Game Review

by Dave Riley,

Danganronpa: Ultra Despair Girls

PS Vita

Danganronpa Another Episode: Ultra Despair Girls
Ultra Despair Girls takes Danganronpa into the third person shooter genre, retaining many of the chuckle-worthy gags and character interactions of the previous games, but sacrificing most of the puzzle solving and all of the joy of solving a murder mysterious with a gigantic, precipitously dwindling cast.

Taking place between the first and second Danganronpa games, Ultra Despair Girls is a sidequel starring ultra-generic series lead Makoto Naegi's ultra-generic sister Komaru Naegi. Komaru, kept as a hostage during "the biggest, most awful, most tragic event in human history," escapes captivity just as a wave of adorable, homicidal bear robots, Monokumas, sweeps across Towa City. Accompanied by Toko Fukawa, the first game's Ultimate Writing Prodigy/feckless fujoshi, Komaru beats back the teddy bear tide with her robot-hacking megaphone and faces off against the "Warriors of Hope," the troupe of bloodthirsty grade-school kids behind the violence, whose jaunty JRPG job titles (Fighter, Mage, Priest, etc.) obscure the dark trauma of their past.

Danganronpa's aesthetic is a collage of expertly assembled textures, sounds, colors, and styles. It is gaudy and garish and all in perfect concert. Sing-along kindergarten songs chirp cheerily through abandoned hotel hallways blocked by medieval portcullises, bashed and bent bars dripping signature hot-pink blood and decorated with the decapitated heads of slain Monokumas. Danganronpa is dangerous and indiscriminate, overwhelming to look at yet impossible to look away from. The soundtrack blares over every scene, aggressive takes on department store Muzak suffused with pomp and vigor. The menus ooze kitchen-sink style design, neon trapezoids crashing and flowing into each other as you flip from tab to tab, cutesy SD Komaru and Toko puzzling over map sections or sitting on teetering stacks of giant books in the file screen.

This over-done look, stuffed to bursting with blazing colors and meticulously repurposed video game references, isn't just an aesthetic gloss. The crammed-in homages and hyper-exaggeration pervades the character design and storytelling as well. “Never say something once when you can say it ten times,” that's the visual novel motto. So these games rub it in, makes you tired of it, then laughs at you for being tired of it. "Isn't this what you want?" It asks, coy as all get out. "Isn't this lame, ridiculous dialogue what you come here for?" And you grin and bear it because the truth is: you did. No game serves up that particular visual novel mishmash of trashiness, sincerity, melodrama, and true emotion like a Danganronpa.

Ultra Despair Girls is more disturbing than any of its predecessors. The major subject matter, involving child abuse, would be hard to stomach with even a light touch, but Ultra Despair Girls goes all in. Its cruelty is on full display, with little of the oblique and silly veneer that's made the previous games palatable. Some scenes are painful and relentless in their description and outright hard to watch. These vivid depictions of cruelty are not without purpose, but for the first time in the series, I wasn't quite convinced it knew what it was selling. Danganronpa has made its career on being unapologetically tone deaf, but this time, the overarching, insouciant attitude of "gosh, did I just say that?" is dissonant and jarring. The series' simultaneous love and distaste for its genre has always been fascinating, but the knife cuts both ways. When a wisecrack about lolicon—or a minigame of warding away groping robot hands—pops up immediately after fifteen minutes of traumatic dialogue, you can't shake the feeling they're playing both sides. One half of the two-toned Monokuma mouth shouts, "this is bad!" The other mutters, "…but I still kind of like it…"

That being said: the suffering the Warriors of Hope were subjected to by the adults in their lives is exaggerated and cartoonish, and the occasional off-key joke flubs its landing and pulls you out of the moment, but the story depicts the fallout of that abuse in a way that feels sickening and real. Concerning sexual abuse especially, I can't think of another game of this scope or budget that addresses it so directly, with such purpose, and with such focus on the victim. This isn't an offhand mention of rape to punch up a mediocre story, this is an unrelenting march through the sick psyche of a broken child. Despite the over the top circumstances of the abuse, the way the character manifests her trauma and the dialogue they give her is chilling.

Behind the gags about Toko's disdain for light novels and Komaru's thorough, congenial mediocrity, this is what Ultra Despair Girls is about. No amount of cotton candy-colored hair can mute what this game is slinging. In Danganronpa's world, like in ours, there are children who were betrayed or abandoned by the people meant to protect them. In Danganronpa's world, these children were given a chance to flip the tables and they took it. Once again, even with all the bits that make you cringe or sigh or shake your head, Danganronpa has forced you to consider something real behind its absurd.

