Ultra Despair Girls: Danganronpa Another Episode, a third-person shooter set between two previously released Danganronpa visual novels on the PS Vita, is a difficult game for me to write about. That’s because, like the two games that preceded it, it’s a game I find both deeply enthralling and utterly repulsive. But hey, I’ll give it a shot anyway.
Credit where credit’s due: with the Danganronpa games, series writer and director Kazutaka Kodaka has crafted some of the most surprising, multidimensional mysteries in all of video gaming. But his stories are practically bursting with anti-female imagery, and that’s just not something I can overlook. Call me a prude, but I’d much rather flex my grey matter unraveling the mysteries of the incredible universe Kodaka has created than wondering what happened to him to make him want to represent women this way. It’s possible (even likely, given that you’re reading this review) that none of this matters to you at all, and that’s completely fine! All I’m saying is that it makes me feel gross sometimes, and as much as I’d like to ignore that, I can’t.
None of that is news to you if you’re invested in Danganronpa; you’re probably just wondering whether the change in play style does justice to the series. Well, worry not, because while Ultra Despair Girls ditches the visual novel format of the previous games in favor of a much more streamlined third-person shooter approach, it’s still got its sights set squarely on storytelling. In fact, in the eight hours I’ve spent with it so far (I’m about halfway through the game), I’d say roughly half of that time was spent watching cut scenes or reading the many books, letters and other world-building material scattered throughout the game world.
And how is the story? So far, it’s absolutely bonkers. Save for its despairing tone, it’s nothing like the other games, and I’m loving it even more for it. To avoid spoiling any major surprises for you, I’ll give you the basics only. You are Komaru Naegi, the sister of the player character from Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc. After a rude awakening, you team up with Toko Fukawa, another character from the aforementioned game, and together, the two of you seek to escape the confines of your nightmarish new reality while answering one question: why have the children of the world taken it upon themselves to hunt down and kill every last surviving adult?
Like I said, the story is wacky, and I love it. Sometimes it bums me out more than I’d like, but I guess that’s Kodaka’s intention.
As for the actual gameplay supporting Ultra Despair Girls? It’s solid, and I dig it, but it often feels like an afterthought, as if the game was turned into a shooter halfway through development in an attempt to grab a bigger audience. On your quest to escape, you’ll wander around urban cityscapes that are impressively rendered in a high-contrast, anime-inspired aesthetic, taking out wave after wave of Monokumas (the black-and-white, villainous, robot teddy bear from the other Danganronpa games) with a gun that looks an awful lot like a megaphone. Truth bullets, which helped you expose lies during the trial portions of the visual novels, make a return as, well, ammo for your weapon, with different effects depending on the type of ammo you select. Some bullets will knock the shields off of armored Monokumas or cause grenade-tossing Monokumas to fall over and explode, while others simply destroy them after a certain number of successful shots. There’s even a bullet that makes enemies dance, drawing other enemies to them so you can dispatch them all at once.
Combat is surprisingly strategic, and there are one-hit-kill bonuses for hitting enemies in a specific spot. But, as is usually the case with Vita shooters, it often takes more time to line up a shot than is ideal. That’s not the fault of the designers; the Vita’s joysticks simply aren’t good for precision aiming. Killing enemies nets you coins; if you do manage to line up those shots, you get more coins. You use those coins to buy stat buffs, which can be mixed and matched on each type of bullet you have, though so far I haven’t noticed much of a difference when equipping buffs. Komaru also levels up via combat, allowing you to outfit her with a series of perks that unlock as you progress through the game’s story. Protip: turn off the auto-aim perk. It’s nothing but trouble in some of the game’s tighter spaces.
Ultra Despair Girls can be repetitive between story segments, but there are puzzle challenges scattered throughout the game to break up some of that monotony. Some are simple logic puzzles, while others present players with a room full of Monokumas and a specific set of rules for how to dispatch them. The solutions to these seconds types of puzzles, presented via “MonokuMan” arcade machines, are usually pretty easy to figure out, though I’ve failed just as many of them as I’ve passed, thanks to aiming issues I mentioned earlier.
If you find yourself overwhelmed by enemies or you’re simply too tired to aim effectively, switching to Komaru’s partner character Toko provides a welcome and exciting change of pace from the gunplay that makes up the vast majority of Ultra Despair Girls’ action. Without giving anything away, I’ll just say that Toko is a melee powerhouse: she’s a ferocious, indestructible fighter who is capable of some pretty wicked combos and special moves. If I could play as her all the time, I would; unfortunately, she’s treated as a limited-time resource, and you’ll only be able to control her as long as you’ve got a supply of batteries. I don’t think she’s a robot, but stranger things have happened in this series. Robot or no, once you run out of batteries, no more Toko. Additionally, the game hints that using Toko frequently might have some sort of detrimental effect on the story’s outcome, so you may want to save her for emergencies only.
I’m still working my way through Ultra Despair Girls, and while I’ll hold off assigning a grade until I’ve finished it, I can safely say that if you’re a fan of the Danganronpa games, you’ll find plenty to enjoy here. Even if you’re not really into the other games, you might consider giving this a shot if you’re looking for a different take on something like The Last of Us. Personally, I’m getting the most enjoyment out of simply wandering the game’s environments, searching for out-of-the-way puzzles or reading about the events that led to the current state of the game world. The sparse environments, replete with piles of neon blue and pink corpses, reminds me distinctly of early ‘90s VR, giving the whole thing a strangely satisfying sense of anachronism. Kodaka calls it “psychopop,” and I guess that fits, even if it’s not a real word. Is Ultra Despair Girls the future of the Danganronpa series? Probably not. But so far, it’s a hell of a detour.
Stay tuned for final thoughts and a score later in the week.