With many video game series, it’s not exactly required to play the games in any specific order. You can pop into the third installment and generally enjoy the game, often because video games tend to downplay their story lines in favor of focusing on the gameplay elements. The visual novel genre is in a bit of a different spot than most games, as series in them typically follow, appropriately, the sequel structure of books rather than video games. Ultra Despair Girls is the third in the series of Danganronpa games, and even though it is not a visual novel like games 1 and 2, it still has an incredibly heavy story emphasis that benefits quite a bit from playing the first two games before it even though it does not actually take place third in the series’s timeline. At the same time, Ultra Despair Girls does at least tell a self-contained story that doesn’t require you to play the other installments to understand or enjoy, but it feels like a game that will be enjoyed much more if you are interested in the series… or you might end up enjoying it far less because of how it deviates from the standard design of the other games.
Technically, Danganronpa Another Episode: Ultra Despair Girls is an action game, although its heavy story focus means that the gameplay is underplayed compared to the story it is telling. The game tells the tale of a terrible attack on an island city orchestrated by children. Looking to take revenge on the adults for how much they restricted their lives and mistreated them, the children have begun a rebellion and are massacring the adults with robot bears, all while an elite group of children make a sport of it “Most Dangerous Game” style by hunting down special victims amidst the chaos. You play as Komaru, one of those victims but still just a fairly typical girl who gets caught up in the chaos. Lucky for her, she happens to acquire the one thing that can take down the robotic bears and potentially the child rebellion as a whole: a megaphone that is actually a gun! Komaru is joined on her quest to escape the city by Toko, a rather negative and critical girl with connections to a group that can rescue them and potentially stop the rebellion. Most of the game’s attention is focused on these two characters, and I would definitely say that the game does an excellent job exploring their developing relationship throughout the game. The heavy emphasis on story cutscenes over the gameplay means the characters are given time to be fleshed out, with you learning not only more about the central two characters, but learning the motivations behind the children who have decided to hunt you down. The writing really is excellent at building up the world and characters in it, helped quite a bit by the fact that the game has almost full voice-acting save for optional small moments. It even varies up its presentation to keep things from getting too stale, with a wide variety of cutscene styles from basic text boxes to quality anime-style scenes. It’s quite clear the focus is on the storytelling, as the early game barely has any room for the actual gameplay! It does get a bit more balanced as the game goes on after the important things are properly established, but the majority of your play time will definitely be spent either reading or watching the game’s plot instead of interacting with it.
While the game does do a good job with the tale it is trying to tell, it does venture into some bleak and uncomfortable tones at some times. This is a game that is telling the story of children murdering adults gleefully and they do have their motivations explored in a sadly believable way. While it doesn’t always handle the heavy subjects as well as it could, it does at least recognize where certain lines need to be drawn. Still, the subject matter is bound to turn off quite a bit of its potential audience, and for Danganronpa fans, the story breaking away from the mold of the main games might not work for them quite well either. It does admittedly have a difficulty that makes things a bit easier for people more interested in the story, but the trial systems of the other games are completely absent, the focus instead being on shooting enemies and solving riddles and puzzles. Even with these two barriers to entry, we have yet another one in the form of Toko. Komaru’s a simple and likeable main protagonist, but Toko’s attitude can be overbearing at times due to her abrasiveness personality and belittling of her partner. Despite not liking her at the beginning of the game, I did find myself legitimately caring for her by the game’s end. There are still moments near the end where her worse aspects shine through, but as long as you can bear through the early parts where it’s in full force, she might be able to win you over with her dynamic with Komaru and her rather hilarious fantasy scenes that crop up from time to time.
The writing does struggle a bit with trying to be funny at times though. For example, the game makes too many attempts at being meta without saying much with it or doing it often enough for it to be part of the game’s theme. At least the children are pretty well-written in regards to acting like children save when the game seems to think that kids that age will just go into non-sequiturs in the middle of a discussion. It doesn’t know how to handle some of the heavy topics it brings up sadly, and it doesn’t really do a good job of justifying why you the player don’t kill the hundreds of kids you encounter just sitting around and playing with adult corpses throughout the game. It does try to make points about it eventually, but early in the game where everything is new and all you know is that kids are killing adults… the characters just say they won’t stoop so low as to kill these children who are just gonna keep massacring people if they’re left to do as they please. None of these aspects ruin the game really, but it does stain the game’s usually good writing. I should probably note here too that the game does try to soften the horrific situation by simplifying the appearance of the dead. Corpses bleed neon pink blood and are simplified silhouettes colored either blue or pink to make it less morbid. The game on the whole isn’t that dark save its choice of subject matter, so its not trying to make you feel ill seeing streets filled with corpses or anything. You still see kids hopping on top of dead bodies and hip-thrusting beside them though, so it’s not all rosy either.
