Inside Pulse 12

Review: Danganronpa Another Episode: Ultra Despair Girls (Sony Playstation Vita)

Danganronpa Another Episode: Ultra Despair Girls
Genre: Third Person Shooter
Developer: Spike Chunsoft
Publisher: NIS America
Release Date: 09/01/15

If you’ve been following along, you know this, but for those who are coming in new, I love the Danganronpa series. I said as much in my preview of this game when I wrote it up last week, and that hasn’t changed in any way; I’m a fan of the franchise, so much so that it’s probably one of the five franchises I’ve written about for this site the most, and I’m eagerly awaiting any new information we can get on the third game at this point, as are, I’m sure, many of you. So when Ultra Despair Girls arrived for us to review, I was totally on board with jumping into the game and not only reviewing it, but doing with it everything that could be done from beginning to end. The idea’s neat enough, on its own, and really, there’s a goldmine of interesting ideas you could dig into with the franchise, whether you change around the gameplay or not. There are so many interesting ideas in the Danganronpa universe that you could release a game a year for decades and probably never run out, frankly, so you can immediately see how a game that takes characters from the first game, pairs them up with new characters who are related to characters from the first game and lets them loose could easily be exciting. To be sure, I had concerns about the change in gameplay, as Spike Chunsoft isn’t known for their third person shooters, at all, and while a Danganronpa roguelike probably would’ve been even weirder, you’d be forgiven for worrying about how the final product would turn out. Still, even if the gameplay isn’t ideal, so long as the plot is amazing that’d allow fans of the franchise to forgive a lot, and honestly, if the gameplay is awesome, so much the better. With that said, let’s dig into Ultra Despair Girls and talk about what everyone’s interested in, and see whether or not it works, and why.

Let’s get this out of the way up front

Before we get into the two key elements everyone’s interested in, though, let’s talk about the extra stuff, because it’s easier for everyone that way. First off, Ultra Despair Girls honestly looks excellent, due partially to the technology behind it and partially to the art style. The tech is top-notch for the Vita, as everything moves fluidly and the characters and enemies are all very well animated, so much so that it even looks excellent when you’re viewing it on the Playstation TV, to say nothing of how excellent it looks on the Vita’s screen. The art style is also fantastic, as it takes the Danganronpa style we all know and love and applies it to a larger world, which gives the world some really interesting contrasts and a visual style you won’t see anywhere else. The game’s use of color is also really splendid, as frequent palette changes really mix up the visual style and keep the game looking interesting from the first moments all the way through to the endgame. Aurally, the product is also top notch, starting with the soundtrack, which is always a treat in this series. There are a few reused tracks throughout the game, but a lot of the music is either remixed from prior games or is brand new for this one, and it fits in well with the franchise expectations, so anyone who ordered the limited edition will probably love the soundtrack. The voice work is also excellent, as NIS not only picked up all of the voice actors and actresses from the prior games for this one, but continued their trend of hiring top-quality people for this game. Some of the voices can get a little grating at times (Jataro’s in particular gets annoying after a bit), but the cast is overall quite good, and the only downside here is the repetition of dialogue during battles, rather than the performances themselves. The game doesn’t come with Japanese dialogue by default, so I couldn’t really test it out one way or the other (though it’s been stellar in prior games so you can assume this trend will continue), but NISA has indicated they will offer the JP dialogue track as DLC in the future, so those who love their JP voice work won’t be left out in the cold, either.

It should also be noted that fans of the franchise will love the amount of content here, as the game itself is around ten to fifteen hours long (depending on how much searching you do for extra content), and you’ll have lots of stuff to come back to here. The Trophies are all manageable, for one thing, so dedicated fans should find that they can complete everything here in a couple of playthroughs if they’re so inclined. There’s also a lot of flavor text in the world for those who really want to know what’s going on, as various notes and books populate the landscape for you to collect, and you can read through the information whenever you like. There’s even another unlockable novel in this game, as there was in Danganronpa 2, which focuses on Yasuhiro Hagakure, so fans of his character will enjoy this thing (though this now leaves Hina as the only character to not see a repeat appearance from the first game), and it’s a fun read even if you aren’t a fan. Honestly, there’s a lot here, as is the norm for the franchise, and while fans probably expected that, it’s still worth mentioning on its own before we get into the important stuff, because it’s honestly one of the universally good things about this game.

