Children in need.
FAIR WARNING: This review contains light spoilers for Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc. I know it’s a big ask, but I would highly recommend taking 60-70 hours of your life to play through this incredible game and its equally brilliant sequel, Goodbye Despair, before moving onto Ultra Despair Girls if you want to get the most out of its story.
Danganronpa is a series that continually fascinates me. Easily one of the most imaginative, fun and deeply unsettling series of the decade, it makes me happy that it’s found a solid cult audience here in the west. Not only because it’s a fantastic example of visual novels married to compelling gameplay, but also because of the subject matter and otherwise unexplored themes the series chooses to tackle.
The first game, Trigger Happy Havoc, played with the idea of a literally cutthroat school environment that commented on the struggles and pressure faced by modern day students. Danganronpa 2: Goodbye Despair explored those themes even further, purposely turning the first game’s message on its head and effectively explored alternate sides of the argument, turning the game’s idea of good and evil into more of a grey area than plain black and white. By doing this, the developers were able to write some of the most twisted, intimidating villains in video game history, and I’m not just talking about Monokuma…
Ultra Despair Girls’ main theme is cruelty, and developer Spike Chunsoft pulls no punches with this.
So along comes pre-sequel Danganronpa Another Episode: Ultra Despair Girls, which not only departs from the series’ Ace Attorney-esque roots for a third person shooter with puzzle elements, it also shifts the focus away from school life and onto more globally recognised, and perhaps more pressing issues. Ultra Despair Girls’ main theme is cruelty, and developer Spike Chunsoft pulls no punches with this; while the game is peppered with Danganronpa’s trademark fourth wall breaking humour, underneath lies a brutally dark story that breaks several “you can’t do that in video games” taboos, making similarly mature games like Grand Theft Auto V look positively like poster children for political correctness.
The boundaries have truly been broken in Ultra Despair Girls, its commentary will undoubtedly offend some groups. But does it care? Not one bit.
Thrills, Chills, Kills!
In Danganronpa: Another Episode you play as Komaru Naegi, little sister to the first game’s protagonist Makoto. Imprisoned in an apartment for a year and a half, she’s suddenly freed when an army of Monokumas attack Towa City, a bastion of technology and a staunch combatant against the event known as “the despair” which was set in motion during the events of the first game.
Unfortunately for Komaru, a group of five children calling themselves the Warriors of Hope begin slaughtering the adults of Towa City with the goal of creating a paradise for kids where grown-ups can’t mistreat them. Komaru’s luck continues to plummet when she comes face to face with Toko Fukawa, one of the first game’s survivors; or rather, her serial killer split personality Genocide Jack. Together, Komaru and Toko reluctantly band together in an attempt to escape the city gone mad.
At first I wasn’t overly keen on Toko being Komaru’s companion. She was one of my least favourite characters in Trigger Happy Havoc, but thanks to Another Episode she’s become one of my favourite characters in the entire series. A constant source of fourth wall demolishing humour and a very interesting, unexpected character arc has transformed the character from “the weirdo that was just there” to one of the most fleshed out, funny and fascinating characters in the trilogy.
When I first heard about Another Episode coming to the west, I admittedly thought a group of child villains was a pretty lame idea. However, the more I thought about it, the more I realised that’s not something you really see in games. At all. It wasn’t until I played the game that I saw just how sickeningly evil these kids really are. They behave as a lot of young children normally would, albeit with the slaughtering thousands of innocent humans coming across as nothing but a fun game to them. As Komaru, Toko and others are caught in their Massacre Game, we realise it’s not at all a necessary part of them building their paradise; instead, it’s used much in the same way that Monokuma’s killing game was: to breed consuming despair. However, it’s especially repulsive this time around simply because of the fact the children view it as fun.They genuinely enjoy it and killing is as casual to them as brushing your teeth.
The Devil’s Children
You would think an adult killing children would make a more suitable villain; just the very thought of that instantly breeds contempt, right? However, Spike Chunsoft, mad geniuses that they are, have once more managed to turn the more predictable approach on its head. Any adult NPCs you meet in the game (aside from characters that are more prominently featured) have the same model: a blue silhouetted male and a purple silhouetted female. It would be quite easy to dismiss this as laziness on the developer’s part but I think it’s a subtle suggestion that these adults literally mean nothing to the Warriors of Hope. To them, they have no identity, no families, no history; they are faceless targets to be slaughtered. When it’s thought of that way, their ambiguous motives are even more frightening. The group’s central figure, wheelchair bound Monaca, deserves special mention for being a legitimately horrifying villain. The kind that would give the likes of Nero and Stalin night terrors.