But that's one aspect of a twenty-hour game, the rest of which plays like a decade-late Resident Evil 4 clone. Komaru's megaphone has different sound bullets like Break and Burn and Dance. Your foes are invariably charming whether they're blowing you up with grenades or flinging discarded takeout boxes that obscure your vision with soggy noodles. Skill shots reward extra damage and money, but a Monokuma's glowing red eye is a much smaller target than a zombie head and the dead zone on the Vita's analog sticks makes precision aiming a pain in the ass. You can buy stat boosts and slot them into the three ammo types that actually care about +power and +speed, but the game's not difficult enough to require it. It's more efficient just to upgrade the extremely powerful, area-of-effect Paralyze bullet as high as it'll go and call it a day. Toko's serial killer persona, Genocide Jack, is on deck for when the going gets tough, but using her only makes an easy game that much easier. Jack is invulnerable and can kill anything, including bosses, in one or two super moves. You don't see a lot of Game Over screens. Even if you do run out of health, there's a QTE waiting to give you a second lease on life.

Managing combat with a character who moves like a glacier and aims like a stone recalls days of Resident Evil shooting galleries, where crowd control was more important than raw dexterity. You'll figure out ways to cluster a group of enemies around an explosive Bomber Monokuma, to line them up and slam a car into them, or to drag them all into a puddle of water and nail the whole group with an electric shot.

Bits of puzzle solving show up here and there, though it's all as simple as can be. If it's a riddle, the answer is a four-digit passcode hidden in a room the size of a cardboard box. If it's an arcade battle arena, the solution is "destroy the enemies in one shot." At best, you'll spend thirty seconds shining the Detect beam around the room to uncover hidden clues on the walls before realizing you were overthinking things. At worst, Komaru and Toko's interstitial dialogue will solve the puzzle for you before you even finish reading the text. These wimpy brainteasers would slot perfectly into a Resident Evil game, but they have nothing in common with the tortured, roundabout logic Danganronpa has trained us to expect. Maybe an in-universe explanation for this creampuff difficulty is best: these are riddles thought up by a bunch of eight-year-olds, after all.

The game is overstuffed with character and brimming with tacky pop art, which gives reason to explore the nooks and crannies, even if the intricacies of its mechanics are slight. Skill books that boost your health and income aren't necessary to survival, but they give you an excuse to explore every colorful, cacophonic corner of Danganronpa's inexplicably attractive world. The English dub is strong, aside from style decisions for one or two characters that make you pine for the missing Japanese language option. When Komaru shouts "Move!" into the megaphone it sounds like the actor was having fun with the role, so you never get tired of it even though she does it every other time you fire. Blasting a newly introduced enemy type with a Dance bullet and watching its booty shake is persistently pleasing and each foe you mow down produces a rueful cry of "I'm dead!" so preciously cute you can practically see the frowny-faced emojis. Still, as the Monokuma hordes fall before you, a twinge of disappointment grows. Ultra Despair Girls has converted one of the best antagonists Japanese games have to offer into a legion of mindless combat grunts.

It may be unfair to criticize a game for what it isn't, but Danganronpa made its mark by being excellent at something that's pretty rare on the ground. It's disappointing to receive a satisfactory shooter from a series known for its cream of the crop murder mysteries. Ultra Despair Girls attacks stories that just aren't told in games of this size and scope, and it addresses them bluntly. If you can stomach it, it's worth playing just for that. When Ultra Despair Girls is good, it's piercingly good; when it's just going through the motions, sending you on corridor shooting sessions or having you scrounge for collectibles, you can't help but remember how, for good or for bad, what was most impressive about previous Danganronpa games was their integration: look and feel, story and gameplay, everything was part of the same whole.

That sort of cohesion is a rare feat in today's landscape of big-budget AAA, where the seams between narrative and gameplay are so wide you could fit a whole visual novel script through them. It's sad to be given something that so often plays by the numbers when maybe you were hoping for a bit more scrutiny of third person shooter gameplay. By the time Ultra Despair Girls gets its engine going your senses might be too numbed to care, no matter how pitch-perfect their interrogation of Yes/No choices in gaming ends up being. For the most part, mechanically, narratively, Ultra Despair Girls is Gears of War or Resident Evil 4. Its writing might be unquestionably better, its themes more realized, more passionate, and more trenchant, but structurally they are the same: droplets of narrative interspersed between the shooting and never the twain shall meet. It might be that's the whole point, Danganronpa's always painted the line between its satire and its sincerity with invisible ink, but Ultra Despair Girls' inconsistent tone and passable gameplay combine for a bitter taste that obscures the delicate notes of commentary lingering beneath the surface.

Overall : B-
Graphics : A+
Sound/Music : A
Gameplay : B-
Presentation : A+

+ Silly fan-service conversations about Toko's taste in books abound, and a harrowing examination of trauma hides beneath Ultra Despair Girls' irreverence.
Not a lot to the gameplay that wasn't in Resident Evil 4 ten years ago, none of the head-scratchers that made Danganronpa's trials such a joy

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