If you’re here for the plot

With that out of the way, let’s get into the narrative, because that’s going to be one of the bigger sticking points for fans of the series. The basic gist is pretty simple: you take on the role of Komaru Naegi, who is, as the story begins, locked up for some reason. She’s been imprisoned for about a year and a half for reasons she doesn’t understand, as she was abducted right as the Tragedy was beginning, and she has no idea what’s going on outside of her prison, with the world or her family. Well, that changes one day when a Monokuma kicks in her door and attempts to murder the heck out of her, but she’s saved at the last minute by the Future Foundation, led by Byakuya Togami, who has been sent in to save her. He wasn’t expecting there to be a Monokuma riot, however (and really, who does?), so he sends Komaru to the rescue spot with a Hacking Gun for protection… and this plan goes to hell immediately, as she’s captured. Her captors, the Warriors of Hope, are a group of children who’ve decided all adults are demons, and by extension, must die, which (after some deliberation) includes Komaru. So, outfitted with a marker bracelet, she’s kicked back out into Towa City to participate in the game the Warriors of Hope are running; basically, marked people are to be killed, by whatever means the kids decide. Komaru isn’t alone in her plight, fortunately, as she runs across Toko Fukawa early on, who’s learned how to weaponize her alternate personality, Genocide Jack, and Komaru also has the Hacking Gun, which can destroy and manipulate the Monokumas running around the city. Whether it’ll be enough to survive the game the Warriors of Hope are running is a different story altogether, of course.

It should be said, the idea of this plot is an interesting one, and there are some really good concepts and executions here that should please much of the fanbase. For one thing, Komaru ends up being a fine protagonist in the franchise, as she strikes a good narrative balance between Makoto and Hajime; she’s not very confident in her ability to do much of anything, but she learns to accept who she is well, and watching her grow as a character is a good part of the story. Toko is also a fun comic relief character at times, and she almost ends up as a likable deuteragonist by the end. Some of the secondary cast are also really interesting, such as Haiji and Shirokuma, and following their plot progression to the end is quite rewarding in ways you wouldn’t expect. The final act is also really strong for the most part, as there are some really interesting plot developments in it that, at the very least, will impact the universe for a long time to come, and the way in which the characters reveal their motivations and how everything comes together is clever. Also, some of the Warriors of Hope have a really strong story in them, and the overall core concept behind how and why everything happens is really interesting, especially when you get into the late game explanations and you start to realize just how messed up the plotline really is.

That said, this is easily the weakest narrative entry in the Danganronpa series, and a lot of that has to do with some lazy shortcuts taken to generate responses where none are deserved. For example, a couple of characters show up in the plot who are related to the main protagonists from the first game, which is fine, but instead of giving them unique personalities and a real voice, the game basically says, “Hey, here’s a person who’s related to a character you care about, you should care about this character too!” which is not narrative development. One of the related characters does get an actual character and motivations and depth, and that character is one you’ll probably like on their own merits by endgame, but everyone else literally shows up for so short a period of time you can’t get attached to them, but rather their relation to another character, and that’s kind of lazy. There’s also the matter of the Warriors of Hope; of the five, only three get any kind of significant character development over the course of the game, while the other two just kind of show up to get wrecked by Komaru. The game makes it implicitly obvious that all five of the kids have been abused, and if you have children of your own, the game might trick you into complicated feelings about these kids, but it doesn’t really give you a reason to care beyond “this is an abused child, feel bad for them while they try to murder you,” which… doesn’t work if you don’t have kids. I mean, compare the amount of effort that Danganronpa 2 put into making you care about the first victim when it didn’t even need to to the effort it puts into, say, making you feel bad for the first boss here and it isn’t even close.

