Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Danganronpa Another Episode: Ultra Despair Girls Review

Hope and despair. Like peanut butter and jelly.

Danganronpa has become the premiere series for the Playstation Vita. Whenever I think of the Vita, I don’t think about Sony’s failures at trying to make the system relevant, or even as a JRPG machine, but as a system defined by Monokuma and his killing games. The original two games are probably my favorite games on the system, and with the recent announcement of a third game, I can’t help but get all giddy at the prospect of more Danganronpa.

Before we get the inevitably awesome third game though, we get a special little side story called Danganronpa Another Episode: Ultra Despair Girls. But instead of it being a visual novel, it’s a third person shooter. Instead of having a large cast of characters, we get two main protagonists. Instead of having a single, small location to explore, we get a whole city to traverse.

It goes without saying though that Ultra Despair Girls has some major flaws because of this radical shift.

Our story takes place as a midquel between the first and second game and involves the protagonist of the first game’s sister, Komaru Naegi. You see, because of events from the first game, she was captured and imprisoned in a hotel complex in Towa City. While she’s captured, an event called The Tragedy takes place, where the Ultimate Despair, Junko Enoshima, pretty much ended the world. Komaru emerges after The Tragedy and discovers that Towa City, as well as her captors, are young children who call themselves the Warriors of Hope. They want to kill every adult in Towa City, so they mark you as a “demon” and force you out into the city to hunt you down and kill you. All you have to do is survive, stop the kids, and escape Towa City.

It’s best to describe Ultra Despair Girls as an attempt to blend the third person shooter and a visual novel. At first, you’re assaulted with a barrage of cutscenes that last for well over a half hour before you even get your first weapon. It doesn’t forget its visual novel routes and smashes you over the head with as many story elements as possible to the point where there’s too much story and not enough gameplay. That was fine when it was a visual novel and the gameplay was literally to read and interact with characters via text boxes, but action games require more involvement. They’re not as passive, and Ultra Despair Girls approaches it as passively as possible.

I will not say the story is bad however. Granted, it’s not as strong as the other two games and is a lot sloppier in terms of its execution, but it’s still a relatively satisfying story. The biggest issue that I have is that it leaves open way too many loose ends for my liking. The game is deceptively short, lasting anywhere between 15-20 hours, but you never feel like there’s any resolution. Things happen, characters appear and exit, questions still remain, and nothing really gets solved. It’s a side story in every stretch of the word. It doesn’t even help to clarify future events from Danganronpa 2. These plot points may be picked up again in Danganronpa 3, but I honestly don’t want them to be followed up on. They’re just not that interesting to me.

Visually, the game still maintains the series morbid, yet cartoonish look. Everything seems especially darker here, with more blacks, greys, and purples than before, but the characters designs are still bright and colorful as always. Even better, there are fully animated cutscenes included here that are on quality of the 2013 anime series. It’s a treat to see these cutscenes and makes me want to see the second game eventually adapted into an anime.

But the biggest gripe that I have with this game is the shift from visual novel to third person shooter. Yes, while I will always think that the series is best as a visual novel, the gameplay here is just okay at best. You are able to walk around the city and fight various Monokumas by using you Hacking Gun. You can fight them with several different kinds of ammo and solve puzzles by using said ammo as well. There are eight different types of ammo, each of which offer up new ways to experiment with enemies. You can knock enemies into pits with you knockback ammo, or use a dance ammo to keep an enemy in place while you pelt them with machine gun burn ammo. I like the experimentation, but that’s in theory.

In practice, all of the enemies will run straight at you, offering very little incentive to change you style. If they just run at you anyway, why try to be creative about it. I just pelted enemies with normal ammo until they died. You do have the option to add powerups to your ammo, two per bullet type, but they hardly amount to any substantial change.

You can play as a second character in this game named Genocide Jack. Her gameplay is much simpler and essentially becomes a 3D beat ‘em up. She can attack enemies with her scissors and launch insane special attacks that do a lot of damage. However, she has a limited energy bar that drains as she is active, so you should really only use her in dire situations. Once you use her though, the game becomes a cake walk. There’s hardly any challenge at all when Genocide Jack is in play, making an already easy game even easier.

As always though, Danganronpa is incredibly dark in its content, and Ultra Despair Girls is a downright mortifying game to play. Outside of the fact that you have a game centered around children brutally killing adults, the situations presented in this game are just morbid. You’ll read text that describes how to murder adults, how badly adults want to kill their own children, and the terrible misdeeds that happen to the Warriors of Hope. The content was more disturbing here than I’ve encountered in any video game this year, let alone in the past 10 years. Yes Five Nights at Freddy’s alludes to dead children, but Ultra Despair Girls will tell you what happened to the kids, how it psychologically scars them, watch them break down in front of you, then expect you to kill them. You see a diorama or corpses dancing to a jolly song as they are nailed and crucified in place. It goes beyond the realm of bad taste and revels in its despair, leaving very little hope for the audience.

All of this is wrapped around the framework of the series, but it doesn’t feel like it’s in bad taste. It just feels like it’s a normal part of this world. It welcomes you to its darkness and instead of shirking around any difficult subjects, it goes balls to the wall. When a little girls makes out with a boy after crushing his ideologies and telling him that he’s useless and meaningless to her, it doesn’t stop to explain how wrong it is. You see it, feel sickened, and move on.

Ultra Despair Girls is the weakest entry in the series by far. It has the least convincing gameplay, the story has its problems, and I wished it felt a bit more fleshed out, but it’s a game that I certainly will be remembering for years to come. I don’t know how much impact it’ll play on future entries in the series, but as long as the developers never make another shooter, this will be a misfire, but at least a somewhat satisfying misfire. 


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