About a year ago I went through the two mainline Danganronpas, Trigger Happy Havoc and Goodbye Despair, both of which I thought were fantastic games about deception, murder, hope, despair, and being very dark while also being profusely silly and overall fun. As such, I was quick to order a copy of Ultra Despair Girls, which acted as my one full-priced retail purchase for the year of 2015, and I had high hopes that it would be among my favorite titles of the year, but that’s unfortunately not the case…
Danganronpa: Another Episode – Ultra Despair Girls Review
Platform: PS Vita (Played Using a Playstation TV)
Developer: Spike Chunsoft
Publisher: NIS America
Danganronpa: Another Episode – Ultra Despair Girls tells the story of Makoto Naegi’s sister, Komaru, and the Ultimate Writing Prodigy Toko Fukawa and their quest to stop a group of misguided youngsters from committing genocide and destroy the technological mecca that is Towa City. Well, that’s the reductive way of putting it, as things naturally do change up, but for the most part it is about a normal highschool girl trying to save a half-destroyed city from murderous robotic teddy bears by using a megaphone to hack them to death. It’s that sort of silliness that goes so well with the theme of abuse, mass murders, and generally dark tone that this title boasts, and helps it from becoming an ultimately depressing story about hurting people for awful reasons.
Which brings me into the details of the story, which I honestly am a bit conflicted by. At its core, a lot of what I enjoyed from the first two titles is here. The characters are appealing, and the relationship between Komaru and Toko is a consistently enjoyable one. The story is intriguing and has quite a lot going on, and possesses just the right amount of goofy for a story that involves the prostitution of minors. There are some oddities, such as the treatment of two side characters in particular, who you meet ten minutes before their needless death, the occasional questionable translation choice, and the fact that Komaru’s voice actress changed her performance partway through recording, which is evident due to some scenes that were recorded out of order.
But after clearing the Ultra Despair Girls, looking back on the story after seeing it completed, I really did not like how its hefty ending was handled, and ultimately felt that, while I did learn a lot about the world set up in the prior two titles, I left Ultra Despair Girls with more questions than I had answers. With the story itself having about half a dozen loose ends that will hopefully be wrapped up in the inevitable Danganronpa 3, it feels more like a middling chapter or side story that exists to set up plot devices for later. I mean, this is a story that opens up plot points and introduces twists during its epilogue and the end credits The journey is ultimately an enjoyable one, but it is only one I feel fans will appreciate, and this is by no means an ideal entry point.
Although, one may assume that given the genre shift, as Ultra Despair Girls is a third person shooter with light survival horror elements, and one that I feel has some fundamental problems. First off, you cannot adjust your aim sensitivity until you find certain skills that adjust it for you. Second off, the primary means of dealing damage and disposing of enemy Monokumas is by shooting them using the Breaker Truth Bullet. If you shoot them in the eye, however, you not only kill them in one shot, at least for most Monokumas, you will receive more monocoins, which are used to purchase upgrades, when they fall. Plus, your next Breaker Truth Bullet will be both larger and more powerful than the normal one. Now, why is this a problem, aside from the incredibly notable incentive toward shooting Monokumas in the eye? Well, Monokumas like to move around a lot, and their eyes do not have very precise hitboxes. I lost track of the number of times when I either was surprised I hit one in the eye, or was surprised that my attack did not register. Or in simpler terms, the shooting in this third person shooter is not very fun!
There is also a problem in regards to variety of your Truth Bullets, which act as different weapons. You do have a wide array of them, each with their own practical purpose, but those are so few and far between that they feel largely unnecessary. Some Truth Bullets or even mechanics only seem to exist for the sake of puzzle solving in the form of isolated chambers made to teach you the game’s mechanics, which you never really need to use outside of these chambers, when it is very easy to view them as frequent and very in-depth tutorials for a more complicated and varied endgame that never seems to come. Besides, if you use any Truth Bullet other than Breaker to kill most Monokumas, you cannot hit them in the eye, and in turn get less monocoins in return. Thereby making most other Truth Bullets only valuable in context sensitive situations. Oh, and the boss battles really do little to shake things up.
