Developer: Spike Chunsoft
Publisher: NIS America
Release Date: September 1, 2015
ESRB: M for Mature
Even with the Vita's ever-dwindling library of exclusive games, the Danganronpa series managed to catch many Vita owners by surprise last year. We not only got its first visual novel/adventure entry with Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc but also its sequel Danganronpa: Goodbye Despair in that same year.
Eccentric characters, bizarre murder mysteries, a mix of both very dark and hilarious writing, and an intriguing narrative underpinning kept many fans gripped through both releases despite their quick successions. The newest entry, Danganronpa Another Episode: Ultra Despair Girls, remains faithful to the series's spirit regardless of its spin-off label and different gameplay formula and hopes to make that loud and clear.
Talking about Danganronpa: Ultra Despair Girls at all is a touchy subject for anyone who had not played the previous to visual novels to completion. It is a wholesale spoiler on Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc with its premise alone and can ruin several story revelations in its sequel as well. Still, I'll try to not cause despair and hope to avoid many easy spoiler trappings, even if some may not be possible to avoid as it is a title that directly takes place between both games.
Another Episode starts off with the girl named Komaru being imprisoned for reasons that even she doesn't know. After almost being acclimated to her imprisoned life she finally gets a chance escape but... it comes at the cost of a Monokuma trying to lacerate her to death in the process. A chance encounter with a mysterious organization on her way out does grant her a hacking gun/megaphone to fight Monokumas but otherwise she is told to fend for herself in the meantime. But, even with a means to protect herself, she is captured by masterminds behind the Monokumas.
These masterminds, or rather children that call themselves "The Warriors of Hope," force her to participate in a "Demon Hunt" game. This "Demon hunt," however, means the genocidal extermination of all who classify as adults, or "Demons," by the Warriors of Hope whom intend to create a paradise solely for children.
At first glance the title gives off the feeling of a survival horror game — limited ammunition, shambling enemies, and features a very dark introduction sequence. But, despite its consistently grim tone, it starts to show off more and more of the series' signature personality and feels more like an action game that happens to have suspense elements as well. Maybe not too unlike recent Resident Evil games in that regard...
Regardless, the series' weakest point has pretty much always been the disjointed gameplay, so to see a radical shift in styles actually works to Another Episode's benefit. Komaru's megaphone-like weapon has a variety of uses that are progressively unlocked over time. Some of the uses have rather typical gun-like implementations but the more creative ammunition brings a puzzle-like mindset to encounters and, well, actual puzzles. For instance, she can use dancing bullets on alarm-like foes to cause other enemies to literally follow their beat or using knockback shots to send Ball-Monokuma rolling into their friends. Battles are quite bizarre but can be fun as well.
The game's biggest problem mainly has to do with balance. It is an incredibly easy game to the point that it honestly ruins some of its atmosphere in the process. Komaru's playable friend trivializes battles even more by outright by being invincible for a short period of time and can be activated instantly, like before you anticipate taking damage. The camera is an issue too by being too zoomed in, but ironically, the lack of difficulty makes it less prevalent. This carries over to pacing too like with some backtracking. Not only that but the puzzle rooms, which generally encourage the use of abilities in different ways, wear out their welcome by simply having too many of them, especially by the end which breaks up the narrative's pace unnecessarily.
Still, the main draw of Another Episode is its narrative. Pacing issues aside, it is very engaging for fans of the series. The storytelling is unapologetic with callbacks to the visual novels, many of which are quite spoilery, and does seem to lay a fair amount of groundwork for a would-be Danganronpa 3 despite being a spin-off. There are not quite as many twists or humorous asides as those games, but Another Episode does savor its twisted atmosphere much more and it works. It's deceptively darker than even the visual novels with the many gruesome situations and implications that occur throughout the narrative, making the latter half in particular quite intriguing.
The title oozes with style as well. It somehow blends the 2D Danganronpa's signature colorful quirkiness with its oppressive, dreary 3D setting. The 3D animations may not be consistent, like certain pre-rendered cutscenes, but the art direction masks many of production shortcomings and the animated cutscenes are well-done too. Certain visual flourishes like Komaru's friend's killing spree animations or... the vivid dreams she has are amusing too. The soundtrack meshes well with its presentation even more going from jazzy tunes to unsettling jubilant jingles. Though, like Danganronpa: Goodbye Despair there is a fair amount of recycled music tracks from the first game, unfortunately.
In a lot of ways Danganronpa Another Episode: Ultra Despair Girls is a spin-off title that many fans probably did not know they wanted. Despite however much it does different gameplay-wise from its predecessors, it ends up being a worthwhile diversion, especially with its narrative implications for a would-be Danganronpa 3. It is not without its share of gameplay quirks, but it is ultimately carried by its intriguing, dark storytelling and rich amount of personality.
+ Very dark but fascinating storytelling
+ Creative implementations of its gameplay mechanics
+ Dense with both audio/visual personality
- Awkward camera that is too zoomed in
- Some pacing issues with backtracking and a few too many puzzle rooms
- Complete cakewalk difficulty
Overall Score: 7.5 (out of 10)
With an intriguing narrative and distinct gameplay style Danganronpa Another Episode: Ultra Despair Girls ends up being a success even with its many blemishes.
Disclosure: This game was reviewed using downloadable Vita code provided by the publisher.
Edited by barrel