A Return to Danganronpa's World Makes Ultra Despair Girls Worthwhile

A Return to Danganronpa's World Makes Ultra Despair Girls Worthwhile

While it lacks the punch of the series' complex murder mysteries, this spin-off proves great writing can sometimes save a shallow experience.

The one-two punch of both Danganronpa games stood as one of the best and most unexpected surprises of 2014. And if, like me, you digested this strange mix of Phoenix Wright, Battle Royale, and Persona immediately upon release, it's likely the one thing you want from this world is simply more Danganronpa.

Unfortunately, that won't be happening for a while. Even though part two released for Japanese PSPs back in 2012, the upcoming third installment began development as recently as this spring, which means we probably won't see an English localized version until 2017—and I'm being optimistic, here.

To fill this gap, we have Danganronpa Another Episode: Ultra Despair Girls, a spin-off that takes the series' overarching theme—kids killing kids via a game set against the post apocalypse—and runs in a completely different direction. While the main games are known for their twist on Ace Attorney's courtroom antics, Ultra Despair Girls opts for Resident Evil-style gunplay and exploration as its main interactive component. The result is an experience that feels pretty disjointed, but ultimately worth it thanks to the contributions of series scriptwriter Kazutaka Kodaka. Even if its action segments range from "tolerable" to "okay, I guess," pushing through them rewards you with what fans undeniably come to Danganronpa for: stories about interesting and desperate people doing terrible things to each other in a hostile world.

And as stories go, Another Episode contains the darkest one the series has seen to date. Set between the first and second games, Ultra Despair Girls explores the life of Komaru Naegi, the thoroughly average sister of the first game's thoroughly average protagonist. Following a world-ending scenario Danganronpa keeps intentionally vague, her safe life of solitary confinement in a locked-down apartment complex ends when a murderous Monokuma tears down her door and makes an attempt on her life—Monokuma being the malevolent robot bear who's the series' main antagonist. This turns Komaru's story into one of survival, as she learns the man-made island that serves as her new home is also the playfield of a game conducted by a group of five twisted children seeking to kill all adults and build a paradise for themselves—a reasonable goal when you have an army of robot bears at your fingertips.

This is the first time we've been able to explore the world outside of the first two Danganronpas' confined settings, which gives Another Episode some new narrative possibilities. We may not get to grow as close to the characters who die, but, this time around, death is everywhere. Throughout the levels, you'll run by dozens upon dozens of corpses—depicted in the very Danganronpa style of garishly colored silhouettes—strung up, piled in heaps, and poked and prodded at by strange children in Momokuma masks. The stakes have always been high in Danganronpa, but in Another Episode, the story starts with a full-on genocide and only gets darker from there. And it's all viewed by the five antagonists—known as the Warriors of Hope—as a sort of RPG, where adults are demons to be slayed for experience points, items, and parts. (It gets pretty grisly.)

All of this could have played out via Danganronpa's standard adventure game mechanics, but Another Episode chooses to pad out its story via a much more mainstream style of play: run-and-gun shooting. At its best, this content is tolerable, with some occasional bright moments—though I wasn't really expecting a developer like Spike-Chunsoft to deliver a quality shooter. Komaru's megaphone-gun actually has a lot of versatility, and as Another Episode moves on, she gains a number of special bullets meant to combat the many varieties of Monokumas bent on ending her life.

While most enemies don't do much more than make a beeline for you, the highlight of Another Episode's action can be found in its combat puzzles, which show the layout of an upcoming room via a surveillance camera, then ask you to eliminate all of the Monokumas at once using some prescribed attacks. These challenges never grow too tough, but they're preferable to the standard action, which involves exploring some sparse (though pretty) environments as Monokumas sneak out from around corners to attack.

Another Episode also offers an "easy button" of sorts via Komura's partner, Danganronpa 1's Toko. A press of the triangle button transforms her into her serial killer alter ego, Genocide Jill, which allows you to cut through Monokumas with some blazing fast melee attacks until an energy meter runs out. Komaru also levels up, and can learn skills, but as with the previous Danganronpa games, these light RPG elements don't add much outside of the illusion of depth. They're helpful, sure, but they don't necessarily need to be there.

I've been a little harsh about Another Episode's action, but I'd be lying if I said I didn't find it fun at times—there's just something compelling about gunning down robo-bears in Danganronpa's weird world. So I felt strangely hypocritical when frequent cutscene interruptions annoyed me—I mean, isn't story the reason anyone plays Danganronpa in the first place? But Another Episode doesn't quite know how to effectively weave its narrative around gameplay, so, many times, you'll only get a chance to mow down a few Monokumas before having to watch another story segment play out; at its absolute worst, the play consists of running from one cutscene activation point to another, often a few seconds apart. And the way Another Episode chooses to tell its story feels arbitrary at times, as some cutscenes will load only for the sake of a two-line exchange between Komura and Toko. Seeing as characters can freely talk to one another without interrupting play during the action scenes, these needless interruptions really got under my skin.

Still, if tolerating a mediocre shooter is the price of admission for a return trip to Danganronpa's world, it's a price I'm willing to pay. For every moment Another Episode annoyed me, I was treated to dozens of scenes that left me with a smile on my face, or punched me in the gut with an unexpected twist or character moment. Kodaka's writing has a way of playing with anime and visual novel storytelling tropes without every really embracing them; just as the script veers towards cliche, it swerves in a completely unexpected direction. That's kind of Kodaka's M.O. at this point, but it's always refreshing to see—especially since he works in a genre that trafficks in pandering cliches and shameless predictability. The only real downside to the non-gameplay elements this time around can be found in the small amounts of perviness peppered in—because how could you possibly release a Vita game without this kind of content? Rather than being completely repugnant, at its worst, this stuff just feels completely unnecessary; I'm sure someone out there is applauding the fact that you can sometimes see a tiny sliver of Komaru's panties, but it's definitely not me. Here's hoping this won't be a common feature of Danganronpa 3.

I haven't finished Another Episode yet, which is why you're not currently staring at a formal review. But if you've enjoyed the past few games, there's definitely no reason why you shouldn't give this one a try—even though Danganronpa has plenty of buzz and critical acclaim, it's still an extremely niche series on a mostly dead platform, meaning it needs all the support it can get. Obviously, I'd love if this spin-off took the same format that got me hooked on the first two Danganronpas, but if Another Episode is the only way I can get more of Kazutaka Kodaka's psychopop world of mayhem and murder—at least, for the next few years—I'll gladly take it.

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