So I’ve been on the Danganronpa train for a while now; the first game was honestly an amazing experience, and writing a walkthrough for the first game as well as a preview, review and walkthrough for the second has in no way diminished my want for more content, or for writing about it extensively. So when NIS was nice enough to provide us with a review copy of Ultra Despair Girls to poke around with, I was all set to dive right in. It’s not just because it’s another Danganronpa game, though; the truth is, I’ve been really curious as to how a game with new mechanics, set in an environment that’s completely different from the other games, would work. Not to be a downer, but Spike Chunsoft does fairly well with rogue-likes and visual novels, and I absolutely adore the Kenka Bancho series, but they’re not known for their third person shooters. The closest thing they’ve developed that would provide us with an analogous experience is Attack on Titan: Humanity in Chains, which most people collectively thought was… not at all good, so there was definitely some trepidation going into this game. Well, I’ve spent some time with Ultra Despair Girls, and while the review is a ways off, I can give you a first impression based on the first level, so as to give you an idea of what you might be able to expect come release day.
1.) The basic plot, so far, is as such: Komaru Naegi, Makoto’s sister and one of our protagonists, was abducted when The Tragedy began, and she’s been imprisoned for a year and a half as the story picks up. A banging at her prison door draws her attention, but instead of a savior coming to her rescue, she is instead set upon by a Monokuma looking to end her life. After an encounter with Byakuya, who passes her a Hacking Gun (a megaphone with tech powers, basically) she’s abducted by The Warriors of Hope, a group of kids who are attempting to kill all of the “demons,” or adults, in the city. They slap a bracelet on Komaru, kick her out of their flying fortress, and leave her to her own devices, but a timely meeting with Toko Fukawa (or, more accurately, Genocide Jack) allows her to survive and formulate a plan: escape, by any means necessary. At this early stage of the game, there’s a lot of exposition; the entire prologue is about an hour long and maybe ten minutes of it is gameplay, total, for example, and the first stage features a significant amount of discussion between Komaru and Toko. That’s not a bad thing per say, but those looking for a traditional third-person shooter may be annoyed about how frequently the game breaks its pace to have conversations. Beyond that, the plot so far is mostly fine, though it’s taking shortcuts early on; for example, Yuta Asahina is introduced early and the plot mostly seems to think we’ll care about him because he’s Aoi’s brother rather than trying to make us care about him. Further, the first boss implies a history of abuse as a motivator for his actions, which is fine, but the game seems to think the player will care since he’s an abused child, when in reality this is the first video game I’ve ever played that made me want to obliterate a small child. I’m hoping that the plot picks up later, but as it stands there’s a lot of weaknesses here that weren’t in the first two games, and only Komaru and Toko are getting any real development.
2.) From a presentation perspective, Ultra Despair Girls is honestly really good across the board, if nothing else. Visually, this is one of the stronger games on the Vita, and while the 3D in the original Danganronpa was hit or miss, here everything looks on par with what you’d expect from the system. As usual the game uses a really stylized art design, so blood is its normal pink, though it’s also interesting to note that adult NPCs who don’t matter to the plot are represented as generic pink and blue models, which is interesting in how it depersonalizes the horror of the experience. The environments also use a lot of varied colors in an interesting way, and of course, the character models, be they for Toko and Komaru or for the Monokumas you face, all look quite good. Aurally, the game is also top notch, starting from the always outstanding soundtrack. Some of the songs are clearly either being reused from the prior game or are remixed, but there’s also some new (and also quite good) songs on display even this early in the game. Further, the English voice cast is, as always, very well selected, and the new actors and actresses for the Warriors of Hope and Komaru hang well with the existing actors for (so far) Byakuya and Toko, so it’ll be exciting to see if that keeps up.
