*Review based on the PS4 version of the game*
I know, I’m supposed to go on and on about what a terrible, vile, evil thing Senran Kagura is. Because is this day and age, where political correctness is taken to practically fascist levels, the concept of animated characters with big boobs is considered more taboo than violence or sex. Yes, the Senran Kagura series is juvenile, but it knows it. This is a franchise all about bosomy ninjas all having friendly competitions with one another, with their clothes conveniently flying off during battle (with equally-convenient flashes of light knowing just where to censor). But it knows it’s all a giant piece of fan-service, and runs with the joke. Simply put, when we have actual issues going on in reality, I can’t find a game whose biggest crime is making one immature boob joke after another to be all that offensive. So sue me.
It also helps that Senran Kagura: Estival Versus actually shows some promise for the series as a worthwhile video game franchise, albeit it does have some glaring issues that hold it back.
Believe it or not, there actually is a story here: Four groups of female ninjas are in a constant rivalry against each other to become Kagura (which, as far as I’ve deduced, is like a ‘super ninja’ in the game’s mythology). These four groups are the Hanzo Academy, Homura Crimson Squad, Hebijo Clandestine Girls’ Academy, and the Gessen Girls’ Academy.
One by one, these groups of series mainstays are teleported to another world which, conveniently for players, is primarily a tropical beach. The girls are brought here by an elderly woman named Sayuri, the grandmother of Asuka, the main girl from Hanzo Academy. The reason for Sayuri bringing the girls to this world is for them to take part in some Millennium Festival, which will make them more powerful for an eventual encounter with some kind of demon…or something.
It turns out this strange beach world also works as a medium between one life and the next, and the girls soon start finding some of their lost loved ones inhabiting this world, as they still have a lingering regret or two which is preventing them from passing on to a proper afterlife.
I have to admit, I actually found myself a little interested when it came to the stories between some of the characters. Whether they’re learning the importance of friendship with one another (oh, anime), or having an emotional crisis from facing their lost loved ones again, there actually is – much to my surprise – a little bit of character development amidst all the jiggle physics and blatant fan-service.
On the downside of things, however (and this may sound like a strange complaint here), there’s almost too much story. Look, the stuff between the girls can be funny, but the main plot, which already doesn’t have much to it, just drags on and on. In between each gameplay mission, you have to sit through one cinematic after another, with many of these cinematics quickly growing repetitious (if I had a nickel for every story segment where the girls discuss the “real” reason they were brought to the beach, I’d have a decent sum of money saved up).
These aren’t extravagant cutscenes either, but ones where character models stand in front of static backgrounds, and recycle a few select animations, while text boxes explain the finer details. In worst case scenarios, you only see the backgrounds, and merely see text on the screen to represent characters. The latter example happens in every situation involving the girls meeting one of their deceased relatives (sans for one of the playable characters, who is the ghostly sister of two other characters). This comes off as a cheap cop-out, as it prevents the artists from actually designing and animating these additional characters.
The worst part of it all is that these cutscenes go on and on and on and on. Even though I got a kick out of many of the characters, I eventually found myself skipping through many of the dialogue boxes. This is a beat-em-up game about bosomy ninja waifus, do we really need so much exposition?
Thankfully, the core gameplay is actually pretty fun. The game is more or less a combination of a beat-em-up and a 3D fighter, as you fight waves of enemies with outlandish combos, can transform into more powerful “Shinobi” forms, and ultimately face off with one to three of the other characters as a boss fight.
Square is your quicker, weaker attack. Triangle is your slower, stronger attack. The X button jumps, the Circle button dashes and allows you to run up walls.
By performing combos you can build up a meter that, when full, gives you a scroll. Press L1 to use a scroll to go into your Shinobi form. Once transformed, you can use special attacks with the use of additional scrolls (L1 + Square uses one scroll, L1 + Triangle uses two). Additionally, you’ll gain more experience points after a battle depending on your performance. And when you get enough to gain a level for a particular character, that character can hold more scrolls.
It’s simple enough stuff, but fighting through hundreds of ninjas before having grander showdowns with the other characters can be a lot of fun. And it’s made all the better by the differences between characters. Though the controls are the same around the board, each character has their own weapon (Asuka simply uses katanas, but her fellow Hanzo Academy student Katsuragi uses rocket shoes; and Yumi, the leader of Gessen Academy, uses fans for combat, while Haruka uses a pet robot in battle). Each character has their own distinct style of play, which really gives the game some good variety, considering the sheer number of characters there are.
Unfortunately, even the gameplay takes something of a dip for two main reasons.
The first of those reasons is repetition. Though the core gameplay is fun and the characters have variety, the game does very little to add anything new to the experience as it goes on. You simply hack a few hordes of enemies, fight the boss character(s), and then proceed to the next overly long cinematic. The main story mode is actually decently long, so for it to just recycle the same formula throughout its entirety is a bit of a bummer.
The other downside is that the enemy AI is largely inconsistent. Granted, in a game like this you expect the mindless hordes of enemies to be just that, mindless. But sometimes, this occurs during the bosses as well. While the bosses oftentimes put up a decent fight, there were more than a few instances where the boss characters just stood there for me to bombard them with one special attack after another. There was even one instance in which all three boss enemies just kept running into walls, never even changing into their Shinobi forms (which instantly refills all health, I should add). To say this battle was easy is an understatement.
Speaking of easy, the main story mode isn’t all that difficult. Though some opponents put up a good fight, I never actually died once during the entirety of the story mode. I was going to mark the game down further due to the lack of difficulty, but an additional mode, which sees each character play through their own short stories, adds more of a challenge to the experience.
Despite the aforementioned limited animation in the cinematics, I did greatly enjoy the graphics of the game. The character models remind me of those of the Guilty Gear games, where they look like traditionally animated anime characters brought into 3D. And the game even features a few hand-drawn cinematics and images sprinkled throughout (though the few hand-drawn segments may expose more limitations in the main game. For example, Katsuragi and Haruka are a little more, should I say, “gifted” even compared to the other girls in the game. But the gameplay models for every character are pretty interchangeable in terms of body type, with only the, umm, “flatter” characters looking any different in-game). The music also adds to the aesthetic pleasures, with a soundtrack that’s appropriately fun and bubbly.
Perhaps the biggest highlight of Senran Kagura: Estival Versus (along with the core gameplay) is the sheer abundance of unlockables in the game. It seems like no matter what you do, you’re always unlocking an additional mission or a customizable option for the girls (you can change their outfits for their different forms and cinematics, and even pose them for pictures). You may find yourself replaying parts of the story mode or the character missions just to see what you can unlock next.
Senran Kagura: Estival Versus is obviously not going to be everyone’s cup of tea, especially in this day and age in which people actively seek to be offended by things. But behind all the bikinis and bosoms is a pretty fun- albeit flawed – title. The game itself may not share the beauty of its cast – with excessive cinematics, a repetitious structure and often-stupid AI muddling things a bit – but it does show that there may be a little something more to this series than fan-service alone. With a bit more time dedicated to refining the game, Senran Kagura could turn out to be a winning video game series.