimes seem in conflict with the 3D models usually used. Finally, some rare cutscenes are shown in full-blown glorious anime. These few scenes are truly gorgeous to watch, and bring a touch of visual class to an already stylish game.
Technically, the game holds up well. I had an almost entirely consistent framerate with very few visually noticeable dips. And it may seem a bit weird, but I was really impressed by whatever antialiasing tech they were using. All the edges looked crisp and defined –surprising, considering the relatively ancient Vita hardware. I suppose the lack of complex geometry and texturing helps, considering most of the game is blocks and vivid impressionistic hues, but those yummy edges made me disproportionately happy all the same.
Music is good, and adheres to the style established by the previous entries in the series. Unfortunately, there is nowhere near enough variation in the tracks available, meaning you quickly get sick of the same (good) song on repeat as you slog your way through a level. Voice acting is spot on, though, and remains consistent with the series as a whole. Familiar voices return, and new ones leave a distinct mark. The US version has no option for Japanese audio, however, so if you’re after an authentic experience, you’re out of luck – even if the English voice actors are top shelf.
One of my major gripes is its length. Levels are huge, and that sometimes makes the game feel overly long. 14 hours is a long time to spend on a single run through of a third person shooter – the story and puzzle variety keeps it fresh, but part of me kept wishing it was just a little shorter and more focused. After it’s all done there are some extras to unlock, including a story to read, and a New Game + mode that is essential if you want to unlock everything.
Danganronpa Another Episode: Ultra Despair Girls is an interesting beast. In a series driven by its intricate plot, an action-focused game sticks out. While the third person shooting is rote, there is more than enough meat on its bones to make it an interesting title. If you’re a fan of the series, you’ll definitely want to pick up Ultra Despair girls, if only for the lore it provides. And if you’re not a fan, become one, because the Danganronpa series is fantastic.
A copy of the game was provided by NIS America for review purposes