3.) As you’re likely aware, Ultra Despair Girls eschews the detective mechanics of its predecessors in favor of third person shooter mechanics. The game is fairly basic in its concepts, so don’t expect cover-based shooting or anything here… it’s more comparable to something like Dirge of Cerberus than anything. Komaru can be moved around with the left stick and aimed with the right stick, and you can choose up-front to have the camera follow the view of the main character or act independently, depending on your personal preference. Normal movement is fairly basic; Komaru walks by default for precision movement and aiming, while holding Circle allows Komaru to run if you want to clear distance. Combat uses standard aiming mechanics, meaning holding the left trigger allows you to aim at the enemy, and pressing the right trigger allows you to shoot where you’re aiming. It’s all very easily understood, though it’s not quite as functional as it sounds. Here’s the thing: normal enemies all have the same weak point: the red Monokuma eye, which is a much smaller target than the head, making hitting said target more complicated than performing a traditional head shot. This wouldn’t be a problem on its own, except that Komaru doesn’t get hitscan bullets, so bullets move visibly toward targets. What this means in layman’s terms is, lining up a weak point shot is problematic at the best of times, and generally works best on stationary enemies, which is frustrating, at least at this point in the game. Now, if you do make that hit you get a “NICE SHOT” message, and your next shot is much larger and basically a one-hit kill on most enemies, so if you’re very good you can chain weak point shots over time, but only time will tell if the game gets more or less frustrating about this.
4.) That said, the Hacking Gun Komaru is given isn’t just about its shooting capabilities, and you’ll learn that very early on in the game. The introduction gives you the chance to play with all of the bullets briefly before your gun is busted down in capability (as it is a bit overpowered), leaving you with only Break, which is your default shot that lets you kill enemies as they come at you. In the first chapter, you’re given full access to three more bullets: Move, which lets you interact with electronics to make them do things, Detect, which lets you find invisible collectibles and see hidden things to solve puzzles, and Dance, which lets you lock down an enemy in a dancing animation for one reason or another. So far Move and Dance are only really good for basic interactions and puzzle solving, but as we’ll discuss in a bit, that’s a fairly common part of the game, so you’ll find that they’re not useless in the least. While Move and Detect don’t have much combat use, Break and Dance do, and fortunately you can tinker with their functionality a bit by using Bling Bullets. Basically, you can attach two Bling Bullets to a bullet, which can improve its bullet capacity, damage and firing rate, depending on the Bling attached. If you attach two complimentary Bling Bullets, you’ll either get a GOOD boost (which offers minor improvements) or an EXCELLENT boost (which offers major improvements), and the game is nice enough to tell you the results rather than forcing you to experiment. Presumably other damage dealing bullets will allow this modification as well, but so far, only Break and Dance fit that bill.
5.) Of course, if you’re in a position where bullets can’t overwhelm your foes, you always have an ace up your sleeve in Genocide Jack. By pressing Triangle you can call her out (as Toko zaps herself with a tazer), and you can use Jack to beat the stuffing out of enemies as you see fit. The mechanics are a bit different for Jack, since she doesn’t used ranged attacks, as Square and X control her attacks while Circle dodges attacks if needed. Jack also gets super moves by using her Blood Lust gauge; by holding down the left trigger and pressing either Triangle or X you can use an attack that either uses one charge (represented by scissors) to hit a single enemy hard, or three charges to hit every enemy in the immediate vicinity. You can also easily replenish this by beating the dog mess out of enemies, so you can keep the carnage going easily. That said, Jack can only stay out as long as the battery meter at the top of the screen has a charge; when it bottoms out, Toko returns and you’re forced back to using Komaru. You can upgrade Jack’s skills with cash, however, allowing her to stay out much longer, so there’s good reason to dump cash into her skillset.
6.) Now, aside from the Bling Bullets and skills for Jack, you’ll also gain levels through earning experience points, which is earned through slaying enemies during play. In the same way that prior Danganronpa games did so, in this game you don’t gain anything by slaying enemies directly; rather, you’re given one point per level with which you can equip skills you acquire as you play. Skills are represented by skill books, which can improve any number of things, from the health and batteries you have to the speed of your aiming to increasing your acquisition of experience, cash and items and beyond. You can pick up skills a few different ways, as some are randomly hanging out in the game world, some are rewards for completing certain tasks in the game, and completing each chapter with an A rank rewards you with one as well it seems, so you’ll have no shortage of options for how you want to outfit your team. It’ll be interesting to see what options are available later in the game, but so far the spread is good, and there seems to be a lot of options available already, so it can only get better from here.
