Anime lovers have gravitated toward the Danganronpa games for a few years now. These titles offer a very original and appealing combination of courtroom class trials and detective gameplay elements, which is unlike anything else you’ve played. However, the latest entry is a departure from that original concept and instead embraces a more traditional action/adventure structure. This may annoy some die-hard fans of the series but don’t forget that we still have the IP’s distinct flair, as the wacky design and general tone of the production are very much in line with the franchise’s history. The only question is whether or not this more dynamic approach actually works and the answer is, “well, sort of.”
If you’re unfamiliar with these types of games, or with anime styling in general, your eyes might not be properly prepared to view Danganonpa Another Episode: Ultra Despair Girls . The designers’ penchant for vivid, fluorescent colors is evident in every square inch of your adventure, as is the genre’s insistence on exceedingly bizarre – yet sometimes charmingly kooky – visuals. It won’t push the Vita’s prodigious graphical capabilities (and one wonders if we’ll ever see a game that will, given the lack of support for Sony’s handheld), but it’s precisely what anime fans expect. As I said above, Danganronpa has always had a singular flair, beyond that of general anime themes, and the latest installment is no exception.
Again, anime followers won’t be surprised by the audio presentation. There’s a slew of over-the-top effects and ridiculous voice performances, but they all meld with the game’s outlandish style. In other words, while one could argue that the voice acting is amateurish and even obnoxious, it’s important to remember the genre. The soundtrack is a potential high point for those who enjoy and appreciate the anime style; otherwise, the entire production might seem like an irritating assault on the senses. Taken in smaller doses, though, Ultra Despair Girls actually exudes an original and attractive atmosphere. Maybe it’s all those wonderfully bright colors that does it.
The city is destroyed and teenage protagonist Komaru Naegi must set things straight. As you’ll see from the outset, there’s a heavy emphasis on narrative and plot progression, which worked very well in past entries, but seems to lag here. I think the game’s fresh action-oriented focus has actually had a negative impact, because the lengthy dialogue sequences – many of which seem needlessly bloated – rankle after being involved in the fast-moving gameplay. When we were immersed in a more sedate and cerebral courtroom atmosphere, the long non-interactive sequences seemed to fit. But in the new effort, those same sequences, which aren’t any longer than before, are jarring and sometimes obtrusive. And that’s too bad because the story really is worth experiencing.
As for the action elements, they’re pretty well constructed and usually entertaining. You play with a traditional third-person camera (that sits too close, by the way) and you face enemies that must be destroyed with your only weapon: The Hacking Gun. It’s basically a megaphone that shoots out code that can disable or alter your enemies, and as ridiculous as it sounds, it’s pretty nifty in practice. Towa City is full of baddies and the Hacking Gun thankfully has a bunch of modes that you will unlock as you progress: The standard assault features break bullets that allow you to do damage, and this gives the game a regular third-person shooter feel. Then there’s the dance mode, which forces your opponents to – you guessed it – start dancing. The Hacking Gun can also be used to open doors and find treasure.
The system is accessible and relatively simple, but there’s no cover system so you have to hit the enemy’s weak spots before they can reach you. If you can’t manage this, you have to run away, which isn’t half as much fun. The only problem is that the camera isn’t perfect and given the cramped nature of many of the environments, you always feel as if you’re hemmed in on all sides. Then, when the Monokuma (the crazily designed black-and-white bears that are your foes) really come at you, it’s easy to get frustrated. It doesn’t help that the mechanic, while mostly stable, can feel a little slow and clunky at times. It may have something to do with the Vita’s analog sticks, I don’t know. But at least we get an ally that can’t be hurt in combat; he’s creepy and a weird but he’s effective.
There are several twists and turns in the plot, which in some ways is just downright demented. There are mysteries to solve and extremely strange situations and despite the fact that everyone hates linear structures these days, this particular linear setup serves its purpose well. It always puts the story front-and-center although, like I said before, this isn’t necessarily a good thing considering the overblown dialogue sequences. At the very least, we get an inventive, even captivating story that will keep you guessing until the end. The script isn’t going to win any awards but at least we have a thorough examination of surprisingly deep subjects, like morals and customs. Of course, none of it is meant to be taken too seriously, but the story does have some depth.
To assist in the pacing and variety, there are certain event rooms that change up the gameplay. These aren’t really about eliminating the Monokumas as quickly as possible; rather, these situations task you with figuring out the most efficient way of eliminating the threat, so you can reach the exit unscathed. This is where the different modes of your Hacking Gun come into play, and there’s also some experimentation involved. Which is the best strategy and path to adopt? For those looking for a break from the more action-centric third-person gameplay, this will be a definite highlight. It gives the game another dimension it didn’t formerly have, which makes for a more robust experience the whole way ‘round. Unfortunately, the good doesn’t always outweigh the bad.
There are times when the game starts to go off the rails, so-to-speak. This could be a pacing issue but sometimes I think the writers and designers almost lost track of the main thread. Some of the gameplay sections feel either superfluous or just plain strange, as they don’t seem to have a big impact on the overarching plot. Couple this with some long and drawn-out cut-scenes that don’t know when to end, and the erratic nature of the game may start to grate after a while. I’m just not sure if this was the correct direction to take the series, especially after so many responded so favorably to the original formula. When you start messing with what makes people buy your product, you always risk alienation. Still, there’s nothing wrong with trying something new.
Danganronpa Another Episode: Ultra Despair Girls is oddly named and really, the game lives up to that tone: Odd. But that’s part of the charm and appeal and fans of past entries will quickly embrace this style. What’s questionable is whether or not they’ll embrace the new third-person action gameplay, which is a dramatic departure from the courtroom scenarios seen before. The story has some appreciated twists and turns, the basic structure of the gameplay is solid and accessible, and the event situations really do make you think. These are definite highlights but the shortcomings may override the positives for some, depending on your hopes and expectations. I guess you should maybe try it if you’re intrigued but that’s the only recommendation I can give.
The Good: Very bright, often inspired visual presentation. Action-oriented third-person gameplay works well, offers a new way to play. Story is relatively deep and engaging. Event situations give us a nice change from the standard combat. Hacking Gun is just a cool device.
The Bad: Doesn’t exactly push the Vita’s technical capabilities. Camera isn’t perfect and control can feel clunky. Pacing is off, mostly due to over-long cut-scenes. Will fans miss the courtroom trials…?
The Ugly: “When the Monokumas are closing in and you’re wrestling with aiming, it’s not a good day.”