Beyond that, there are also little issues that pop up that make the experience feel like it’s less than the sum of its parts. Over half of the game is narrative, which is fine, except that from about the end of the first chapter to the beginning of the fourth chapter, most of the narrative centers around Komaru, Toko and (occasionally) Haiji Towa, the leader of the resistance, being completely unlikable. Komaru spends over half of the game whining about how she just can’t do anything, Toko spends over half of the game just being an unpleasant human being and trying to force Komaru into doing things, and Haiji is just a jerk most all of the time he’s on screen. The most likable people, for about half of the game, are literally Genocide Jack and Shirokuma, and they are a serial killer and a Monokuma, respectively (though Shirokuma’s character arc is quite good, honestly). Finally, the ending itself is just a string of Xanatos Gambits stacked one on top of the next, like a Gambit Pileup gone horribly wrong, and the game just… ends. Nothing is really resolved, and the actual “winning” condition is honestly such a letdown that it’s hard to come out of this plot feeling like anything of value came of it. In other words, while the prior Danganronpa games had bittersweet endings where you at least could see where this was a win, albeit a hard one, Ultra Despair Girls doesn’t even really resolve the situation in a way that can be considered satisfactory. The plot has its moments, sure, but overall it’s a notable drop in quality from its predecessors, and it’s not one you’ll be coming back to over again.

If you’re here for the gameplay

Still, such a plot could’ve been redeemed if the gameplay was good, and it makes something of an effort toward trying to be this thing. The game is, as noted in the preview, a standard third-person shooter, so there are no oddball cover mechanics or anything of that nature; it’s essentially comparable to Final Fantasy VII: Dirge of Cerberus without the jumping systems in terms of its simplicity. You move Komaru around and attempt to shoot anything that looks like a Monokuma as you go, and the systems are similar to the normal Resident Evil style mechanics (left trigger aims, right trigger shoots) one might expect. Komaru can also run or walk as needed, depending on the situation; while moving quickly is often a good idea, the game has just enough of a horror bent that it’s not always the best solution. That’s because the world is crawling with Monokumas, all of whom want to make you super dead, and many of whom will hide out until you’re right on top of them if you’re not careful. You can blast them into spare parts normally with the default Break bullet, but if you can hit them in their red eye (which acts as the “headshot” weak point) you can take them down even faster, and even earn a “NICE SHOT” bonus, which gives you an ultra-powered next shot, as well as a bonus if the enemy drops any cash. The game gives you an extensive tutorial on how literally everything works, to the extent that even in the late-game new information is popping up, so you’ll definitely be able to figure out the mechanics easily, if nothing else.

Beyond the core “move and shoot” mechanics, though, there’s an inkling of a good idea here, thanks to a few systems. First, the Hacking Gun only starts off with Break bullets, which are your normal “shoot stuff until it dies” bullets, but as the game progresses you’ll earn all kinds of new bullets to play with. Some bullets, like “Move” (which interacts with certain objects) and “Detect” (which detects hidden secrets) are mostly used for puzzle solving, but others, like “Dance” (which makes an enemy dance in place), “Knockback” (which acts like a wind shotgun and knocks enemies on their butts) and “Paralyze” (a massive electric shot that does huge damage and fries anything in water) are useful in combat, especially in tactical fashions. The game tries to work with this concept quite a bit by way of implementing a whole lot of puzzles into the mix to make you think about how to use your bullets effectively. In some cases, these are simply set up via the narrative, and the boss battles later in the game also make some use of this concept. However, there are also puzzle rooms that are specifically set up in a way that forces you to complete a puzzle before moving on; you’ll be given an overhead view of the room and a general goal, as well as specific bullets you can and can’t use, and it’ll be up to you to figure out how to complete them. It’s a neat idea, and while you don’t have to complete them, doing so adds to your score at the end of the game.

Beyond the gunplay, you also have another combat option if things get too tense. Pressing the Triangle button also calls out Genocide Jack when you need a boost, and she’s a strong melee character who can basically ruin anything normally, but also has a Blood Lust gauge she charges while ruining things that, when you kick it on, can either ruin one enemy at the cost of one bar or all surrounding enemies at the cost of three bars. You can only use Jack for as long as Toko has battery life in her tazer (which lets Jack loose, seriously), though, so effective use is key. Of course, as in prior games, you can also level up the Komaro and Toko team by slaying Monokumas, though the game handles this differently from prior games. Each level you earn gives you one point you can devote to equipping a skill, and each skill you find costs a set number of points, so you’ll have to equip them as best suits your play style. However, skills are simply found this time out as you wander through the game world (and a few are end stage rewards), thus rewarding careful exploration and searching. Additionally, you can also scavenge cash from the Monokumas you kill as you play (and, again, as end stage rewards), which you can use to buy either Bling Bullets for Komaru or straight upgrades for Genocide Jack. Bling Bullets can be equipped two at a time to any damage dealing weapon, which improves its damage, speed and clip size, depending on the Bling, and some combinations merit a “GOOD” or “EXCELLENT” rank, which further improves the bonuses conferred. Jack, meanwhile, upgrades in a fashion that’s fairly standard; spend cash and her stats improve.

