BADASS BUXOM BRAWLING
The Senran Kagura series is something of an oddity in the current gaming landscape. Even before the 3DS’s Senran Kagura Burst introduced America to the series, it was the subject of heated debate and a bit of short-lived controversy that played out on Twitter feeds and the pages of some print magazines. What is Senran Kagura? That really depends on who you ask. Some will tell you it’s a fast, frantic series of beat-em-ups with strong characters and a compelling, well-written plot. Others will tell you it’s a game with fundamentally perverted motivations, with boob jokes peppering the writing, excessive jiggle physics, and a gimmick where the clothing of its eye-candy female cast can be gradually shredded over the course of battle. The thing that makes the Senran Kagura series so singular is that both of these opinions are correct, to some degree. Senran Kagura sees its second Western release on the PlayStation Vita, but is it actually any good?
The stage is set in modern-day Japan. Unbeknownst to the general population, the country still plays host to countless shinobi who lurk in the shadows and carry out the dirty work of Japan’s largest and most corrupt mega-corporations. In order to maintain peace, the Japanese government hires their own “good shinobi” whose sole mission is to stop the so-called “evil shinobi” from carrying out their corporate warfare.
Senran Kagura Burst, the previous game, played out in the halls of hidden schools dedicated to the training of these shinobi. That game focused on a war between the legendary good shinobi school, the Hanzo National Academy, and the equally-renowned evil shinobi school, the Hebijo Clandestine Girls’ Academy. The five-woman squads that formed the Elite class of each school clashed fiercely and frequently. But through those battles, they realized that beyond the labels of “good” and “evil”, the girls on the other side of the conflict weren’t a whole lot different than they were. Disillusioned with the black-and-white nature of the war, the Elite classes’ antagonism gave way to friendly rivalries and simple friendship.
Shinovi Versus picks up half a year later. The Elite class of Hanzo is preparing for the upcoming graduation exam, while their newfound allies have been exiled from Hebijo and gone into hiding, after Homura killed the prominent Hebijo investor responsible for the summoning of the demonic beast Orochi. Things seem peaceful until an unknown team of five shinobi appear at Hanzo’s doorstep. Hailing from the good shinobi academy Gessen, they declare a Shinobi Battle Royale on the school of Hanzo — a contest that ends with the losing school being abolished and burned to the ground. They leave before they can be asked why one good shinobi school would challenge another in such a matter, but they certainly seem to harbor a grudge against the Hanzo elite. Meanwhile, the school of Hebijo has elected a new Elite class of five students, whose mission it is to hunt down and kill Homura’s team, who have been labeled as traitors to their former school.
The remainder of the plot follows the conflict between the four factions and their associated teams of Elite shinobi ladies. There are four major routes in the story, each one following a single shinobi faction from beginning to end. Following each of the four sides will allow you to fill in certain details and give context to certain events in the other stories, and it’s pretty satisfying to make those connections and understand the plot and backstory of the game a little more with each of the four playthroughs. The story is excellently done, playing with the black-and-white morality of its setting and telling a surprisingly intricate tale of honor, betrayal, and friendship. But at the same time, it manages to be lighthearted and silly. It’s not just a matter of the game not taking itself too seriously; the plot zigzags between the two extremes in a way that’s intentionally jarring and memorable in itself. One moment, the game will be stone-cold serious as a main character ruminates on the fact that the friendships she’s forged make the deadly nature of their work that much more frightening. The next moment, one of the characters will claim that her modestly-sized chest “grows a few cups” when she unleashes her shinobi power.
The back-and-forth between the two can be off-putting at first, but it ends up making both sides more palatable. It’s hard to get tired of the melodrama or annoyed at the dirty humor when neither of them last very long, and by the end of the game, I was completely engrossed in the interesting universe and even had a few chuckles at some legitimately clever jokes along the way. It all comes together and just works as a cohesive whole, though at times I felt it lacked focus (particularly during the Gessen storyline, which just felt like a far-too-rushed rehash of the themes presented in Burst).
Let’s make one thing clear, just in case I haven’t already. If you’re offended by video games with busty ninjas, copious jiggle physics, upskirt shots, and pervy humor (as is your right), you can probably pass this game up and never look back. The game’s playable cast is composed of 20 shapely ladies, and the game knows it. The thing is, though, that all these characters are for the most part well-written and extremely memorable, with sympathetic, relatable reasons why they put their lives on the line. The ten returning characters are all just as great as they were in the previous game, though there are a couple duds among the new cast; in particular, Ryona’s one-note “I’m a masochist!” shtick got on my nerves quickly. On the positive side are characters like my favorite newcomer, Shiki, an easygoing valley girl with a sexy-vampire motif who enjoys reading Buddhist scriptures. (It’s like they design characters by pulling three random cards out of a hat, or something.)
