PC Impressions - Danganronpa Another Episode: Ultra Despair Girls

by Dustin Bailey,
I'm enough of a post-ironic 90s child to have allowed “rad” to slip back into my vocabulary as a catch-all for things that are pretty good, but there's no better word than that to describe the style of Danganronpa Another Episode: Ultra Despair Girls—as long as you also quickly follow it up with harrowing, horrifying, macabre, and generally icky. It's a nightmarish kind of radness that stands up even apart from the VN adventures that spawned it, making it a worthwhile rainbow-bright take on survival horror.

You are placed in the role of completely normal high schooler Komaru Naegi, who lives a completely normal life inside a completely normal apartment, after a completely normal kidnapping placed her there, locked her up, and left her trapped for more than a year. The chance to escape finally appears as her front door is busted down, but on the other side is an army of murder-hungry robobears, and this Monokuma invasion is setting upon the city like a zombie apocalypse. Ultra Despair Girls owes a lot to zombie fiction, focusing on a small group of survivors struggling to make sense of a sudden swarm of mindless enemies, tracked on one side by shadowy government agents and on the other by the cult behind it all. That cult just so happens to be a cabal of adorable children eager to live in a world without adults, who set teenaged Komaru into the chaotic streets as prey in the hunt for the most dangerous game.

Blood splashes out in gouts of pink, your enemies are giant teddy bears with adorable blank stares on one side and murderous grins on the other, and corpses pile up in the streets as psychedelic silhouettes of blue stardust. Danganronpa has got capital-S style, and that style translates well into the 3D world of Ultra Despair Girls, with everything from the anime and pre-rendered cutscenes to the in-game action confidently displaying a devotion to the colorful horror aesthetic, and the looks are backed up with some incredible low-key jams that further help to build a beautiful nightmare.

The transition to HD has been a pretty seamless one. The game already looked sharp on the Vita, and higher resolutions help the colors to pop even more. Only the pre-rendered cutscenes suffer in comparison, with their blurry, compressed format standing out against how crisp the rest of the game looks. The anime scenes looks okay—certainly not up to the standard of blu-ray or HD broadcasts—but the recorded 3D is jarringly out of spec with the rest of the visuals.

Smooth framerate and detailed resolution also keep the shooting crisp, which is a benefit the simplistic action very much needs. This is Resident Evil 4-lite, with full-range movement that drastically slows down when you're aiming your weapon, forcing you to cautiously weigh when to drop your evasive ability to go on the offensive. It certainly doesn't live up to its classic inspiration—your gun is an electronic pea shooter, enemies don't have those chunky, satisfying reactions to getting shot, and they rarely come after you in anything more interesting than a straightforward rush—but there's just enough around the edges to keep the simplistic action engaging.

Mostly, it's a focus on puzzles that keeps things fresh. Certain bullets will immobilize enemies in dance routines, for example, while others can be used to flip a switch for an environmental effect. You can use a dance bullet to turn a siren-headed Monokuma into a disco ball-equipped lure for others nearby, and if properly placed you can run down the whole group with a single shot to an electric car. Challenges are offered up by arcade machines in each level which require you to get creative with your shooting, and it's satisfying to see whole groups of bad guys go down in just a couple of well strategized shots.

Then there are systems on top of systems on top of systems, with purchasable upgrades that you can apply to customize your bullet effects, and a separate playable character—series veteran Toko Fukawa slash Genocide Jack—who can be called upon when batteries are charged for powerful melee attacks and her own set of specials, and who in turn has her own selection of upgradeable abilities. These bits feel wildly unnecessary for the most part, and given the general preponderance of ammo available (at least in the early chapters), there's little incentive to dig into mechanics that swing things even further in your favor. Plus the PC version will let you line up shots on enemy weak points even more easily thanks to mouse-based aiming, assuming you don't mind navigating menus very much designed for gamepads. Support for both control methods, including native options for Xbox, PS4, and Steam controllers, are integrated, but sadly you can't switch between them on the fly, since almost every control and visual option is part of the launcher rather than in-game.

The simplicity of Ultra Despair Girls' shooting is perhaps to be expected from a series making a sudden transition from visual novel to action game, but that transition is not a complete one. This is still a very verbose game focused far more on its characters and its violent world than the shooting that happens in between, and that action serves almost more as a set of connective scenes linking together a story about moving from place to place in pursuit of survival. The faux courtroom drama is gone but the focus is squarely on exploring the characters, and even amid the bizarre, hyperactive nightmare some pretty intense themes start to develop, from the titular horror-fueled despair to the dark pasts that caused a band of children to unleash hell on earth.

Ultra Despair Girls stands on its own pretty well, but it's tough to imagine wanting to come into it as a standalone adventure when it serves as a spoiler-filled follow-up to the original game, and that original offers a similarly surreal world of violence in a perhaps more relevant format. But with the entire series now available in HD formats—and the third main entry just a few months away from Western release—this is a perfect time to dig into a mostly terrific port of surprisingly solid spinoff.

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