Truth Bullets themselves are also home to some unwanted complications in the form of the Bling system, where you attach two stat affecting adjectives to each Truth Bullet in order to boost its power, ammo capacity, or firerate. It would be perfectly fine, if not for the fact that the Ultra Despair Girls does not provide information on which combinations are good until you assemble them, and does not give you any way to easily look up the stats increased by each adjective. And, of course, this, Genocide Jack upgrades, and some additional artwork and audio are the only things you can buy with monocoins.
I did not properly keep track of the number, but I think that there were three instances in the game where I voluntarily played as Genocide Jack, a serial killer who exists as Toko’s alternate personality. All because her brand of single button bashing blade based bear bolt-bath does not return many monocoins, and even though I had already determined that monocoins were not very useful, I could not stop myself from grinding them obsessively. It actually got to the point where I went through nearly every enemy encounter, which there are naturally a lot of, with the goal of getting every single monocoin I possibly could, reloading my prior trip to the training potty whenever I did not shoot a hitbox properly.
Now, Ultra Despair Girls does something wonderful to advert this irritation in the form of a retry option in addition to the standard ability to reload from the main menu. But much like a mochi ball with a needle inside it, this sweet treat has the unfortunate luck to be paired with a grading system that punishes players for using the retry option. Beyond that, the grading system also encourages players to come prepared to every session of Ultra Despair Girls with a map of collectibles in hands. Not only for the hidden drawings in every chapter, but to find the bits of story that are littered through the remnants of Towa City, and there is some story changing optional stuff hidden there. Hell, most of the backstory for the main antagonists is hidden away like this. It would have been really nice if the map, say, had a count of undiscovered collectibles, but, unfortunately, such a luxury does not exist in Ultra Despair Girls, where you are encouraged to reload after every mistake. That, and you should only play this title with a peripheral piece of information by your side, such as this one I found fifteen-plus hours in during this, supposedly, twenty-hour game.
I was actually a bit worried about how this game would look when upscaled using my Playstation TV, but aside from some unavoidable jaggedness that comes upscaling a game from 720p to 1080p, it looks great. The environments are all colorful and stylish in their own way, and the high quality and smooth looking character models make for a very smooth transition into the third dimension. While all of the 2D art, form the little doodles in the menu, to the character portraits, to the delightful CG backdrops, are all visual treats that I gleefully gobbled up whenever I could. There are some minor gripes I have with the lack of expressions on character models’ face, or the way that the game’s framerate dipped a very noticeable amount throughout my playthrough, but the Ultra Despair Girls looks lovely aside from that.
But then there are the cutscenes, which run the gambit if I do say so myself. There are the 2.5D heavily shaded cutscenes that were used during the execution scenes in the prior two titles, and are still a delight to see. There are 3D prerendered cutscenes that use more detailed models than the ones found in the game, and they naturally look good, if a bit compressed. There are also 2D animated cutscenes, which I really do not care for. They look cheap, there are only about seven in the entire game, about three of which are shown in the first forty minutes, and feel like a step down from an art quality level. I see little reason for them to exist aside from the fact that it was cheaper to do them than either of the other forms of animation. Yet they all share the same problem of not having subtitles unless you play the game in Japanese, which I find to be a very odd oversight.
To wrap things up in a single concise paragraph, Ultra Despair Girls is my least favorite Danganronpa by far. It is not bad by any means, but the gameplay can often seem mishandled and chore-like, the story has a lot of untapped potential, despite being an engaging and fun journey, and I would say that its finest features lie in its high quality visuals, and its quality soundtrack. It is a game for fans only as far as I am concerned, a nifty little spin-off that, while flawed, does house quite a lot of intrigue, and will likely play a critical role in future titles.