For all of the above, you could see where there was a good idea here itching to get out, but the problem is, it never gets there. The obvious problem, of course, is that the gunplay is just not great; it’s adequate at the best of times, but because Komaru’s weapons aren’t hitscan (pull the trigger, hit the enemy), this makes pulling off “NICE SHOT” combos problematic, and not in a challenging way, but rather in an annoying way. Komaru is also stiff to control more often than not, and in larger groups of enemies, even later in the game, you’ll honestly probably just fall back to Genocide Jack because otherwise it gets annoying to deal with. Another issue that comes up, however, is because the game is rapidly changing between dialogue, shooting sections, tutorials, puzzle sections and cutscenes, the flow of the game is just disruptive. You can’t get into a groove with anything because the game is constantly swapping to something else, and it feels like the game has ADHD mechanically most of the time. The game counter-balances this somewhat by offering the player multiple difficulty options and an Active Time Event that can bring Komaru back from the brink of death, but even then the game can’t decide what it wants to do here. On one hand, any instance where you Retry at all impacts your end of level score and not all death sequences prompt for revival, and since you’ll probably get killed the first time you meet enemies that can hit you for your full health bar or the first time you can fall into pits, this isn’t great. On the other hand, on the whole, the game isn’t that challenging; the biggest change is that on the easiest difficulty Toko’s battery recharges and higher difficulties reward less bullets, but honestly, if you’ve played a third person shooter ever you’ll get through it fine, even if you’ll be more annoyed at higher levels.

I wish I had glowing praise to heap on the game here, because I was looking forward to it as much as anyone, but to be honest, Danganronpa Another Episode: Ultra Despair Girls is just… okay, and that’s about all it is. It looks and sounds nice, and the plot has some moments where it’s compelling, but beyond that, it’s honestly just a rote, mechanically unpleasant shooter with a plot that takes shortcuts and doesn’t develop as well as its predecessors did. If you’re a diehard fan of the franchise you might find something here to keep you entertained, but for most people this is honestly going to be a one-and-done affair. I’m happy that NISA brought this to the US, and they did a good job of localizing it, but as an experience Ultra Despair Girls just doesn’t compare to its predecessors. It’s fine enough if you’re desperate for more Danganronpa plot, or if you thought Toko was a character you wanted to see as a protagonist, but otherwise it’s really just a game you’ll play to completion and never go back to.

Short Attention Span Summary:
I don’t know what to say here, honestly; Danganronpa Another Episode: Ultra Despair Girls was a game that I’ve been eagerly, eagerly looking forward to, and it’s honestly an experience that’s… adequate. That’s honestly all I can say to describe it. The game looks and sounds pretty good, and there’s plenty of content to the experience to justify the asking price if nothing else. There are also moments where the narrative really shines through and does some interesting things, and the gunplay is serviceable enough that you can get through the game without any significant flaws. That said, while we probably all expected that the gunplay wouldn’t be great, if we’re being honest, a lot of the issues with it come not from bad mechanics but bad design choices, as while Komaru doesn’t control great, the bullets that don’t hitscan and the constant disruptive pacing hurt the game more than anything else. Narratively, though, we were probably all united in expecting the moon from the game, and while it has its moments, the whole package doesn’t deliver. Characters are introduced with baggage that’s meant to make them memorable instead of memorable character arcs, three of the narratively important characters spend half of the game being unlikable and annoying, and the ending is a letdown compared to the last chapter leading up to it. If you’re a big fan of the franchise, Ultra Despair Girls will probably be fine to play through once, but it’s not going to be the memorable experience its predecessors were, and you probably won’t want to come back to it the way you might have wanted to for the prior games. I still have high hopes for the third game, but this was just a letdown compared to the prior entries, and while it was okay, that’s honestly all it was.