Graphically, the game is not much to write home about. The character models and their various attacks look really nice (though the jiggle physics are definitely, definitely over the top), but that’s where the graphical compliments end. The enemy models are noticeably low-poly, as are the environments; but the good news is that you won’t even notice most of the time because the action is way too fast to pay attention to much else. The soundtrack, on the other hand, is all-around excellent. From classic orchestral remixes to amped-up hard rock to clever modern plays on traditional Japanese styles, it all fits the mood and does a great job of complementing the on-screen action.
That just leaves the gameplay itself. Like its predecessor, Shinovi Versus is a beat-em-up, but this one allows full freedom of movement in three dimensions. Most missions will have you fight through hordes of enemies who put up only token resistance, before taking on a more formidable boss fight with one of the other playable characters. There are only a couple basic enemy types that ever pose any threat, but the bosses will kick your ass if you’re not paying attention. You really have to learn all the options available to you, and you are given quite a few; you could just use your basic combo strings, you could leap into the air and crash down with a strong, high-priority strike, or you can knock your foe into the air and chase them with an Aerial Rave.
On a more macro scale, once per level you have the option to transform in one of two different ways. You can enter Yang mode, which will refill your health, buff your defense, and increase the length of your combo strings. Or, you can enter Yin mode, which will give you overwhelming attack strength, at the cost of a crippling defense penalty. Knowing which to use and when is key to mastering the game, if you feel the need to; while you can comfortably get through the default difficulty without putting in a lot of effort, the included Hard mode really turns up the intensity and tests your knowledge of the game’s systems. Throw in some RPG-esque character progression, and it’s easy to see why the game remains compelling long after the initial shock of the fanservice wears off. It’s fast, it’s fun, and even the relative ease of the Normal difficulty is easy to forgive when it feels so satisfying to play. There are some minor wrinkles, mostly due to a sometimes-unhelpful camera, those moments are short-lived and really not so bad to begin with.
Of course, we’ve barely touched on the game’s central gimmick: clothing damage. When a character takes enough damage, their clothing will start to tear and the action will be briefly interrupted by a suggestive cut-in of the affected shinobi. Finish off an opponent with certain attacks and you even even take out the underwear as well, leaving only amusingly-censored nudity. This is perhaps the biggest reason why the game is so polarizing, for obvious reasons. But really, either you’re gonna like it, you’re gonna hate it, or you’re not going to be bothered by it. If you’re in one of the first two camps, well, you know who you are, and the very existence of this mechanic will go a long way toward influencing your opinion of the game. For those in the third camp, know that it’s implemented so that it’s not too intrusive; the cut-ins can be skipped, though they can’t be turned off entirely.
Besides the main story, there’s quite a bit of content to keep you busy. There are a lot of side missions, there’s a store where you can buy new outfits and gamble at the Lingerie Lottery (seriously), and of course a Dressing Room where you can customize the shinobi girls’ outfits. There’s also online multiplayer, which works well and is surprisingly lag-free. I found the forced four-player requirement to be a little too hectic, though, and found myself wishing for a simpler 1-on-1 elimination mode. Unfortunately, 4-player score-based battles are all you’re gonna see online.
The Verdict: 7.0 out of 10.0
Senran Kagura: Shinovi Versus is a well-designed brawler with a ton of heart. Its emphasis on the sexiness of its female cast can be a little off-putting at times, and things like the clothing damage gimmick really do limit the game’s appeal, even if I’m not personally bothered by it. But behind all the fluff and the T&A is an adrenaline-pumping action game that oozes personality, with a cast of strong characters and a seriously engrossing plot. Shinovi Versus continues the series’ tradition of playing with opposites; light and dark, yin and yang, comedy and drama, and so on. The game similarly exists between two opposing poles: it’s hard to recommend to everyone because of its outside appearance, and indeed, it’s going to turn off a lot of players. But if you feel like giving it a chance, you might find yourself as surprised as I was when I first discovered just how good this series can be… just make sure you know what you’re getting into.
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Aaron Dobbe is an Associate Writer at MONG specializing in Nintendo but playing a bit of everything else too. Follow him on Facebook and pester him to get a Twitter.