I’ll admit that I was a little skeptical when I first heard about the next chapter in the Danganronpa story. I’m a massive fan of both Danganronpa 1 and Danganronpa 2 and the dark mysteries of despair that surround each of them. Granted, Ultra Despair Girls is not so much the next chapter as it is a side story that falls between Danganronpa 1 and 2, offering plenty of revealing details for them both. If you’ve got an inkling of interest in the series, then I urge you to play the main entries before jumping into this supplemental undertaking.
Ultra Despair Girls does away with the murder mysteries and class trials that the series is best known for, and instead opts to hand Komaru Naegi — little sister of the first game’s protagonist — a hacking gun that shoots out computer code using electromagnetic waves to take down an army of robotic Monokumas (the evil black and white bear) in more of a third-person shooter style. Yeah, it sounds silly, and it certainly embraces that silliness, but it’s allowed to when so much of the story is actually extremely dark, awash in murder, death, and despair. As dark as the Danganronpa games get, this one even dares to cross that line and go further.
At first, things will seem pretty straightforward. There’s a mystery layered into the third- person shooter gameplay, and though series veterans will think they have it all figured out before too long, this is Danganronpa we’re talking about, so prepare for more twists, turns, and plunging into pits of despair than you will know what to do with. This may be an offshoot, but it doesn’t mean that the writing was skimped on. Ultra Despair Girls fully earns its place beside the other two in terms of dark and captivating storytelling. Add to that the occasional fully animated cutscene, and you’ve got my full and undivided attention. This was something severely lacking in the first two games and I’m happy to see it have a place here.
There’s a returning character from the first game that I will avoid mentioning here in case you haven’t played it. If you’ve seen any previous coverage of the game, you likely know who it is. This particular character was not one of my favorites, and I was disappointed to hear that they were going to be a primary cast member. They just didn’t strike me as having a compelling enough arc and even as I began playing Ultra Despair Girls, I feared they would annoy me. My fears were unfounded when I discovered that they actually did a lot to develop this character and really make them a far more compulsory player than I initially anticipated.
Long (long, long) story short, the world has gone to hell, a group of kids called the Warriors of Hope is murdering adults for the sheer fun of it, and Komaru Naegi is trying to figure out why she’s been imprisoned for the last year of her life (during which time the events of the first game take place). Provided with the hacking gun by a familiar face, Komaru must navigate the dangerous streets of Towa City while trying to stay alive and unravel the twisted multilayered mystery.
The third-person shooting isn’t bad, but it could have been done much better. It’s clunky at times, and the laser sight occasionally passes right through objects and enemies, with perfect angles and perspective required to hit enemies’ weak spots. It’s frustrating, but I quickly let my previous expectations of a Danganronpa game go and found myself quite enjoying the gameplay. What I started out thinking would just be a vehicle between story segments actually became a fun and engrossing experience, especially as the game mechanics slowly unlocked, breaking up what could have just been a boring shooter in bland environments.
Certain strategies are required to take down groups of robotic Monokumas, and there’s something so satisfying about changing to a Move bullet to ram an electric car into them, or using a Dance bullet on Alarm Monokuma to draw all nearby robots to him, and then hitting the weak point on a Bomb Monokuma to take them all out in one fatal blast. The gameplay is broken up by challenge rooms that require you to figure out these combinations and tactics to move forward, and as the game progresses and more options open up, the combinations can get even crazier.
If you’re ever in a jam, you can just switch to your second character — you know, the one from the first game that I won’t say the name of because I’m all sensitive about spoilers, even though there are screenshots all over that show this person? This character changes the dynamic from a third-person shooter to more of a brawler, which is a good breath of fresh air whenever the clunky aiming gets to be too frustrating, and brings with it some sweet cutscene fatality type moves. Collected coins from fallen enemies are used to buy upgrades for your bullets (which need to be equipped), or upgrades for the melee weapon (which is automatically applied). One big gripe that I had was the staccato nature of gameplay segments to story scenes, or even just random conversations. Without the option to speed up the text, the gameplay was punctured with text boxes short and long that broke up the flow.
Without the Danganronpa name and background, I would be hard pressed to say that I would have enjoyed this as highly as I did. It’s not that the combat is actively bad, it just isn’t all that amazing. It excels only in raising the bar on how far into the darkness and despair Danganronpa is willing to go. Everything else just meets expectation. I do have to applaud the attempt to change direction though. They could have easily tried to force the previous games’ mechanics into this narrative, but the third-person shooting aspect works much better for the story being told. They went this direction, despite the gameplay being a radical departure for the series, and that kind of move takes some real guts, particularly when you have as dedicated a fan base as Danganronpa has.
There’s something satisfying about destroying heaps of Monokumas, which wasn’t possibly in the design of the first two games. Now we get to have our revenge, set against the dark and twisted backdrop of children murdering all of the adults in Towa City in a sport not too unlike The Hunger Games or Battle Royale. It’s certainly no replacement for Danganronpa 3, and I find myself pining for that announcement, but Ultra Despair Girls surprised me far more than I thought it could. It’s a little different, and may take some adjusting for fans to get used to, but it provides a meaningful slice of the Danganronpa pie and does so in a unique and despairing way that only a Danganronpa game can.
Danganronpa Another Episode Ultra Despair Girls review copy provided by publisher. For information on scoring, please read our Review Policy here.