When the game isn’t telling you its story, its time to shoot bear robots! Sadly, shooting bear robots isn’t exactly complicated or particularly challenging. All of the basic enemies have the same basic weak spot: their lightning bolt shaped red eye. Fire at that, and you can take down most enemies in one shot if you hit it perfectly. Unfortunately, the odd shape of the eye seems to lead to the game having trouble telling if you did hit it or not. While the control of the aiming seemed fine, I would point my laser sight directly at the eye and fire, only to see that it didn’t count as a hit. It was difficult to tell the difference between the shots that did work and those that didn’t, especially since I’d sometimes fire at the same spot repeatedly and get different results. I believe this comes down to the fact that that the weak spot is oddly shaped, and while it is an instant kill move and shouldn’t be too easy to hit, the game could have done a better job of making it clear how you were messing up when targeting the eyes. Regardless, even if you can’t nail the weak spot, most enemies will usually go down to repeated fire, and they don’t really make any effort to avoid your attacks. The game does give you a few ammo types to make killing bears a bit more interesting and they do trickle out a few new enemies every now and then, but the gunplay never really evolves. The bosses, despite being pretty simple and easy with weak spot mechanics as well, were still enjoyable, perhaps partly because of the related scenes around them and the general presentation. It’s hard not to look forward to them even if the fight itself hardly requires much thought to it. If you do get tired of firing the gun though or you get overwhelmed, there is a special super attack where you play as a character who slashes up her enemies instead of fires at them. She’s essentially invincible but can only be used for a set amount of time, so she can be either a desperation move, a way to clear crowds, or just a way to shake up the gameplay if you don’t want to shoot at a bunch of eyes for the next few minutes. The slashing isn’t very deep or complex either, not helped much by the fact its a dressed up super move, but it is at least satisfying to whip it out and take down troublesome foes.
The gunplay is serviceable, but the gameplay really finds its stride in regards to its riddles and combat puzzles. The riddles require a bit of thought and careful maneuvering to complete, being just difficult enough to feel good to complete but not frustrating if you can’t figure it out… although I did wish one didn’t test me on my astrology knowledge since that requires outside knowledge that even people into astrology sometimes mess up. More interesting than the riddles are the combat puzzles. Every now and then you’ll find specialized rooms where the goal is almost always to take down all the enemies inside in one go. No matter which ammo types you have, this will always require puzzle solving to complete. Exploiting the environment, luring enemies, using your ammo on certain objects or against the robots in a certain way… these specialized areas are certainly the most interesting challenges the game throws your way, and it does feel rather nice to make it all go off perfectly. If you can’t figure out the puzzle or mess it up, you can restart the puzzle and try again, or, more importantly, the game does allow you to brute force it. You’ll no doubt run low on ammo or your super moves if you try to blitz through them all instead of figuring them out, but having that alternate means to complete the puzzle if you just aren’t getting it is a nice way to prevent the game from frustrating the player. Sometimes, the puzzles can have pretty easy ways to fail as well, and this is the main reason why I wouldn’t ask for more complex versions of the ones on offer. More puzzles would certainly be interesting, but the ones that took longer to complete weren’t as satisfying because of how easy it was to slip up and have to restart.
THE VERDICT: Ultra Despair Girls is a deviation from the series formula, but this spin-off manages to carry the tone of the franchise while doing its own thing and doing a decent enough job at it. The story is an excellent read that will invest its readers into the plight of Komaru and Toko, it’s only a shame that it has so many hiccups along the way that hurt what is otherwise quality writing. The gameplay could definitely be expanded upon to make it just as enjoyable as the story, but as it stands it is rather barebones, helped mostly by the segments where it involves more puzzle solving instead of actual combat.
And so, I give Danganronpa Another Episode: Ultra Despair Girls for the Playstation Vita…
A GOOD rating. Despite this, I wouldn’t be surprised if people new to the series or those heavily invested in the series might find this game to be average or even bad. It sets out to do things a bit differently than the other Danganronpa games, and the game does not shy away from referencing those games either. They do explain what you need to know well enough, but a player with no context can likely get frustrated by how much they focus on it at times. Still, just like the tone of the game, this feels like stuff that will come down to personal preference and what a player expects from the game. If you are willing to meet it on its own terms, Ultra Despair Girls tells an enjoyable story, has decent enough gameplay, and has quite a few neat puzzles sprinkled throughout it.
The game’s strength certainly comes more from its story than its other elements, and while visual novel fans might not like the more involved gameplay segments, I do think trying to deviate from the heavy story focus of such games and trying to balance them with interactive moments is something that can benefit the genre. Ultra Despair Girls doesn’t pull it off perfectly because of how simple it made its core, but it certainly has a decent enough foundation to support a fine gaming experience.
Ultra Despair Girls might not match up to the main series counterparts in some regards, but by focusing its attention on its two central characters and a small supporting cast, this is certainly more than just Another Episode.