There is a certain saying that I am sure everyone is aware of: “Don’t judge a book by its cover“. This often quoted phrase can mean anything from not coming to a conclusion about someone based on a simple first impression to literally judging a book by its cover and in the case of Marvelous AQL’s Senran Kagura Burst, which is due out in Europe at the end of this week courtesy of pQube, both the literal and metaphorical definitions apply. In the months leading up to this game’s European release, I have seen many people who are both within this industry and on the consumer side write this game off based on nothing but first impressions. During that time, I swore to not pass judgement on the game until I had a chance to peel back its layers and experience it for myself. Now that I have, I can confidently say that those who were quick to dismiss Senran Kagura Burst based on first impressions or misconceptions are missing out on one of the best third-party titles that Nintendo’s behemoth of a handheld has to offer.
It is worth noting that Senran Kagura Burst is actually two side-scrolling action games in the same package. In Japan, Senran Kagura: Skirting Shadows was released as a standalone retail title, which focused on the five trainee ninja of Hanzō Academy and their battle against the rival shinobi of Hebijo Clandestine Girls’ Academy over the Secret Ninja Scrolls. This was followed up eleven months later with Senran Kagura Burst, which combined the original game with Senran Kagura: Crimson Girls, a brand new game which flipped things around by focusing on Homura and the rest of the girls from Hebijo in a brand new narrative that intertwines with that of the first game. This is an approach I have to applaud – Senran Kagura: Skirting Shadows is a game worthy of praise itself, but allowing us to have a more in-depth look into the daily lives and motivations of both sides of the battle gives Senran Kagura Burst with a level of characterisation that is accolade worthy. I find it hard to not love every single character because I’ve been able to see all of them from angles that most media doesn’t explore – how many stories fail to mention that even villains have friends they joke around with. This can ultimately, make some scenes far more painful to watch when they normally would be – when the true weight of the shinobi world comes crashing down on shoulders of characters you have learned to laugh alongside it does strike a chord – there is one image in particular from the game that is imprinted in my mind due to the way terror was shown painted across a face that’s usually so light-hearted.
Just from looking at the character designs of Senran Kagura Burst, you probably wouldn’t have thought that they would be given much in the way of development; with a single glance you could probably sort the majority of this game’s cast into already existing tropes or stock characters. As you will come to learn with this game though, you have to dig deeper than just the first layer. Every single character has a past, a reason as to why they are where they are today that will inspire where they go tomorrow. A couple of notable examples are Hibari’s serious self-esteem issues that actually lead to her becoming a major catalyst in the story later on and Mirai, who is beyond paranoid about people ignoring her. Some characters certainly are more developed than others (for example, I personally would have liked to have Ikaruga’s relationship with her brother fleshed out more), but even the minor character Hanzō Academy instructor Kiriya has a heart-breaking past. The Shinobi world truly is one of lost souls and the more you progress through the stories of Senran Kagura Burst, the more you come to realise this and the line between black and white becomes more and more blurred into grey. This may sound weird considering that I’m talking about a game known for its big-breasted characters and cloth-shredding action, but this game really treats its characters like people, as opposed to most games where they are merely pieces in a puzzle.
In regards to the gameplay, this game is a side-scrolling action game that sees the character you’re controlling walk across a horizontal map cutting through numerous enemies in a manner similar to hack-and-slash games. Unlike other side-scrollers though, the map isn’t strictly 2D as there is some 3D exploration required in some of the stages you will find yourself in, with some even having whole alternative paths.
In regards to the actual fighting, you can either use the Y-button to unleash a combo of fast but weaker attacks or opt for the stronger but slower X-button attacks (personally, I would use the Y-button until I managed to trigger an Aerial Rave (throwing the enemy into the air) before I brought them back down with X-moves). There isn’t that much variety in regards to enemies so you might think that this can make things repetitive but I personally never found that, because that lack of variety is more than made up for with the ever-increasing difficulty of the game – being swarmed with over a dozen enemies on screen is not fun. Fights are always kept challenging by the need to watch three different bars – the health bar, Ninja Art Energy bar and your clothing bar. The first one doesn’t really need an explanation, but the Ninja Art bar is filled by landing more successful hits on opponents and fuels your Shinobi Transformation and Secret Ninja Art techniques, while the last one will deplete with the more damage you take, with your clothes becoming ripped or torn as the bar goes down to certain points unless you are left in your underwear and more vulnerable to attacks. You can make missions harder for yourself by completely forgoing the clothing bar by pressing the shoulder buttons when a mission begins to activate “Frantic Mode”, which strips your character of all but their underwear, drastically cutting their defence in exchange for a boost in attack and speed. The game teases that there is a special reward for completing every mission in Frantic Mode but despite my best efforts, I haven’t been able to find out just what that is yet.
How you find missions can also vary depending on which character you use, as each one has their own fighting style. For example, Ikaruga is fast but frail, while Katsuragi is a fearsome tank and Yagyu can be quite the effective long-range fighter. Special mention has to go to Hibari, whose strong “X” move is to repeatedly hit the opponent while shouting “baka!” (idiot). My personal favourite character to use is probably Katsuragi, because while her attacks aren’t as accurate as her peers, they certainly do pack a punch. On the flipside, I dreaded having to use Hibari because her low attack made it easy for enemies to swarm around me – I think I deserve some kind of medal for completing a “Defeat 100 enemies” mission with her.
