The PlayStation Vita is not known for having a wide variety of great exclusives, but if you asked me to name some, both of the previous titles in the Danganronpa series would top my list. Combining adventure and visual novel mechanics to produce compelling murder mysteries and characters, they were a pair of games that I found myself pretty invested in.
Only a year after Danganronpa 2‘s American release, we now have the series’ third entry in our hands, and it’s likely not what fans were expecting.
Danganronpa Another Episode: Ultra Despair Girls is both a midquel set between the previous games, and a follow-up that abandons the adventure game mechanics in favor of third-person shooting. How well this will go over with existing Danganronpa fans may depend on how much they individually feel about the new genre. Personally, I think that Ultra Despair Girls is a serviceable spinoff for the most part, but ultimately pales when compared to its predecessors, both in terms of plot and gameplay quality.
Players take control of Komaru Naegi, a high school girl who happens to be the younger sister of the first game’s protagonist, Makoto. For reasons unknown to her, she’s been locked up and forced to live by herself in a solitary apartment for the past year. Things kick off with her initial escape thanks to a familiar face from the original game, and Komaru eventually finds herself in a place known as Towa City. However, she is soon horrified to find that the streets are now overrun with copies of the sinister robotic bear, Monokuma, who served as the main antagonist in the first two games. Rather than manipulate people and crack wise, however, these Monokumas are out for blood, and Komaru witnesses numerous citizens being massacred by the bears.
Komaru is able to make her escape due to being given the game’s primary weapon, a loudspeaker-like device that can shoot wireless signals used to destroy Monokumas. She also soon gets a partner in the form of Toko Fukawa, a supporting character from the original game who’s looking for a kidnapped comrade. The two team up for the remainder of the campaign, as Toko has the ability to awaken a psychotic split personality that can dole out major damage via some scissors and quick movement.
The two learn that the culprits behind the Monokumas are actually a group of five grade-schoolers calling themselves the Warriors of Hope, who, due to bad experiences with their parents, have decided to create a paradise for children by executing all adults and teenagers. From there, the girls team up to take on the legions of bears and eventually the kids themselves, in the hope of Toko finding her comrade and Komaru finding an exit from the chaotic city.
I praised both of the previous Danganronpa games for having strong stories, and while I felt that the second game’s supporting cast wasn’t as strong as the original’s, it still packed plenty of surprises and a major emotional punch to the gut near the end. Ultra Despair Girls, perhaps due to its gameplay format, ends up with a much more straightforward plot with surprises that don’t hit as hard and characters who aren’t as intriguing. There’s not as much in terms of character development either, and the supporting cast is smaller and less developed than in earlier entries.
It doesn’t help that, for the majority of the experience, I tired of the two leads. Toko being highly insecure and quick to lash out at others worked when she was a side character, but having a full game’s worth of her constant bitching got old fast. Komaru also takes far too long to become anything resembling a strong female lead, with the majority of her reactions being falling to her knees and sobbing.
Oddly enough, I’d say the standout characters of the game, despite not being its primary focus, are the Warriors of Hope. They are seriously demented little monsters who have no problem with mutilating and murdering innocents all in the name of their own personal paradise, and while some are more one-note than others, they’re often genuinely unnerving to watch due to their barbaric intentions and cutesy demeanors.
In fact, though the first two games obviously had their share of shock and gore due to the characters murdering one another, the full weight and severity of how downhill the outside world has gone is even more effective here, with stray adults in the street losing their will to live and being forced to witness terrible things, like their loved ones being massacred.
Despite being a midquel set before the second game, I’d still recommend playing both of the main Danganronpa titles before this one. Some of their big twists are spoiled here, or at least hinted at enough to dull the actual reveal’s impact. You’ll also meet characters who are related to previous members of earlier supporting casts, offering some nice nods to existing fans.
As far as the actual gameplay goes, I can sum it up in one word: Serviceable. You’ll spend the majority of it shooting several variations of Monokuma with different gun abilities that can be swapped with the Vita’s D-pad. Additionally, while I thought the abilities were all useful, you’re still participating in the same basic gameplay from start to finish.
Switching to Toko and her more hack-and-slash oriented controls is fun, but you won’t be able to do it whenever you want, due to it draining a meter that only recharges while playing as Komaru. Thankfully, both control well, though I did have an issue with the camera while aiming as Komaru, as it will automatically turn to the nearest enemy rather than where you’re currently aiming, making for some frustrating points.
It doesn’t help that the pacing can feel very misguided at times. The previous Danganronpa games certainly had a gargantuan amount of dialog to go through, but I found it easier to deal with there since that’s always been a key factor in adventure games. When you have a game that’s far more action-oriented, and you’re constantly interrupted by cutscenes up to 15 minutes long, it gets pretty grating.
In terms of presentation, I’m fairly confident that Ultra Despair Girls boasts the highest amount of fully voiced dialog. The jump to 3D also turned out decent, with good-looking character models but rather bland environments. In a series first, numerous fully animated cutscenes are also included, mostly in pre-rendered CG, but with some key moments done via traditional anime. I got the impression that developer Spike Chunsoft was probably given a bigger budget for this game due to its predecessors’ successes, and hopefully that will continue for future entries.
At the end of the day, Danganronpa Another Episode: Ultra Despair Girls isn’t bad, though it’s still far and away the weakest entry in the series. I don’t blame Spike Chunsoft for wanting to try something different, but the gameplay can feel bland, the story and characters aren’t as interesting, and despite being shorter than the previous games, the way things are paced and presented makes it feel longer than it needed to be. Danganronpa diehards may still have a decent time with the game, but they definitely shouldn’t go in expecting the next killer app for the Vita.
This review is based on the PS Vita exclusive, which was provided to us.
Danganronpa Another Episode: Ultra Despair Girls is a mixed bag, with some interesting moments offset by monotonous gameplay and poor pacing.