As sinister as it is completely crazy, Danganronpa Another Episode: Ultra Despair Girls is very much birthed from the same minds as the other games in the series – except that this time around, courtroom class trials and detective work are replaced by linear third-person action. It's a gameplay shift that paints Ultra Despair Girls as more of a spin-off than a main link in the Danganronpa chain, but nevertheless, it still boasts all of the themes and tones that you'd expect from the deliciously dark property.
Things begin with a lovingly animated anime cutscene that sets the mood for the horrors that are about to unfold, and from there, the rest of the release sees teenage protagonist Komaru Naegi delve into the depths of despair as she's forced into a game of survival in a freshly ruined city.
It's a story that's studded with great characters and some superb storytelling, but the pacing feels a little bit off. In Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc and Danganronpa 2: Goodbye Despair, the majority of your time was spent reading through reams of text, and even though it could seem overdone at times, it was consistently paced. Here, however, dialogue intersects brief stints of action instead of lengthy courtroom scenarios, and as a result, things don't gel quite as nicely.
For every five minutes of gameplay, you'll be berated with about 15 minutes of cutscene, and there's sadly no denying that proceedings can start to drag at times. It's not that the dialogue itself is bad – it's actually very organic, as we've come to expect – it's just that there's a heck of a lot of it. In fact, there's so much that some of it starts to feel like unnecessary fluff, especially when a conversation could have ended minutes ago and the cast is still chattering, reiterating the same point for the umpteenth time.
The sheer amount of text wouldn't seem so tiring if the gameplay didn't hold its own, but the aforementioned third-person action is surprisingly fun, and it's something that you'll want to get back to when you've been sitting through speech for what seems like half a lifetime. The strangest part is that it kind of plays like a Resident Evil game; the camera is close to Komaru's back, most environments are narrow pathways, enemies tend to waddle towards you – not unlike zombies – and your main defence is a firearm of sorts. Casually dubbed the 'hacking gun', this weapon is your ticket to survival – a megaphone which literally shoots code that can disable or alter the behaviour of your robotic enemies.
Speaking of which, you'll once again be taking the fight to Monokuma – the franchise's iconic black and white bear, although he certainly isn't a singular entity here. Towa City is infested with various types of murderous Monokumas, and all of them are designed to mutilate the population. It's a good job, then, that your hacking gun has multiple uses. Unlocked step-by-step throughout the course of your disturbed adventure, you'll eventually be picking apart your two-toned foes by utilising your gun's varying modes.
The standard break bullets act as your basic means of doing damage, with the game effectively becoming a third-person shooter when you're trying to blast a Monokuma right between the eyes, while switching to dance mode, for instance, allows you to put some distance between you and your aggressors by forcing them into a comical jig. Elsewhere, other hacking gun upgrades such as the move and detect modes are used to open doors or uncover secrets, and as a whole, the customised megaphone's a rather well realised and enjoyable bit of kit.
Going back to the Resident Evil comparison, the actual act of shooting your enemies is reminiscent of Capcom's shambling property, too. There's no cover system in place, so survival largely comes down to making sure that you nail an encroaching Monokuma's weak point before he gets his claws into you. Failing that, you'll just have to sprint either away from or past your foe in order to find some room so that you can fire off another few shots. At its very best, the shooting's scarily intense, particularly when you're low on break bullets or health, but it does come unstuck at points.
In some relatively rare cases, the claustrophobic environments can get the better of Komaru's movement; try to squeeze through a space between Monokuma's pudgy body and the nearest wall, for example, and you may get stuck on an invisible barrier. The aiming can seem a bit clunky as well, but we're not entirely sure if this is down to the game's mechanics or the Vita's small analogue sticks. Either way, it can be frustrating to be cornered by one or two opponents when you feel as though you've been unfairly worked into such a deadly situation.
There is an ace up your sleeve, though, in that the title has a second playable character. Without spoiling anything, there's a psychotic serial killer around to help Komaru's cause, and they can be used to tear through your mechanical pursuers like wet tissue paper. Your destructive ally can't be harmed during combat, and their gameplay leans into the hack and slash genre as you slice and dice through groups of enemies. The downside, though, is that your bloodthirsty friend must be used sparingly, as their appearance in battle is limited by a gauge that diminishes as they spend time cutting robot bears to bits.
There are definitely elements of survival horror in Ultra Despair Girls, from the need to thoughtfully manage your resources to the shock scares that occur when a Monokuma suddenly darts around a corner and lets out a loud cackle. Couple all of this with Danganronpa's weird art direction, weirder characters, and love of fluorescent colours, and you've got a really strange mix of themes that shouldn't necessarily work together, but they seem to do so effortlessly.
Indeed, Ultra Despair Girls is perhaps the darkest entry in the series yet, despite some comedic elements such as the need to sit on a child's training potty to save your game. The plot pulls no punches as far as death, destruction, and questionable morals go, and it features some gripping twists and turns just when you think that you've figured it all out. That said, this isn't about murders and mysteries like its predecessors, and as such, it's able to tell a more focussed tale as you progress through each linearly structured chapter.
There are things that break up the generally predictable flow of gameplay, though. For starters, event rooms are essentially real-time puzzles where you'll need to determine the most efficient way to eradicate the Monokumas that stand between you and the exit. Utilising your hacking gun's different modes to work out the best strategy without being spotted by your enemies can be tricky, but there's satisfaction to be had in stumbling upon the optimum path or getting it right first time. On top of event rooms, there are also a handful of riddles that you'll need solve in order to progress at points. These conundrums take various forms, but they all provide a nice change of pace.
Of course, as with any new release in an established franchise, newcomers will want to know whether or not this is a good place to jump in. Unfortunately, there isn't a simple answer to that; on one hand, Ultra Despair Girls is very much a side story in the Danganronpa universe, but on the other, it contains spoilers for the first game, Trigger Happy Havoc, and parts of it tie directly into the second release, Goodbye Despair. In that sense, Ultra Despair Girls is probably best experienced after playing the first two titles if you want to go into them blind.
Meanwhile, on the presentational side of things, this latest release is the most impressive instalment of the series yet. Developed exclusively for the Vita, its typically flamboyant style and captivating artwork combine with new 3D assets to create a visual feast that's always throwing up cool character designs and great settings. Likewise, the audio work is just as good. The voice acting is top notch across the board, and there's more spoken dialogue than ever thanks to the fact that all of the story-related scenes are fully voiced. As with the previous instalments, though, it's the superb electronic soundtrack that'll worm its way into your ears.
Danganronpa Another Episode: Ultra Despair Girls admirably steps out of the series' comfort zone in order to spread an entirely new kind of despair, but the result is a game that isn't quite as cohesive as its forebears. A massive amount of dialogue often saps the pace of an otherwise eerily tense third-person adventure, but other than that, this is a welcome addition to the franchise that's well worth experiencing if you're a fan of the maniacal Monokuma and all that he stands for.