Nippon Ichi Software America bring Spike Chunsoft’s experimental spin-off to the west, providing a very different experience on Vita but unfortunately one with a number of issues which hold it back.

 

World-building & Story

Set in the aftermath of the biggest, most awful, most tragic event in human history (revealed at the end of the first DanganRonpa game), Another Episode follows Komaru Naegi – sister of Makoto (hero of the high school mutual killing game). She finds herself trapped in Towa City, an area overrun with mechanical Monokuma and attempts to escape the area with the aide of Toko Fukawa, protagonist and survivor of the original game.

2015-09-03-172607Along the way she will meet a variety of characters ranging from familiar returning faces to nameless civilians trapped and merely hoping to escape to the outside world again. Most intetesting is the antagonists – a group of children calling themselves the ‘Warriors of Hope’ who appear to be orchestrating the attack on Towa City, whom Komaru will need to defeat in order to truly escape the nightmare at hand.

Like the other games in the series, DanganRonpa Another Episode does an excellent job of creating atmosphere. When the story begins, we follow Komaru as she’s trapped in a room, blissfully unaware of the mayhem happening outside. As more of the city is slowly revealed upon her escape, you’ll realise the true scale of the carnage which has happened – accompanied by blood-red skies and a sense of terror everywhere. While the previous games alluded to what was happening in the outside world, Another Episode does its best to make that a reality.

2015-09-03-174049Indeed, world-building is one of the game’s strong points, but equally prevalent is character development. Most notably this occurs between Komaru and Toko, each of whom slowly opens up as the game progresses and learns to trust the other. I’d go as far to say the title is a buddy-game at times due to the constant interaction between the leads, but its all the better for this and becomes its redeeming feature. Even antagonists are suitably fleshed out (particular shout out to Kotoko whose emotional back-story gave me a rush of empathy), although some side characters such as Haiji fall by the way side.

Sadly, the actual plot itself wasn’t up to the standard set by the earlier entries in the franchise – perhaps due to the lack of a framing device such as a killing game – and was generally pretty forgettable outside of a few key moments. That’s not to say it was bad overall, but as a standalone piece it was serviceable at best and as part of the overall DanganRonpa narrative ended up quite disappointing. Particularly noteworthy is the pacing, which feels glacial after the opening and before the penultimate hours, as if the writers were merely treading water with the entry.

Still, on the whole thanks to some solid character and world development, the plot of the game is worth experiencing, you just may come away disappointed if you’re a fan of the prior titles.

 

Presentation & Sound

The first fully 3D game in the DanganRonpa franchise may have marked a difficulty in translating the signature style, but Spike Chunsoft have done a very good job of maintaining the aesthetic feel of the series.

2015-09-14-133339First off, let me comment on the use of colour, which is always an important factor for me. Another Episode is a game which uses the full spectrum, from dreary corridors to neon soaked streets and everything in between, which tremendously benefits it. As previously mentioned, when outside the sky is nearly always ominously red which helps create atmosphere; yet you may still stumble across a candy-coloured waterside as well, providing a brief respite on your journey.

Environments in general are very impressive – you’ll cover a lot of ground throughout the game which ranges from abandoned hotels and derelict city streets to underground subway stations and sewers. There are plenty of details and objects along the way and it feels like a lot of effort was put in to realize the vision of Towa City as a warzone ravaged by this catastrophic event. The set pieces in the game were among its most memorable moments and it all comes together to really flesh out your surroundings.

2015-09-03-232229Arguably the character models are its greatest graphical achievement, however. These are cleanly drawn (like many Japanese games these days) yet somehow retain the signature DanganRonpa style in the shift to 3D. All of the cast receive an equal attention to detail and their animations are spot on – Komaru cowers while she walks, while Kurokuma struts around with confidence.

The impressive graphics extend to attacks and various environmental effects in the game. The bullets from Komaru’s megaphone shoot out in a rainbow of colours, each with a unique animation while defeated enemies explode into a fiery cloud. Larger events on screen can cause some slight slowdown (the worst offender being the game’s temporary hub which struggles for some reason) but generally performance is on point and the game seems well optimized for Vita.

2015-09-13-182701Concluding the impressive presentation is the sound, which is on-point (as always for the franchise). Sound effects are fantastic with various pings from the megaphone and yells from the Monokumas mixed with atmospheric background noise from the environments. Music is superb – the game’s main theme while exploring is classic DanganRonpa, creepy yet kooky. The soundtrack will ramp up during tense moments and quiet down otherwise, but there’s never a dull second throughout.

