Despite its success, the Danganronpa series is about as niche as it gets. A bizarre mix of court room drama, Battle Royale-style high school murder and incredibly dark storytelling, the PS Vita only series (although Danganronpa 3 has been recently announced as a Vita / PS4 cross-platform title), has somehow managed to overcome its obscure presentation and niche platform to become something of a cult hit in the West, and while it’ll never be as big here as it is in Japan, it retains a dedicated and unwavering fan base, one whose loyalty might well be tested by the somewhat iffy spin-off title, Danganronpa Another Episode: Ultra Despair Girls.
While it could be argued that turning this visual novel series into what is essentially a third person shooter, might well increase the series’ popularity in the shooter-friendly Western market, it’s obvious that it’s the storytelling, art direction and unique cast of characters that make this game work for its relatively small but undeniably passionate group of fans, and although the storytelling and occasionally epic reams of dialogue have somehow managed to make the transition, the limited character roster and somewhat clunky third person shooter mechanics make for a game that, while still undeniably, Danganronpa to the core, does not benefit at all from the change of genre.
The dialogue is as fantastic as ever, and the characters here are almost universally interesting, but despite the core tenants of the series remaining as strong as ever for this slightly misguided spin-off, the same can’t be said for the mechanics. This isn’t a bad game by any stretch of the imagination, but then, it’s not all that good either. The shooter mechanics are imprecise and often inconsistent while player movement is slow and rather cumbersome. It’s not broken, and for those wanting to stick with the story, the fundamentals are easily solid enough to keep the experience ticking along, it’s just that, with the best bits about the game being the stuff that is in the mainline Danganronpa games and the not so good stuff being basically, well, everything else, it’s impossible to shake the feeling of this being an admirable but ultimately failed experiment.
The upgradable bullets for your ‘hacking gun’ do make for some interesting tactical options with stun bullets (essentially dance bullets) and move bullets proving especially entertaining, but Ultra Despair Girls is arguably at its best when it makes the move to more puzzle-based action. The puzzles themselves provide a solid and enjoyable challenge in their own right, but perhaps more importantly, prove a much finer fit for a shooter that is far too imprecise to work as a more traditional example of the genre.
Honestly though, Danganronpa is anything but traditional – playing as school girl, Komaru Naegi and returning cast member, Toko Fukawa, you must battle returning series favourite, Monokuma and his army of Monokuma robots…..oh, and in case you don’t know, Monokuma is a giant and very evil teddy bear. As always, he’s looking to test the morals of all those around him with, Ultra Despair Girls arguably pushing some of the games’ more questionable themes even further than ever.
Unlike the Battle Royale inspired story of the mainline games, Ultra Despair Girls goes for a more, Lord of the Flies inspired narrative that sees children encouraged to murder adults to create a world without grown-ups. Personally, I don’t think they have thought about the long-term implications of their actions, but whatever the case, Ultra Despair Girls deals with some pretty dark stuff, and as always, it’s the story and characters that prove the games’ biggest draw. The limited cast of characters can’t compete with the larger traditional cast, but the writing is so good throughout that fans will inevitably want to see everything that the game has to offer – despite the somewhat middling core gameplay.
If nothing else, Ultra Despair Girls is a gorgeous looking game with fantastic art design and incredibly impressive visuals for a Vita only title. The cut-scenes are great and the character design as impressive as you might expect. Some of the environments are a little bland and there is an element of repetition to its design, but despite these issues and a handful of minor technical issues, Ultra Despair Girls provides yet another stark reminder of the Vita’s ongoing technical prowess. It’ll never be the hit that fans want it to be, but the Vita, thanks largely to some fantastic support from Japanese developers, remains a highly viable and consistently brilliant gaming platform.
The move to third person shooter isn’t a wholly successful one, but despite the issues inherent to the core design of this ill-advised but nonetheless enjoyable spin-off, Danganronpa Another Episode: Ultra Despair Girls is a journey worth taking for fans of the series. Newcomers might find the clunky controls and bizarre storytelling a bit much, but for those accustomed to Danganronpa’s unique brand of anime-inspired storytelling, there is enough great content here to make this a worthwhile experience for those eager to return to Danganronpa’s dark but always compelling world.