It’s always interesting when a series goes outside its comfort zone, either mechanically or narratively, and tries something new. Before I played Danganronpa Another Episode: Ultra Despair Girls I would’ve never imagined that Spike Chunsoft’s incredibly violent visual novels could be used as the basis for a third-person shooter. It’s a prime example of a developer taking risks, and doing something new, even if it may have been better to stick to the established formula.
Despite very much being a side-story in the greater Danganronpa universe (one that’s filled with games, light novels and animated series), Ultra Despair Girls features a lot of characters important to the story. There’s plenty of returning faces from the first two games, and a lot of backstory is explored during the game’s 15-hour runtime. As far as playable characters go, players get to control Makoto Naegi’s sister Komaru and Toko Fukawa, who was one of the stars of Trigger Happy Havoc, as they attempt to escape a city filled with maniacal kids and dangerous Monokuma robots.
Defeating these death machines would be near impossible if Komaru wasn’t equipped with a special hacking gun, and this is where the series’ unique spin on third-person shooters comes into play. Throughout the game, players will get a wide array of different bullets they can put into the gun and these will drastically change what it does. From being able to take control of enemies to a bullet that’ll force characters to dance, there’s no shortage of options at the player’s disposal.
Bears of a Feather
The action in Ultra Despair Girls will test the player’s reflexes, as some of the robots are extremely quick, but a lot of the combat encounters feel more like solving a puzzle. Sure, the player can just equip their blaster and shoot every enemy if they want to, but they can also use a knockback bullet to toss an explosive Monokuma into a crowd of foes. There are a lot of fun ways to deal with enemies, and getting to experiment with them makes the core gameplay much more enjoyable.
Not everything about the combat is a home run, though, as the camera can feel extremely awkward at times. There are two options for players to choose from, but neither worked for me as well as I wanted it to. This might be due to the game using an over-the-shoulder view for aiming (think Resident Evil 4), which is paired with a pretty slow moving aiming reticle. It makes core combat feel slightly clunkier than it should, but it’s not enough to turn it into a negative experience.
Breaking up the combat are some more traditional puzzles, which will have players scanning crime scenes as if they were Batman. I found these to be pretty hit-or-miss, as the solutions alternated between clever and banal. More frustrating was the amount of backtracking in the game, but thankfully the game makes sure that players can’t get aimlessly lost in the sizable environments. Still, it feels that a few hours of gameplay could’ve been cut without negatively impacting the story.
Past Danganronpa games have featured a colorful cast of wildly different characters, and that’s why Ultra Despair Girls‘ original characters tend to be underwhelming. All of the demented children that have taken over the town share essentially the same backstory. They were abused as children, and now resent adults (which they refer to as demons) due to this. There are different variations upon this central theme, but the new cast of baddies tend to blend together. It’s not unlike Metal Gear Solid 4‘s Beauty and the Beast Unit in that players essentially know everyone’s sad story before it’s even told.
Another instance that ended up hurting my enjoyment of the story was how the game used pedophilia and sexual abuse in the story. It’s simply not handled with the proper care, and it comes off rather disrespectful to the serious subject matter it’s attempting to tackle. In one scene the game will be painting pedophilia as a terrible thing, and in another it’ll have a character cracking wise about a lolita complex. It doesn’t mesh well, and that’s without bringing up a senseless groping mini-game that occurs halfway through. The series has typically done better in handling tricky topics, and this is a disappointing failure.
Not everything Danganronpa Another Episode: Ultra Despair Girls attempts to do is a success, but it’s definitely worth playing for anyone already invested in the series. The gunplay might not rival Titanfall 2, but the different bullet-types make combat feel more akin to a solving a puzzle. Much like the story it tells, it’s far from perfect, but there are enough good ideas to make it a worthwhile endeavor.
Review code for Danganronpa Another Episode: Ultra Despair Girls provided by the publisher. Reviewed on PS4 Pro. For more information on scoring, please read our Review Policy here.