It’s the voice acting I want to particularly commend here, though. I played through with the English VO which was incredible – characters were emotive and voices fitted each one, with some incredible performances from characters like Toko and Kotoko who absolutely nailed their scenes.

Soundtrack highlight – Absolute Despair Girl

 

Gameplay & Content

Another Episode marks a stark departure in gameplay from the previous entries, opting for pseudo-horror third-person shooting over investigation and class trials. That’s not to say elements of the franchise aren’t retained, but overall the game feels largely like an experiment.

2015-09-16-204912Thankfully returning are plenty of visual-novel conversations to allow interaction and development between characters. Unfortunately, due to the way the game is structured there are no free time events to allow optional bonding meaning the experience is decidedly more linear, but it doesn’t really suffer for this due to being a different kind of story.

Once gaining control of Komaru, you’ll immediately notice a perspective shift – the camera pans behind her to provide a third-person view, which allows you to see more of her reactions while still focusing on the enviromments. Komaru isn’t a nimble heroine, so you’ll find her lumbering around the environment much like a character in a survival horror game. Although this does help to add atmosphere, I found myself frustrated at times at the unresponsiveness – I wanted to be able to quickly spin around to dispatch a foe, but couldn’t.

2015-09-03-233857This extends to the shooting, which is clunky at best and dampens the experience. After a certain point, Komaru gains a megaphone which shoots various ‘truth bullets’ to be used to take care of enemies, which soon becomes your main way of attacking. I never expected zippy, tight Call of Duty esque controls from a horror shooter like this but the activity does become a chore. Enemy hit boxes are iffy; Komaru aims slowly and although you’re encouraged to take precise shots, an abundance of bullets allows you to fire and forget after a point. It’s disappointing this element of the gameplay wasn’t tightened up.

Something Another Episode does get right is enemy encounters. The game slowly introduces different enemy types that require different strategies to beat and you’re given new bullets as things progress to help deal with this. Eventually you’ll be tasked with taking out waves of foes made of different combinations, making you think quickly about who to prioritize taking out. It’s smart design and something I enjoyed the challenge of, even if it did lead to the odd frustrating restart.

2015-09-16-212747If you’re stuck on any particular combat scenario, Toko is playable in short bursts and able to take out enemies by activating her alter ego (amusingly by zapping herself with a taser). In this way the game never feels frustratingly difficult despite the shooting controls (Toko controls more like a hack ‘n’ slash character), but if you like the challenge she’s completely optional so things seem fair.

Unfortunately the game’s puzzles are less fair. They’re interestingly introduced – while exploring you’ll occasionally discover a room with an arcade machine at the entrance which you can activate to see a birds eye view of the whole room. From here you can chart out a path between any rogue Monokumas, but the challenge quickly increases to chaining dozens of exploding enemies onto one another or mind controlling one to take out the rest. I never felt completely overwhelmed by these, but I did find them frustrating at times and some of them did contain an element of luck which seemed unreasonable.

2015-09-28-233945The game certainly does feature some inventive moments in its puzzles, particularly towards the end of the game once ‘beast’ Monokuma are introduced (tracking them in the dark was a particular highlight), but these are fewer than I would have liked.

Another Episode‘s final gameplay element is sadly its weakest – boss battles. You’ll engage in battles with the Warriors of Hope at various points throughout a playthrough, each kitted out in a gigantic mech suit. Defeating them involves figuring out their weaknesses and manouevering to shoot this, but combining the clunky movement and aiming mechanics in causes frustration. They’re a fantastic spectacle, but I found myself wanting them to be over fairly rapidly.

2015-09-14-135301All of these elements come together to make the gameplay feel like a real mixed bag – there are fantastic ideas here and some things are pulled off extremely well, but they’re in with other parts which are executed poorly leaving the experience quite disjointed.

 

Conclusion

A janky Japanese title at its finest, Another Episode plays with some bold experimentation for the franchise which sometimes pays off – there’s some great buddy-movie character development here, alongside some cool set pieces and interesting puzzles. Unfortunately, it’s obscured behind wonky controls and an undercooked story but the experience is well worth having if you’re a fan of the franchise or you’re looking for a puzzle-shooter that’s a little different for Vita.

7.5/10

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