Hope versus despair. Despair versus hope. An ever present, ever shifting conflict that takes place beneath the surface of humanity. Undermining everything, determining how people view the world and those who reside within it. But is it as simple as all that? Of course not. People rarely stop and take the time to think about these driving forces because, in all honesty, it isn’t necessary in day to day life. Stopping and stalling to mull over the truths of the world each and every time you make a choice is woefully inefficient and probably not too good for mental health, existentially speaking. But what about those moments where deep thought rears its head and barrels towards shallower waters? When people are forced to bear all and witness themselves? What happens then? Of course, said situation may or may not also be compounded by a merciless army of mechanical miscreants, throwing yet another wrench into the proverbial, hypothetical machine…but we’ll deal with that if it happens.
Sooo…it happened. that thing I mentioned earlier, about the army of mechanical something-or-others. Though let’s be honest, this is a Danganronpa review, so I’m sure you all knew that already. If you didn’t, i recommend some light reading, perhaps the first two visual novel style games, or at least the Danganronpa wiki. Anyway, set sometime after the first installment in the franchise, but before the second one, Ultra Despair girls takes us into the lovely and picturesque Towa City…during an apocalypse. Ain’t that just a kick in the pants?
After having already followed the exploits of Makoto Naegi and his school chums back in Trigger Happy Havoc, this time around we don the player role of one Komaru Naegi, younger sister of the aforementioned Makoto. Having apparently been held captive for somewhere around a year, this poor girl has been somewhat removed from the goings on of planet Earth, namely the steady decline it has undergone. Ok, so maybe not that poor of a girl, but imprisonment is not that far above on the list of preferable life positions. But I digress. As captivity wouldn’t make for the most adventurous gameplay experience, we join Komaru at the end of her stint in prison. Saved by the Future Foundation (Danganronpa’s good guys) her situation turns rather quickly back to unfortunate, then just kinda fluctuates for the rest of the game. Things are looking up, send her back down. Things are looking down, brush it off and push on through. Pretty indicative of the overall theme of the game. Almost like the developers planned it that way…
For the most part however, the game humanises this ludicrously scaled Tragedy (the one started in Trigger Happy Havoc) by focusing on the budding friendship between Komaru and her travelling companion; Toko Fukawa of all people. Again, and I am well aware of my similar sound to that of a broken record, Toko is a familiar face from the franchise’s first installment. So, whilst you may be able to enjoy the gameplay if you are a newcomer, a tremendous amount of the story will pass you by which, given the nature of this title, is far from ideal. Though it is the first of the franchise to borrow from a more action oriented gamestyle, it is still very much rooted in its visual novel origins. Simply put, this is a game for Danganronpa fans who want to engage in a little shooting gameplay, not one for shooter fans interested in Danganronpa. Just another fine distinction to be found within this perilous, ficticious universe. Anyway, back to Toko and Komaru. Given Komaru’s status as an unknown and Toko’s pre-established less-than-approachable air, this game endeavours to grow both of these characters through the various trials they face in their heroic quest. In that regard, the game succeeds. By story’s end, both Komaru and Toko are far from the girls they started as, having been forced to endure horrific circumstances and band together to even make it out of a hotel lobby, they accrue quite a deal of confidence and reliability. Even Genocide Jack makes leaps and bounds, which is saying a lot (given that she is a murderous split personality born from malice and repression).
Ok, how about we talk a little on gameplay? As I previously mentioned, this title takes a more ambulatory approach to story progression, providing you (the player) with a third-person camera angle and a Hacking Gun. This particular weapon is a rather nifty tool (as well as the only one you receive) and is capable of destroying the pesky Monokumas that will without relent attempt to murder you. Combat is quite simple, aim at an enemy and shoot. Though most foes will go down in three or four shots, it is much preferrable to hit them in the eye, as doing so will grant you a one-hit-kill and an empowered follow up shot. Particularly skilled players might make it through most of the game doing this, resulting in much fewer moments of ammo concern, as well as a constant supply of boosted shots. Of course, games rarely present one enemy type from start to finish now do they? Thus you will find yourself standing off against a bevy of boisterous bear bruisers who will require you to adapt and think about the best way to proceed. The Hacking Gun also multiplies variety by receiving various ammo types as the story progresses. Again, each of these slightly alter gameplay by providing you with some nifty new effects, such as paralysis, or making an enemy dance…trust me, it’s way more useful than it sounds.
