In the short space of two years, Danganronpa has become one of the Vita’s leading exclusives. Praised for its twisted plot and memorable characters, Danganronpa would go on to spawn its own anime, manga, and even a stage production. More relevantly, the first two games in the franchise were brought to western shores, where they attracted a similar response from critics.
Unlike previous games in the series, this latest instalment – Ultra Despair Girls – is a complete departure from the visual novel format many have grown accustomed to. Danganronpa “Another Episode” is a spin-off in the fullest sense and although it never reaches the heights of past games, it’s just as quirky and carries plenty of dark humour.
Instead of being trapped in a high school or a beach resort, Ultra Despair Girls will have players exploring an entire city. This is done through the eyes of lead protagonist Komaru Naegi, a schoolgirl who has spent several months locked away in isolation. Unsure of her captor’s true identity or motive, she is one day released to find Towa city in ruins, many of its inhabitants killed by a ruthless army of robots.
This isn’t your typical “rogue AI” sci-fi drama, mind you – in true Danganronpa fashion, there’s something going on behind the scenes. Not only are the robots designed to look like Monokumas (cuddly two-tone teddy bears), they also appear to be taking orders from a psychotic group of kids looking to ignite a bloody revolution. Dubbing themselves the “Warriors of Hope”, their goal is to rid the world of adults and build a paradise where children can live freely. As far as revolutions go, it’s utterly bonkers, yet serves as a brilliant premise for yet another chapter in the Danganronpa saga.
Along the way, you’ll run into a number of familiar faces from past games in the series. Chief among these are the “Ultimate Affluent Progeny” Byakuya Togami, as well as Toko Fuwaka, Hope Academy’s chief bookworm. Although Byakuya will appear intermittently, Toko will serve as your constant companion throughout the game, as well as her murderous alter ego, Genocide Jack. The two of you will follow a linear path as you go from district to district, solving puzzles and gathering upgrades while holding off an army of bloodthirsty bears.
Another Episode certainly has some visual novel elements to it, but most of the game is played out in third person with characters and environments brought to life in full 3D. During these segments, players are given control over Komaru as she interacts with objects and battles Monokumas. The only weapon at her disposal is a super-charged megaphone loaded with an assortment of “Truth Bullets”. These come in several different types that can be switched between on-the-fly. Regular “Break” bullets will serve as basic yet effective means to gun down enemies, whereas “Dance” and “Knock” rounds can be used to manipulate and push back enemies.
The Hacking Gun also comes loaded with utility functions such as the ability to activate electronic objects and detect hidden bonuses within your surroundings. Although the various bullets at Komaru’s disposal help to bring some diversity to the table, the actual shooting itself is fairly bland. The base controls are fine, but when toe-to-toe with a Monokuma, they move in such an awkward pattern, making kill shots a test of luck rather than accuracy.
From time to time, you’ll find yourself hopelessly swarmed as the bears move in for an attack. This is where Toko comes into play – at the press of a button, you can switch to Genocide Jack for a limited amount of time, clawing away at enemies with her rapid scissor attacks. She’s an indestructible wrecking ball and one that can get players out of very sticky situations. However, an energy guage is put in place, preventing you from swapping characters at the first sign of danger.
Thankfully, these Monokuma encounters are short-lived and spaced apart, allowing for plenty of downtime. This is often spent stocking up on ammo, upgrading weapons, and talking with the game’s many characters. Not wanting to relegate combat entirely, Spike throws in the occasional challenge to spice things up. At the beginning of each one, players are given a satellite view of an enemy patrol, before working out how to destroy them in as few shots possible. Although most of the solutions are quite easy, they at least get you to think tactically and make use of the various ammo types.
Though it may not be the best looking game on the platform, Danganronpa still manages to pull off its transition into the third dimension well. Various memorable characters are brought to life, both in-game and during cutscenes, while still retaining the series’ distinct art style. Towa’s apocalyptic backdrops can start to get old, but the game ensures that players never stay in one area for too long. Ultra Despair Girls also inherits a familiar soundtrack alongside a bevy of talented voice actors, both of which are put to great use.
Danganronpa’s break from the visual novel genre doesn’t produce the best results. It was definitely an experiment worth trying yet the action gameplay does little to hold up its side of the bargain. Once again, it’s the story and character development that really drive the experience, serving up plenty of fan service. For that reason, I’d easily recommend Another Episode to those who adored the first two games – newcomers, on the other hand, may struggle to see the appeal, especially when wading through shooting segments just to watch the plot unfold.
Version tested: PlayStation Vita