Being an interquel to Danganronpa 1 and 2, as well as an abrupt genre shift from an ADV to a third-person shooter, I was expecting not much more than a cheap cash-in. So when the game actually turned out good, not story-wise as an interquel, but also gameplay-wise as a survival horror shooter, I was incredibly glad that I paid those import $$$ for this.
Expect spoilers for DR1 and 2.
Zettai Zetsubou Shoujo takes place between Danganronpa 1 and 2, where the survivors of DR1 are in the Future Foundation, but the events regarding the remnants of despair have yet happened. It shows the player the despair-ridden outside world that both Danganronpas have only provided second-hand descriptions of, and stars Naegi Komaru, the younger sister of DR1’s protagonist. The game begins with Komaru being under house arrest for one-and-a-half years and counting, only to be “freed” one day by the claw of Monokuma breaking through her front door. Saved by Togami Byakuya from the Future Foundation, Komaru is given a special hacking gun that can stop and destroy Monokuma by firing a hacking bullets. Ordering her to rendezvous at the local park, Togami proceeds further into the apartment to save his captured colleagues and sends Komaru, alone, outside.
It is here where she realizes that staying under house arrest may be much better than any “freedom.” After all, the entire city is taken over by despair in the form of Monokuma who attack people on sight. Unlike the charming mascot in the main series, these Monokuma are mass-produced killing machines, and behind them are a group of kids calling themselves the Monokuma Kids. They capture Komaru and force her to participate in their “demon-hunting” game, in which she is sent down into the city and must survive.
Fortunately, just as Komaru is about to be overwhelmed by the mob of Monokuma, a certain serial killer descends down to save her! Or rather, to save she who has the scent and gun of her beloved Togami Byakuya. This becomes a game mechanic, where Komaru can call Genocider Sho out for help in desperate times. However, in order to willingly call out Genocider Sho, Fukawa must taze herself, which requires her tazer to have charge.
While Komaru is the protagonist and has plenty of good moments, I’d argue that this game’s main highlight is Fukawa. ZZS gives her the development that she never had much of in DR1, and seeing how far she has come since the days of the first game is truly satisfying. On top of that, she keeps up as the character providing a good chunk of the game’s humor, and successfully crawls her way up to the top of my favorite character list. Kodaka stated in an interview that even those who did not care for her in the first DR would grow to like her by the end of this game, and I’m inclined to agree.
The villains this time are a bunch of kids who control the Monokuma. They’re on a quest to create a paradise for children by eliminating all adults, displaying a horrifying mix of playfulness and absolute cruelty that can only be the product of a child’s simple, straightforward mindset. Even as they’re committing terrible actions, they have their humorous, childlike banter that is, no doubt, entertaining to read. They’re equal parts charming and disturbing. In the back of your mind you know that terrible things are going on, yet you can’t be helped but to be swept along by the lively, comical pace only to snap back to experiencing the horror of the situation. It’s very much like the main Danganronpa games in this aspect; the player will easily lose themselves to the villains’ tempo.
To produce kids who can do horrible things, there must be terrible adults behind them. And indeed, you will find those terrible adults in their backstories that slowly reveal themselves. In fact, some of the backstories speed across the line for a console game so fast, you will wonder how this stuff made it in past the CERO. Even the writer expressed concerns for releasing the game overseas, as the contents of the story can be difficult to accept. Looking at some of the things and reactions that recently went down in western gaming journalism, his concerns are definitely not unfounded. There’s certainly a lot of uncomfortable subjects tackled in the game. I’d also imagine the ESRB being much stricter than CERO on some of the stuff in this game. Even so, I’m glad Kodaka decided to write the stories of the kids in this game, and he did an effective job at portraying the twisted sides of both the kids and adults, and then tying everything back to the central theme that the series has going on.
The gameplay didn’t look that great in the trailers, but I’d have to say that it’s smooth and well-done after having hands-on experience. ZZS is a survival shooter with simple but effective controls, a good variety of enemy variations and bullet options, and some fun, puzzle-like stages where you have to find the trick to defeating all the enemies without confronting them head-on. It’s also very beginner-friendly, as expected from a game whose previous installments were of a rather passive genre.
In addition to the standard bullet, you slowly gain access to a variety of different bullets with useful functions. There’s one that makes the Monokuma dance, one that blows them back, one that electrocutes them and spreads the electrocution to everything on water, amongst others. There’s also a shop that sells bullet augments that increase power, max number of bullets, or firing speed. You can equip up to two of these per bullet type, and there’s lots to choose from. Boss fights tend to be quite easy, but rely on a certain trick to defeat. The most difficult boss in my first run was the one where you actually need a fast reaction and good aim (chapter 4 boss).
Throughout the game, you will pick up a bunch of documents and books. Some reveal more about the city, some tell you more about the people, and some are there to trigger funny conversations. Of particular note are the “to-kill” lists, which are reports about the “demons” that are involved in the kids’ demon-hunting game. In the to-kill lists are some very familiar names for those who have played DR1, and they serve as good fanservice without intruding too much into the main game.
While the game is very fun, some of the promotional material was there just to troll buyers. Magazines revealed important-looking characters who are related to the DR1 cast, only for them to have 10 minutes of screentime total. Compared to the main games where you get to know the characters before they get killed off, ZZS likes to introduce characters just to kill them off before you can feel anything for them. Despite the setting of ZZS being much more dangerous than those of the main games, the feeling of despair it conveys is weaker simply due to the fact that it’s harder to get emotionally involved with the supporting characters. You can see the death and life flags from miles away.
The music is similar to that from the rest of the series, and the visuals are very well done. The main games debuted on the PSP and were mostly 2D, which wouldn’t exactly work for a third-person like ZZS. So ZZS uses 3D models that manage to be inline with the unique visual style presented in the first two games. The environments are fully 3D, and extremely varied. You have your horror staples such as abandoned hospitals and underground water ways with enemies jumping at you from around the corner, but also some colorful maps that look as if they were seen through the eyes of someone on an acid trip. There are also a good number of fully animated cutscenes to show off the increased budget.
Zettai Zetsubou Shoujo is game that rocks between fun and discomfort, as well as having solid and creative gameplay mechanics. It’s ultimately a satisfying experience that leaves a strong impression, despite coming off as a cash-in that nobody requested. The creators certainly look like they had fun making it.
Also, friendship between two girls is great. More games should have that as the focus. And if your tastes happen to lie on Fukawa’s side, there’s Togami getting whipped erotically at the end of every chapter with background and dialogue that change depending on your rating, courtesy of Fukawa’s fantasies.