Monday, November 28, 2016

Danganronpa: Another Episode: Ultra Despair Girls

Danganronpa: Another Episode: Ultra Despair Girls is not a game I would have ordinarily picked up if not for the Danganronpa name, largely because it's a third person shooter, and most people who've played shooters with me know, I'm terrible at them. My tactics are very much along the lines of "spray and pray."

But playing was the only way to see the story, so I set the game mechanics to the easiest difficulty, held my nose, and took the plunge.

Ultra Despair Girls is an interquel, taking place between Danganronpa 1 and 2, specifically, three months after the death of Junko Enoshima. The Remnants of Despair are still on the loose, and if anything are even more fanatical now that she's gone.

Most of this is background noise for Komaru Naegi, who is the first series protagonist not to have gone to Hope's Peak Academy, instead being the younger sister to Danganronpa 1's Makoto. After being held captive in an apartment with no human contact for a year and a half, Komaru escapes to find the surrounding Towa City is full of Monokuma robots that are killing all the adults in town.

She finds herself in a middle of a child revolution, where the children are using Monokuma robots to slay all the adults and establish a child-only paradise, and they're led by five children in particular who call themselves the Warriors of Hope.

Aside from how the children managed to get a hold of such technology (tech that must have originated from Junko and the Ultimate Despairs), I found the Warriors hard to empathize with since they initially come off as a bunch of delusional brats. Even if they are supposed to be geniuses (having come from Hope's Peak Elementary, the elementary school associated with Hope's Peak Academy), I had trouble imagining them finding life better without adults.

Though parent-child conflicts happen all the time, I think most children understand that the adults are the providers, and without adults, there won't be anything for them to eat, wear, or use. There is a power difference, and sometimes an unfair one, but one they have to live with until they're old enough to become independent.

Danganronpa is well aware of that power difference, and so are these kids. The Monokumas finally put them in a position where they can have power over the adults. As the game progresses, it becomes clear that the reason the Warriors of Hope are so angry and trying to kill all the adults is because they're all abused children. Kotoko's story is particularly triggery, with sexual abuse and a side of victim blaming. When Komaru tries to tell her that not all adults are bad, Kotoko asks "Then why didn't anyone help me?" and there's no good answer for that.

The Warriors' vengeance is very much along the lines of "They hurt me so I'm going to hurt them back," which is childish, but perfectly in line with their ages.

This also puts the player in the uncomfortable position of fighting against abused children, and the game takes advantage of the fact that Komaru and her reluctant partner, Toko, are both teenagers, making them straddle the divide between being an adult and being a child. At the start of the game the Warriors almost spare Komaru because she isn't quite an adult yet, but ultimately turn her into their prey for their hunting game when she spends too much time trying to rationalize with them, which is a very grown-up thing to do.

The player never actually fights any of the children directly, instead facing them in proxy boss battles with robots, but what happens to the Warriors when they lose looks fairly horrific. Despite the stylization, it's heavily implied that all but one of them are killed (though there is an ending credits image that shows them alive post-game).

Being a Danganronpa game, the conflict between the adults and the children isn't truly about the war we see on the surface, but something more sinister. It's clear early on that the real leader of the Warriors of Hope is the girl Monica, who is very interested in despair, much like Junko Enoshima, and Monica has been manipulating the rest of the Warriors of Hope. The child-only paradise isn't her end goal, but having the other Warriors think that has been useful for her.

Her end game culminates in an attempt to turn Komaru into the second coming of Junko Enoshima. All the trials Komaru suffers throughout the game are designed to bring her to the peaks of hope and then crashing down into despair so deep she can never emerge. Naturally, Komaru was chosen because her brother Makoto had become known as the Ultimate Hope in his face-off with Junko, the Ultimate Despair.

Unlike Danganronpa 2, where I complained that the choices were too heavily weighted towards the emergency shutdown being the only good decision, the ending choices for Ultra Despair Girls are both bad. One more bad than the other, but there is no ending that results in a happy ending for the people of Towa City.

Komaru is given the controller that is operating all the Monokuma robots in the city, robots that are busy killing any adults they can find, and she is told to destroy it. But if she does, the helmets controlling all the brainwashed children (all the children aside from the Warriors of Hope) will explode.

The moment of that reveal was a pitch perfect moment of despair, or would have been if gameplay hadn't been so annoying about repeatedly hammering in the "break it/don't break it" decision. People will die if the robots are not stopped, and another set of people will die if the robots are left alone. The fact there was no easy end to the fighting is not the end game that anyone except Monica was looking for.

Komaru is pressured into pushing the button by Monica, who knows this will destroy her, and also by the leader of the surviving adults, who argues that the exploding helmets could be a bluff.

Interestingly, the adults who still survive in the city are incredibly likely to be single and without children, since the brainwashed children turned on the nearest adults first, which were likely to be their parents. This puts a divide between the adults and the children, since the adults who remain are those who are least likely to be sympathetic towards them.

While not pushing the button is clearly the "right" thing to do, so much as anything can be, the game unfortunately spends an hour (not kidding!) of yanking the player back and forth and forcing them to confirm that they do not want to press the button with other people yelling at them to do it. It got really annoying and it's not a good sign that my greatest fear on facing the last boss was that I'd die and have to sit through that all over again.

Nothing in Ultra Despair Girls directly feeds into the other games, so it's fairly skippable with the exception that the Danganronpa 3 anime makes use of it for the majority of one episode, and that's likely because there is a plot thread left hanging.

The game ends with Monica having survived her confrontation with Komaru and being carried away by Nagito, who promises to help groom her into the next Junko Enoshima, so she won't have to worry about having a proxy. The ending credits bolster the idea that she intends to follow his instructions, which clearly sets her up to be a villain the future, and the anime could not leave that unaddressed.

Ultra Despair Girls does have some worth on its own though, as it's one of the few girl "buddy" games I've seen. The player is in control of either Komaru or Toko at all times, and while there are some conversations about Toko's one-sided crush on Byakuya, most of the dialogue is refreshingly about either their objectives or trying to get along with each other. Komaru doesn't have a love interest and the strongest relationship in the game, the one that gets its moment to shine, is the friendship between her and Toko (both of her personalities, even the psychotic one).

Toko can be a bitter pill and she's so prickly and delusional that I found it hard to sympathize with her in the first Danganronpa, but she makes an excellent partner for Komaru who tends to make fun of how generic she is. And indeed, considering how colorful the rest of the cast is in all three games, Komaru is frightfully normal. As ironic as it sounds, Toko humanizes Komaru, so she's not just a generic everygirl. She gives Komaru such difficult material to work with that they're entertaining to watch, as Komaru tries to normalize that which can never be normal.

Finally, as a gamer who generally sucks at shooters, Ultra Despair Girls is fairly forgiving on the lowest difficulty. There are moments I died, but it's a sort of game where slow and steady (rather than twitch reflexes) can help a lot. Many times it's possible to hear the Monokumas before seeing them, so it's possible to creep out and lure them one at a time, and the worst places tend to have reasonably placed checkpoints. Bosses actually throw out healing items, so if a fight is going poorly due to a mistakes, it's usually possible to play defensively for a minute or two and get back to full strength before going on the offense again.

I wouldn't entirely recommend the game, but as a novelty it's interesting, and manageable for Danganronpa fans who wouldn't ordinarily play shooters. It is currently only on PS Vita, but there are PS4 and Steam ports on the way.

Now, having covered all the games in the Hope's Peak continuity, there's just one more Danganronpa post in me, and I'll use that to cover the Danganronpa 3 anime.