And absolutely no one expected this to happen.
Having to critique something you love can be heartbreaking. We gave Danganronpa 2 our second Game of the Year award for a reason, and the original deserves nearly as much praise as its sequel. However, Danganronpa Another Episode: Ultra Despair Girls does a lot wrong with its writing, and I can’t help but feel betrayed. Having to add more asterisks to my recommendation of the franchise is a huge bummer, and this isn’t just little problems, it’s a full swath of the game that is deeply uncomfortable to some and incredibly triggering to others. It’s especially disappointing to me, because I ended up loving nearly everything else about the game.
Ultra Despair Girls takes place in between the original visual novels . Komaru Naegi, sister of DR1 main character Makoto, stars in this entry, teaming up with Toko Fukawa, the first game’s Ultimate Writing Prodigy, whose split personality is a serial killer. Komaru has been imprisoned in an apartment ever since the world was nearly destroyed by The Incident, a series of riots that killed millions. Set free by the mysterious Future Foundation, Komaru must escape Towa City with the help of a megaphone that fires disruptor blasts that destroy bear robots that children control.
That probably sounds like a load of hooey if you’ve never played Danganronpa before, so this isn’t the place to jump in. Another Episode is very much a fan’s game, filled with winks and nods to past events, but none of them really go anywhere. A good chunk of this game’s cast are relatives of characters from the first game, but the game never does anything interesting with them besides using them for some very cheap despair. There’s a lot of that in this game, which is a stark contrast from the other games building characters and eventually introducing problems into their lives.
Most character interactions in this game feel rushed and forced, save for the great dialogue between Toko and Komaru, who slowly get used to each other’s quirks as the game goes on. Their relationship is perhaps my favorite part of the game, and I’m glad Toko gets time to shine, as she didn’t in the original. Monokuma, who was the best character in the original games, is used as cannon fodder here, losing a lot of the levity he gave to some of the heavier scenes in the originals. There’s none of his infamous wisecracks, no physical comedy, he has so few lines they didn’t even bother dubbing him in a few cutscenes. Two Monokuma-esque bears make appearances, but one is a goody-two shoes and the other isn’t very funny at all.
(I’ll be dipping into spoilers a bit here, but I’ll be ambiguous. Fair warning.) Another Episode’s main villains are a group of children called the Warriors of Hope, and their inclusion is where the game becomes most difficult to recommend. Each of the children had a rough home life, and for the most part, their backstories are handled well. One child in particular, however, is disgustingly sexualized, to the point where an entire chapter is ruined. Instead of handling her abuse properly like the rest of the cast, there are multiple scenes of highly inappropriate sexualization, and the girl (who, mind you, is supposed to be elementary school age) is written as a pervert throughout. It’s a huge disappointment and I wish none of it was in the game. The first two games weren’t perfect but the objectification of such a young character is some next level grossness.(End spoilers)
The writing may not meet standard Danganronpa levels, but everything else about Ultra Despair Girls passes the quota. Masafumi Takada knocked it out of the park again with this soundtrack, which sets the mood perfectly for a depressing yet haunting city being ravaged. Cutscenes switch between anime, 3D models, and sprite conversations, and all three look sharper than ever before. The art, music and gameplay all remind me of the experimental games you’d only find on the original Playstation, I almost expected an Intelligent Qube minigame to pop up at some point.
Playing Ultra Despair Girls was a much more fun experience than I expected. The shooting is standard third person shooter affair, but the introduction of a variety of new bullets and upgrades throughout the game keep things fresh and allow for new puzzles right up until the end. Variety, such as a bullet that lets you control Monokumas for a short time, or a spotlight that lets you find secrets or solve riddles, is the real spice of this game. The puzzles in general aren’t much to sneeze at, but challenge rooms that are peppered throughout the game add unique twists to defeating Monokumas, often asking you to create chain reactions to wipe a floor of baddies in one shot. While these challenges were fun, sometimes the game wouldn’t consider them properly cleared even when the objectives were met, which doesn’t halt gameplay but does affect your end of chapter score.
A nice bonus is the inclusion of Genocide Jack as a playable character. If things are getting a bit too rough, pressing Triangle switches control to the scissors-wielding serial killer, who is both invincible and incredibly strong. There is a time limit for how long you can control her, but battery pickups are as plentiful as most ammo, so Jack will be back to let ‘er rip quickly if need be. It’s an interesting choice, obviously for those who get frustrated when stuck or don’t know much about third person shooting, as the game’s creators anticipated its audience to want to get right back to the story. There are long stretches in between gameplay segments in the early game, which could have been counterbalanced with some walk-and-talk segments of some kind. Giving you a short burst of gameplay followed by half an hour of cutscenes is MGS4 levels of whiplash, but thankfully it doesn’t go on for as long and evens out by chapter two.
When I finished Ultra Despair Girls, I felt similarly to how I felt when I completed Metal Gear Solid: Ground Zeroes. There’s a lot of great action and amazing artistic choices that made me excited for the future of the franchise, but there were also some extremely poor choices in portraying sexual assault in both games that gave me pause in recommending them. There’s definitely more to Another Episode than the objectifying scenes I take umbrage to, but it colored my opinion of the game, and makes it that much harder to give a glowing score. At the very least, be aware of that, because there’s fun to be had in Towa City.