Jumping off that point, certain arcade rooms scattered throughout each Chapter will set a goal for you to achieve. Most commonly, these revolve around clearing out an entire room of foes in a single move, providing you with an additional aerial view that is essential for planning. Though you may quite easily bust in Hacking Gun blazing, they are nice breaks that allow you to test your puzzle solving skills, as well as lending you some insight into how to properly utilise the ammunitions at your disposal. Said challenges also tend to have slight money rewards, allowing you to more quickly purchase Bling Bullets to enhance the effects of said ammunitions.
Jumping of that point, Ultra Despair Girls also lends you a saving grace in the form of Genocide Jack, Toko’s infamous alternate persona. Possessing of a timed gauge that limits her availability (unless playing in casual mode), Jack is an indestructible killing machine that’ll have you slicing and dicing Monokumas like nobody’s business. Keep in mind however, for those gunning for good results, her overusage will result in a lower letter grade for each chapter, in turn lowering chapter completion bonuses, such as additional funds. Whilst it might not sound like much, considering that Jack possesses an upgradable set of skills (combined with the aforementioned Bling Bullets), money is rather important, at least if you want to make the game easier.
Jumping off that point, the game also includes a bevy of skills for Komaru to unlock…providing shes finds them first. Scattered amidst the various extra-narrative collectibles are a number of passive abilities that increase the power of our heroes in one way or another. Be it a health boost, or an alteration to aiming speed, these skills are remarkably useful. So keep an eye out. One of the most useful aspect of this feature however is the ever increasing equip cap. That is to say that, at level 1, the cap is one, at 20 it is 20, and so on and so forth. With each skill requiring somewhere from 1-5 slots, you will most assuredly have most equipped by mid to late story. Definitely better than having to choose between them.
Spinning back to the story aspect for a minute, the game receive a rather significant boost from it’s voice acting. With almost every line of dialogue receiving an accompanying narration, the long segments of discussion receive a much needed blast of personality. This is especially important given the rapid shifts each and every character makes in regards to emotion. Personally, I very much enjoyed the more subdued moments of sarcasm and introspection as much as, if not more than, the powerful emotional moments. It’s just so refreshing to hear characters that have those kinds of moments, there’s just a touch more reality to it I think. This also helps keep a unique form of consistency to the characters, which is necessary given the propensity for the game to switch from a few types of 3D styles to 2D animation and stills, then back and forth again. Though if you haven’t gathered that this is a quirky game by now…I didn’t do my job properly. Sorry about that.
So, there you have it, Ultra Despair Girls in a nutshell. Yet another twisted, psychotic, oddly upbeat addition to a franchise that thrives off that particular MO. Whilst one minute you may be smiling at a goofball schoolgirl trying to make heads or tails of her new friend’s complicated demeanour, the next you simultaneously feel pity and fury towards an enemy who you want to help and kill all at once. It’s…complex, to say the least. Yet another strong example of the storytelling that can come across in a visual novel style game. However, as one might expect, this also has a somewhat negative effect on gameplay, detracting from time actually spent playing and segmenting the moments when you do. For this reason I reiterate that this is a fine game for previous fans of the series to enjoy, the ones who are used to this style. For those seeking a more inclusive, action oriented experience, I would probably suggest searching elsewhere.
The Worst, Most Despair-Inducing Incident in the History of Mankind continues…sounds like a pretty big NIStake