Is there a term in fiction uglier than "expanded universe?"
Sure, it doesn't always spell doom—people seem to love those Timothy Zahn Star Wars novels—but any exploration outside the core of a fictional world is usually motivated by one factor: merchandising.
In my more fanboyish days, I made the mistake of giving these spins-off a chance, only to be let down multiple times by glorified fan-fiction coasting on a popular license. Still, the upcoming Danganronpa Another Episode: Ultra Despair Girls may have me returning to the expanded universe well: While, by all appearances, it has the makings of a stopgap cash-in, something tells me it's aspiring to be much more than that.
If you're just hearing about Danganronpa and want to know more, check out our reviews for the first and second games and immediately stop there—seriously, any further research could result in some weapons-grade, game-ruining spoilers. Up to speed? Good. Another Episode takes place in the narrative gap between these two games, and, even though both stories fit together neatly with no real disappointing omissions, when you're dealing with a popular series like Danganronpa, no opportunities can be left untapped.
Seeing as Danganronpa 2's Japanese release came in 2012, and the anime adaptation wrapped up in 2013, there shouldn't be a question about Another Episode's true purpose: maintaining fan momentum until the inevitable Danganronpa 3—or whatever visual novel comes next. I'll agree that the whole third-person shooter angle doesn't strike me as a good fit for Danganronpa, a series that mostly consists of absorbing text, but I guess at this point it's easier for easier for Spike Chunsoft to produce a 3D action game than a visual novel so dense with narrative—a testament to how involved and prolonged the Danganronpa writing process must be. Still, Another Episode isn't a completely shameless use of the brand; while some of its content seems designed entirely for the sake of fan service, it's at least attempting to explore some uncharted areas of the Danganronpa timeline—which is way more than you can say about the truly shameless iOS game.
To be honest, the action seen in the trailer above doesn't look particularly inspired—it seems about on-par with the over-the-shoulder shooters of last gen (a genre that isn't exactly in Spike Chunsoft's wheelhouse), and I'm not entirely sure how fun it'll be fighting nothing but different variants of Monokuma—even if its puzzle rooms seem like a nice diversion. To be fair, though, Danganronpa isn't something you pick up for the gameplay alone—even the mini-games of the original series' trials felt clumsy and in need of a second pass at times—and I think the developers understand that.
Thankfully, Spike Chunsoft didn't shuffle this project off to some underlings; Danganronpa 1 and 2 writer Kazutaka Kodaka penned the script for Another Episode, which instantly makes this spin-off worthwhile—or at the very least, authentic—in my eyes. The Danganronpa series is so special because it comes from a singular, unadulterated vision, and Another Episode could be worth a playthrough solely for Kodaka's knack for unexpected and, at times, preposterous plot twists he somehow makes work.
Of course, having been released in September of 2014 for Japan, Another Episode is a known quantity by this point—if you're so inclined, you can even watch fan-subtitled playthroughs of the game on YouTube (which seems a bit ethically icky for a series sold primarily on its story). Richard Eisenbeis' Kotaku write-up of the original release gives me hope, though; he calls Another Episode "certainly a must play for any Danganronpa fan" and "the most dark and disturbing chapter of the series so far," which has definitely piqued my interest. I'm normally not one to get behind a series just for the sake of cheerleading, but in the case of Danganronpa, I'm at least willing to take a gamble on a different—though still gleefully morbid—take on one of my favorite experiences of last year.