7.) Now, with all of the above mentioned, you’d think that combat was a big focal point of the game, but it’s actually tempered a bit by a sizable amount of puzzles that you run into as you play. The first stage presents you with a couple Challenges, which are presented by the Monokuma mask wearing children to halt your progress until you complete their games successfully, and while they’re not challenging yet, you get some fun rewards for doing these so it’s not a bad deal even if they don’t become any more involved. There are also puzzle rooms that pop up a good bit more frequently (there are around five or so in the first stage), which task you to complete a specific task in the room correctly that revolves around the Monokumas in it, often while limiting the types of bullets you can use. As an example, one room asks you to blow up all the Monokumas in one shot, and gives you several regular Monokumas and a Bomb Monokuma who paces in a set pattern, allowing you to get behind it, shoot it when it’s around the others, and cause a massive explosion. These rooms can be amusing, but the amount in the first stage alone became disruptive, so it’ll be interesting to see if the pacing improves.
8.) The first stage itself, while it has lots of promise, also has its moments where it presents a poor example of what the player can expect from the rest of the game, unfortunately. Without getting into plot spoilers, after the prologue walks you through some tutorial stuff, the first stages starts you off at a hospital (which you can only access a small part of) before sending you out into the world. You’ll walk the streets for a bit, fighting regular Monokumas as you go, before running into Bomb Monokumas, who toss grenades and explode on death. This then takes you through a hotel, which then leads you to a police station and, aside from introducing you to the upgrade shop, also introduces you to Siren Monokumas, who will blare an alert as soon as they see you to draw all other Monokumas to them… but can also be hit with Dance to draw everything to them for easy dispatching. From there you reach the Subway, only to find the door is locked, and a kid has stolen the key, which leads you back to the Hospital in a roundabout bit of backtracking, which has you encounter a Junk Monokuma, which hits hard and runs fast but is easily dispatched by Jack. This then leads you back to the subway, again, to bring you to the boss battle. The pacing is fine enough, overall, though forcing backtracking on the player in the first stage is kind of disappointing, and between the dialogue sequences, the tutorials, the Challenges and the puzzle rooms, there’s a whole lot of variation, which becomes disruptive in a hurry. I’m hopeful this is only an issue because it’s the first stage and that things will iron themselves out later, but so far the game is kind of frustrating in its pace.
9.) Speaking of the boss fight, since it seems to be based on a theme later fights will emulate, this is the general gist of the battle. The first boss is a large Gundam-style robot that has one weak point, which it protects jealously until it’s locked into an attack, which gives you the opening you need to shoot it. The first boss only responds to Break bullets, though later bosses may have more involved patterns that need different special bullets, and the first boss only has a couple basic attack patterns that are easily evaded, so it’s not too bad all things considered. The only issue I saw here was that the aiming can be hard to manage when you’re trying to aim at a small target (like the boss’ weak point at long range) and you can be left open to damage while aiming, which, again, can be frustrating. That said, the audience will toss in power-ups if you’re low on health or bullets at least, so it’s not a complete bear to complete, and if worst comes to worst, Jack makes short work of the boss if you have a couple bars of Blood Lust handy. Later bosses will probably be more of a hassle, of course, but at this point it wasn’t too hard to complete the first stage, so those who are looking for plot more than combat should be just fine.
10.) Overall, Ultra Despair Girls could still end up being a sleeper hit for the Vita, or at least a good game for Danganronpa fans, but as it stands now, the first stage makes it apparent there are some issues that (at best) will either be easily adjusted to or ironed out in later levels, or (at worst) will follow the game to the end, so it’s really up in the air. There’s still more to the game I haven’t even touched on, like the massive amount of collectibles that have shown up so far, or the different difficulty levels that reduce bullet payouts but increase cash payouts (and, at the easiest level, allow Jack’s battery bar to regenerate rather than needing power-ups to fill), so hopefully there’s more to love the later the game goes. As it stands now, though, while the combat and plot are both serviceable and the presentation is excellent, the gunplay is spotty at the best of times, the plot has already taken some shortcuts and the pacing is all over the place, so it’s hard to really forecast how the game will end up. It could still pull it out in the end and be a worthwhile product, but as of now, I’m honestly on the fence about it, which is something I never thought I’d say about a Danganronpa game. We’ll have a review ready before release, though, so you’ll be able to see what we think about the final product, so keep checking back and we’ll let you know what’s what soon enough.