Running With Scissors
Another Episode’s gameplay, while far from underwhelming, certainly takes a backseat to the game’s impeccable narrative. You’ll mainly play as Komaru who defends herself with a “hacking gun,” a Monokuma destroying device that in true Danganronpa style, just happens to be shaped like a megaphone. Along the course of the adventure you’ll unlock several types of Truth Bullet that will let you deal with Monokumas and interact with the environment in various ways. For example, your initial Break bullet is your standard “pistol” shot. But shooting a Monokuma in its eye (the evil one) will deal significantly more damage and award you a more powerful shot.
Danganronpa is, quite simply, the coolest series ever made.
Not all Truth Bullets are created equally, however, and some are exclusively used to interact with the environment, such as the Move or Detect bullets. While you will find a use for all bullet types at various parts of the game, a lot of their usage is sadly purely situational. For example, the Paralyze bullet can instantly kill enemies standing in water, but this is very rarely seen in the environment, instead being relegated to a few puzzle rooms (more on those in a bit). Needless to say it’s hugely fun blasting scores of different Monokuma types, especially after the grief he put players through in the previous games, but more excuses to use all bullet types would have been nice. Now, you can buy special bullet modifiers from skill shops peppered across the game. Known as Bling Bullets, these modifiers can alter a Truth Bullet’s strength, capacity or firing speed and up to two can be equipped per bullet type. Some combinations are better than others, as notified by a potential “good” or “excellent” rating. Honestly I found the only important stat to be capacity as ammo can be scarce; any other stat modifier I personally found to be surplus.
Thankfully Toko, or rather her alter ego Genocide Jack, adds a more melee focused approach to combat. In line with Danganronpa’s twisted sense of humour, and with a press of the Triangle button, Toko blasts herself with a stun gun to the head and begins running amok with her trademark scissors. She’s got quite the moveset, too, very much in line with a Dynasty Warriors character; she has a standard Square based combo, which can be charged up for a wide, area affecting attack. Best of all are her special attacks which can instantly kill scores of Monokumas, but their usage is limited. Jack herself is limited by how much battery power the stun gun has; once you’re out of juice she turns back into Toko and you’re controlling Komaru once more. Jack does make combat easier and she’s a tad overpowered (especially when upgraded via the skill shop), but she doesn’t do particularly well against the entirely Komaru focused boss fights at the end of each chapter. I would have loved more compelling reasons to use Jack besides the fact she’s essentially the game’s “super” mode. Boss encounters don’t utilise her in the slightest, making Toko often feel like dead weight. Although, that is quite in line with her brooding personality.[yt_video id=”F6f8yaehFCY”][/yt_video]
Rounding out the gameplay are the aforementioned puzzle rooms, and completing these contribute to your final rank at the end of each chapter. By shooting an arcade machine in these rooms you’re presented an overhead view of the challenge you have to complete. Mostly, the objective will be to destroy all Monokumas at the same time from a pre-determined selection of bullets. While a nice idea and a welcome break from the shooting and scissoring, very few of these puzzle rooms actually register a tough challenge. I was able to solve most of them in no more than a few minutes; only a handful of them are genuine headscratchers. In fact, the game’s suggested Normal difficulty is pretty easy; a far cry from the previous games’ often mind numbingly puzzling class trials. If you’re after a challenge, however, definitely crank the game up to hard mode.
So rounds off one of the greatest trilogies in gaming history, and in my opinion the primary reason to own a PS Vita. Danganronpa is, quite simply, the coolest series ever made. Oozing with style from its pink blood spewing orifices, but packing plenty of substance to transcend its visual novel appearance. It’s a bittersweet ending for me as I’m faced with the prospect of the series being finished. Ultra Despair Girls rounds off the trilogy and ties up most of the series’ loose ends, and also providing a satisfying conclusion in its own right.
While I certainly wouldn’t be opposed to a fourth Danganronpa, if this is truly the last game we’re getting, then I say hats off to Spike Chunsoft, and thank you NIS America for your translation efforts. I salute you all.
A review code was provided courtesy of NIS America.
While Ultra Despair Girls deviates from the Ace Attorney styling of the previous two games, it provides a marvellously unique third person shooter experience that not only sets itself as the Vita’s best example of the genre, but marries it with a superb, “up ’til 5am” narrative packed with shocking twists, first rate writing and the series’ delightfully twisted sense of humour. Ultra Despair Girls rounds off a trilogy that absolutely must be played by story buffs, regardless of whether you’re into the anime style or not.