One of the biggest surprises for me last year was the North American release of the Danganronpa games, a whip smart series of visuals novels brimming with anarchic dark humour, incredibly well written characters, and a wicked talent for subversion. The first game challenged all my preconceived notions regarding typical anime visual novel fare, and the second game then proceeded to challenge all my notions of Danganronpa itself, using the knowledge I had gained from the first game against me. It handily managed not only getting onto my personal Top Ten list for 2014, but also stole the prizes for “Best Writing” and “Best PSVITA Game” during our regular Game of the Year awards. With such an impressive debut, you can imagine how excited I was for the upcoming release of Danganronpa Another Episode: Ultra Despair Girls, a side story of sorts that takes place between Danganronpa 1&2 and bizarrely switches up the gameplay from that of a Visual Novel over to a Third Person Shooter. Having now played through it in its entirety, I can thankfully say that Ultra Despair Girls generally manages to live up to expectations. While it’s not quite as tight or intricate as the main Danganronpa games are, it retains that special unsettling Danganronpa charm.
WARNING! SPOILERS FOR DANGANRONPA 1 & 2 AHEAD. DO NOT READ FURTHER IF YOU HAVEN’T PLAYED THEM YET.
Sadly in order to really talk about Ultra Despair Girls I’m going to have to talk around some of the larger plot points of the first two games, and those are stories that really deserve to be experienced firsthand. So with that warning given and the assumption made that you’ll know what I’m talking about (cause I’m not going to take the time to explain the Danganronpa lore, though I have thrown in some links to the Danganronpa wiki if you need a refresher) let’s discuss the story of this game. The central premise revolves around the character of Komaru Naegi, the sister of the protagonist from the first game. Since the outset of the massive world destroying tragedy caused by the Ultimate Despair Junko Enoshima, Komaru has been kept prisoner in an apartment, intended to be used as one of the motives in the original killing game from the first Danganronpa. A year and a half later though she is suddenly freed by a rampaging Monokuma robot and subsequently saved by Byakuya and the Future Foundation. Her saviors quickly become overtaken though, Byakuya is himself captured, and Komaru is taken to the airship base of the “Warriors of Hope“, a group of elementary school students who are leading a children’s revolt, using an innumerable horde of robot Monokumas to brutally slaughter all of the adults residing in Towa City. Komaru is then fitted with a tracking bracelet, dropped into the city, and made subject to the children’s perverse game where they hunt down and murder adults for fun. She is not without defenses though, as she manages to smuggle one of Future Foundation’s Monokuma destroying hacking guns in with her, and quickly partners up with Toko, the introverted writer/deranged serial killer from the first Danganronpa who is there to rescue Byakuya. The two of them must navigate their way through Towa City and attempt to escape from the Warriors of Hope and their army of Monokumas, though as you might expect the story ends up going far deeper than that. Now I’ll happily admit that plot synopsis must sound like pure gibberish if you’re new to the Danganronpa series but Ultra Despair Girls’ deep entanglement with the prior plots and aspects of the Danganronpa universe is there for good reasons. This game is intended as a side story and it takes full advantage of that fact, using the events at hand to shed light upon countless facets of the Danganronpa fiction, clearing up numerous questions left over from the first two games, such as the origins of Monokuma and why he is so technologically advanced. For those deeply invested in the series, the answers to such questions are obviously much appreciated, though I imagine it must make things somewhat impenetrable for more causal fans and new comers to the franchise.
Those people aren’t completely left out in the cold though, as the intrigue of Ultra Despair Girls’ story is not found in its attempts at lore maintenance but rather in the incredibly well written friendship between Komaru and Toko as well as the deeply unsettling exploits of the Warriors of Hope. Not wanting to get too deep into Komaru and Toko’s respective personalities (that’s an essay unto itself) the general back and forth they partake in is fantastic, evoking the same sense of timing that you see with a great comedy duo, trading off the role of straight man as they play off one another’s flaws and imperfections. Underneath the jokes though they slowly acclimatize to each other and their burgeoning friendship grows in a very natural way. There’s a great arc to be seen as they learn about and compensate for each other’s weaknesses, hitting various roadblocks and overcoming them along the way. The Warriors of Hope on the other hand show off Danganronpa’s more sadistic and brutal side as each of the very young children in this group has endured remarkably terrible things and seeks to enact retributive punishments upon Komaru and the other adults in return. Using these characters, Ultra Despair Girls touches upon some truly uncomfortable themes, specifically child abuse in a number of forms, taking advantage of their playful innocence juxtaposed against their malefic cruelty to highlight the full monstrosity of the topics at hand. While I don’t want to spoil anything in this regard, I will say that they manage to do a really fantastic job of making these things as unsettling as they should be and they use some interesting manipulative tricks to do it, playing off the player’s innate sense of morals to heighten the impact of these moments. For as interesting as the Warriors of Hope are though, and for as well done as the relationship between the two protagonists happens to be, this does still end up being the weakest of the Danganronpa games in terms of story. It just doesn’t feel very tight and the plot meanders quite a bit as they throw in multiple unnecessary twists and varying motivations alongside a brace of story NPCs who end up being rather one-dimensional. Similarly the ending feels somewhat unsatisfying, stemming not only from the fact that this is a middle chapter within the franchise (meaning we already know what happens next) but also from there being a fairly significant plot hole that is never addressed. That being said though, the good does tend to outweigh the bad when it comes to the story in this game and it still manages to be engaging in the way a Danganronpa game should be.
