From Spike Chunsoft comes another entry into the Danganronpa franchise. Their sequel/prequel/spinoff Ultra Despair Girls. I can’t think of a more apt description than “horror based puzzle shooter” for this title, and this game makes it evident the people behind the Danganronpa universe direly need some hugs.
Typically in Danganronpa you take the reigns of the least remarkable ‘Ultimate’ student in a homeroom class of 16 murderous and/or murder prone Ultimate Students. This time you play as the even less remarkable Komaru Naegi, sister of the first game’s protagonist and professional scream queen. She’s not very brave, she’s not very astute, and it’s your job to help her survive a deadly riot ripping apart the city where she’s an unwilling prisoner.
Ultra Despair Girls wastes no time with guest stars from the other games, with two characters who were pretty big deals 1 and 2 showing up for a piece of the action right out the gate. You’ll also run into several relatives, friends and associates of the original Danganronpa crew. In fact, despite the complete change in genre, its style and tone makes it clear this is indeed a Danganronpa game. Komaru’s ammo is referred to as ‘Truth Bullets’, blood baths are still pink, and it still carries a sense of humor that quickly subverts itself into disturbingly dark moments.
You’ll be blasting your way through hundreds of robotic black and white bears named for the core antagonist in the Danganronpa series, Monokuma, gone singular to plural in this title – Hordes of Monokumas, it’s as funny as referring to Draculas, try it. Your ‘gun’ is a megaphone that carries hacking programs on electromagnetic wavelengths allowing you to infect the various robotic foes you’ll be squaring off against. The ‘Breakdown’ Truth Bullet is your single offensive attack, while other Truth Bullets such as “Dance”, “Knockback”, “Paralyze” and “Detect” will make themselves useful in a variety of situations. The game will often present puzzles that require you use critical thinking and often ask you limit your truth bullet usage to clear rooms and solve problems in as succinct a way as possible.
Of all the familiar faces you’ll see, the most important is Toko Fukawa a.k.a. the infamous Genocide Jack. Returning from the first game, the ultimate book author slash serial killer acts as your traveling companion, second controllable character and the unstable tsundere foil to Komaru. Genocide Jack provides a powerful and quick way to clear rooms full of enemies, however she needs time to ‘charge’ her batteries (literally) and her usage is finite. She behaves more like a fighting game special bar than a second player character. Still, she provides some fun moments and jumps in with her catchphrase familiar to any Danganronpa fan “You called for me so I appeared.”
You can somewhat customize your game as you find special books that allow you to modify skills such as aiming and health bar status. You’ll also be able to purchase “Bling” bullets to modify the effectiveness of your gun’s various truth bullets, while also buying upgrades for Genocide Jack. The upgrade system could be a bit confusing, as stats could be hard to remember and your bling bullets came with obfuscated names such as “Furiously” and “Erotically.” It’s easy to chew through your ammo, but the game is good about allowing you to replenish just when you seem to be in too dire straits. Good ammo management mostly comes from figuring out how to use enemy abilities to your advantage. For example, using a ‘Dance’ bullet on one enemy to attract a bunch of others to it then using the ‘Knockback’ bullet on a nearby grenadier enemy will empty out an entire room of a dozen Monokumas in just two shots, while luring a single Monokuma on to a puddle and hitting it with paralyze will fry the circuits of any other Monokuma caught in the vincinity.
Aiming with the gun felt a little funky, and I wasn’t entirely sure if this was intentional or not as you acquire skills later on that makes it feel a “little” better but not fantastic. The game also barely touches the Vita’s special hardware functions, which was surprising to me given not only how heavily the prior Danganronpa games relied on tools such as the dual touch screens, but also considering how action heavy this particular title is. While a lot of the puzzles and boss fights in this game were fantastic, much like its predecessors, there were game modes that just flat out sucked. In Ultra Despair Girls this would be your escort missions and your stealth challenges. Messing up either of which could make for an easy game over and trash your meticulous high score.
The game wasn’t without glitches, and though they rarely popped up they could be game-breaking when they did. They could turn a simple puzzle or room of enemies into a daunting task because enemy AI or pathing wouldn’t behave correctly. I also met with two glitches where I lost a ton of progress, one of them being a pretty nasty crash. I can’t exactly say I had a blast playing through these particular sections a second time either.
As for story. The first two Danganronpa’s focus on the students of Hope’s Peak Academy, the brightest and best ‘Ultimate’ students from all across Japan. Turns out Hope’s Peak Academy had an elementary school affiliate, and Komaru finds herself at the mercy of its former adolescent students dubbed ‘Warriors of Hope’ – Five lil’ Ultimates intent on killing every adult in Towa City and creating a paradise for kids. Hell is for children, after all.
How easy it would be to assault these Warriors of Hope if they really were just as vile as the game initially sets them up to be. Similar to 2’s Ultimate villains and 1’s murderous class clowns, Ultra Despair Girls successfully subverts expectations and makes you feel pretty awful for outliving these blood thirsty, cruel children. As for Komaru and Toko, the two girls had a terrifc rapport with one another and made for one of the best buddy duos in video game history. Sadly their individual characterization managed to be inconsistent. One second Komaru is the one filled with despair while Toko tries to be an inspiration, the next Komaru will be the optimist in the void while Toko tries to convince her to give up. The kicker is they could shift personalities and motivations over the same exact goal, so it’s not like they followed steady development alongside the narrative. It’s a bit of a shame because the two were a great duo to watch, the basic framework of their character arcs was strong and their voice actresses did an incredible job.
I would call this the darkest Danganronpa yet, and this is keeping in mind at the end of the last game you found out all your pals were sodomizing cannibals. Ultra Despair Girls gave me reason to guffaw one second, sit in the bath depressed the next. However I want to leave the reader with some fair caution. When I say the game’s content got dark, it dealt with some really heavy shit. Including an entire chapter that revolved around a child trying to come to grips with the sexual abuse she suffered at the hands of adults. While it wasn’t the first time the game dealt with child abuse and trauma, it is the first time it explored it with some depth, and it was handled with the same care a mechanical bull might handle a hemophiliac (seriously, she builds a tentacle grope machine as a means of catharsis). If you’re the type whose stomach is easily churned by this type of stuff you might want to skip this title.
The music, the graphical style, level design and various approaches to cutscenes give this game a distinct charm all its own. There is a lot of story, and cutscenes can run quite awhile so it might be a good idea to have a few snacks and a cooler of beer nearby. That said the mix of full motion video, classic Danganronpa “cut out” sequences and traditional animation broke up the story delivery pretty effectively. This may be a ‘spin off’ but you can expect a bit of a time sink as there is a lot of traveling and backtracking between bosses. There really is a ton of energy that seems to have gone into this, and it’s nice to see it’s not just a simple cash in.
It’s not the tightest shooter I ever played, and I do have to question if the length worked against it a little. Still this is a Danganronpa through and through, and given the new range of 3D movement the game is able to play with aesthetics and visual styles in a way that’s impossible with the core games. While it makes me very curious how all of this will be wrapped up in the proposed Danganronpa 3, certain things just limited my enjoyment of this title, including some of the weird character motivations, poor choices in minigames and the painful glitches. In the long run I ended up wanting to like this a lot more than I actually liked it, which is a shame because maybe with just a bit more care in the writing and programming this could have easily been another masterful entry.
This game was reviewed using pre-release code provided to us by the publisher.