With that, why don’t we move onto the gameplay and discuss Ultra Despair Girls’ curious departure from the series’ trademark visual novel mechanics, because instead of talking to classmates and investigating murders in the manner of Phoenix Wright, UDG takes the form of a survival horror style Third Person Shooter. It works much as you might expect, with Komaru navigating a number of corridors while trying to shoot down waves of oncoming Monokumas with her hacking gun. The game provides a good variety of ammo and enemy types to keep things interesting and the overarching philosophy with the shooting rewards you for being smart and accurate. Combos that have you use the environment to your advantage are plentiful and shooting a Monokuma dead in its glowing left eye awards you an extra powerful next shot that can do massive damage to even the more powerful Monokuma variants. If you’re not exactly a crack shot though there’s no need to worry as Toko has your back, as she can use her stun gun to transform into Genocide Jack at any time which turns the game into a melee brawler. While your time as Genocide Jack is limited by a battery meter, you’re insanely powerful while in this mode, able to throw out quick combos and super moves that can get Komaru out of any tricky situation. These two gameplay types end up complementing each other quite well and work smoothly into the game’s pleasantly gradual difficulty curve that keeps things consistently entertaining while never feeling overbearing. It’s also worth noting that it feels like they really tried to cram as much into this game as possible; UDG is packed with impressive boss fights, tricky puzzles, multiple upgrade systems, and tons of collectibles all spread out over a surprisingly lengthy 18-20 hour-long campaign. It all feels quite competently done as well, with every facet being well-considered and nicely implemented, and while the action does start to get a tad tedious near the end, the gameplay does manage to stay fun throughout with the game wrapping up at just the right time.
Lastly let’s talk about the presentation, which ends up being quite ambitious as far as the Danganronpa series goes. Probably the biggest change is that, as necessitated by the gameplay, it’s fully polygonal with actual character models rather than just being composed of basic environments and character portraits as the prior games in the series have been. Thankfully they manage to translate everything across accurately, with the character models looking very close to their dialog portraits and the stark anarchic colour palette being lit in ways that allow it to keep its impact. Aside from that change though it does primarily feel like no more than just what we’re used to from Danganronpa when it comes to the visuals. While Ultra Despair Girls is certainly has momentum and the big mecha style bosses are impressive, ultimately it still ends up hitting many of the same notes in terms of design with the exception of some extra crayon drawings here and there to emphasize the child uprising aspect of the story. In terms of sound design, it’s similarly in line with the past games and of the same sort of quality. The soundtrack is mostly made up of songs from the past two games, though there are some new pieces in there as well which appropriately fit UDG’s specific story themes. This isn’t a bad thing as the Danganronpa games have always had amazing soundtracks, but it definitely feels like retread in this sense. The voice acting is the real highlight of the presentation in my opinion though, as a lot of absolutely fantastic characterization is done through it. The snappy repartee between Komaru and Toko is really well realized by their respective actors and the various childish affectations taken on by the Warriors of Hope do wonders to help flesh those characters out in lieu of the more extended and subtle dialog sequences you would get in a traditional Danganronpa game.
While I could continue to go on about Danganronpa Another Episode: Ultra Despair Girls, especially as there are still significant aspects of the story, gameplay, and presentation I haven’t even touched upon yet, I’m going to cut this review off here because it’s already running kind of long. To sum things up, Ultra Despair Girls does what any good side story should do: fill in gaps within the canon of the main fiction and play around with the established tenets of the universe a bit. While I think I still prefer the more contemplative and subtle style of the main line Danganronpa games, this more action focused experience makes for a good counterpoint and does still manage to provide the kind of strong characters and unsettling dark themes and humour that I have come to expect from Danganronpa. While it’s definitely the weakest entry in the series, as the core narrative isn’t nearly as tight or engrossing as that of its predecessors, it’s still enough to satisfy any fan of the franchise and as such I can happily give Danganronpa Another Episode: Ultra Despair Girls a recommendation and a score of 4 out of 5 stars. I will say once more though that you should not play this game until you’ve played Danganronpa 1 & 2; you absolutely need the context provided by those games for Ultra Despair Girls to be enjoyable.