The game also features a levelling system where your characters will earn experience points after completed missions, with increased levels meaning increased stats (of which there are four: HP, Attack, Defence and Endurance) as well as bars for Yin and Yang attributes, with time spent in Shinobi Transformations increasing the Yin bar, while time spent in Frantic mode increasing the Yang – the advancement and balancing of these two sides is highly recommended in order to obtain new skills. The combination of all of these elements meant that I never found a single mission boring.
Graphically, this game is pretty top notch. The characters are drawn in an anime style but are presented in-game through well made, smooth 3D models (which is always a great thing to see on the 3DS). The 3D effect that is used in the game is absolutely superb – with players getting a chance to view this third dimension during the Adventure Sequences (which tend to be dialogue just before and after a mission), when your character strikes poses just before and after missions and during transformation sequences. Despite the game being inspired by the 3D technology (and the producer’s desire to see 3D boobs) and the emphasis on the effect during advertising (including the tagline “Turn your 3D on!”) the action of the game doesn’t actually use the stereoscopic 3D effect, which I imagine was most likely due to a desire to maintain a steady frame-rate (which I should add, I’m never really one to care much about frame-rates but throughout my time playing this game, the experience has been incredibly smooth). When the game does use the 3D though, it is incredible – and I don’t mean because boobs pop out of the screen (they don’t), but the level of depth it provides is so good that it makes me sad that I have no way of sharing 3D screenshots with you all. It should be noted though, that the recently announced Senran Kagura 2: Deep Crimson has already been confirmed to be entirely in 3D.
For avid completionists who are for some reason not completely satisfied after playing through the two story modes of Senran Kagura Burst (that can take up to a combined 50 hours to complete), you’ll be happy to know that there are a large number of collectibles that you need to obtain to get that beautiful “100%” on the file select screen. As you complete missions and achieve certain targets, you can obtain new clothing items to customise the appearance of your characters and your library will fill up with “Titles” (achievements), anime pictures depicting various events in the story, music from the game’s soundtrack (which is complimented with notes on the thought processes behind the tracks) and even a glossary of terms and character bios – and both Skirting Shadows and Crimson Girls have their own separate libraries, meaning that the lifespan of the game will be greatly increased! (Especially as some of the Titles can only be earned by completing every mission with a certain character or while using Frantic Mode).
Speaking of being able to collect the soundtrack, I do love the music in this game – it doesn’t really stand out but compliments the game and its characters very well with the sound of character themes really capturing the spirit and energy of the character they represent. A notable track for me has to be The Crimson Law, the J-Pop opening theme for the Crimson Girls portion of the game which I have been playing on almost constant repeat since I first heard it. I also really liked To the Worthless (Mirai’s combat BGM), which blends the delicacy of the piano with the harshness of rock in a way that truly highlights the route outer skin but delicate centre of the character, as well the poignant and saddening Certainty of the Beaten which really helps bring the mixed feelings of the scenes it plays in to the surface. The composer notes that accompany each track in the game’s library that I mentioned earlier really is a wonderful personal touch.
My only real complaint would be that this game screams for some multiplayer interaction – I would love to be able to take the shinobi students who I have levelled up and customised and challenge my friends to frantic brawler battles. This kind of game really shouldn’t be kept as a single-player-only experience, so a multiplayer mode would have really went a long way – whether it was player vs player or co-operative. I would have also preferred it if the later boss battles were more difficult, because aside from a couple of notable examples, the 1-on-1 battles were relatively simple when compared to the usual missions that often prove more of a challenge.
Now, there has been one topic that I am sure you have noticed that I haven’t touched on yet aside from the odd reference. This subject has been the one that has caused the most raised eyebrows about Senran Kagura Burst, but I felt that I should save it for last in order to give the rest of the game a chance to shine. I am of course, talking about the fanservice. The initial idea for the Senran Kagura series was famously initially conceived when Kenichiro Takaki was allowed a look at the Nintendo 3DS and within half a minute, decided that he wanted to see 3D boobs. The game of course doesn’t hide this, with all of the female cast (with the exception of Mirai) featuring busts so large that I imagine it would make a chiropractor drool for a different reason and the game has plenty of sexual humour (although at least an estimated 80% of that is the fault of Katsuragi, the cast’s resident pervert).
The game does also have its trademark feature of girls losing their clothes when they sustain damage – and after you’ve completed the Skirting Shadows side of the story, you unlock the ability to rotate the camera during these sequences. However, it is worth noting that even when a character is depleted of all their health and their clothes you never see more than what is shown in the image above. Even though Katsuragi’s ninja transformation makes it look like she isn’t wearing anything underneath her open t-shirt, she actually is:
Much like the Dead or Alive and Ninja Gaiden games, breasts do bounce now and then which can even be prompted during the model viewer in the Dressing Room feature by moving the circle pad (which the characters will complain about). One feature that made me laugh is, after completing the Skirting Shadows story, you will be able to use the microphone while in the Dressing Room to blow the characters’ skirts up (think of that scene in Bruce Almighty). All of this is in the name of harmless fun though – heck, my initial reaction when blowing Katsuragi’s skirt up was to burst out laughing.
The timing of me getting a chance to review this game also couldn’t have been more perfect – the night before, I was having an in-depth discussion with some of the website’s staff about my love for an anime called Elfen Lied that is infamous for its nudity, gore and ultra-violence. The discussion was centred on how these extreme elements can be appreciated and perhaps even justified based on the overall context of a work. One feeling that I really started to get while playing through Senran Kagura Burst was the possibility of the game carrying a theme of challenging perceptions. This comes across in the story, with the students of the Hanzō and Hebijo academies crossing paths only to realise that concepts like “good” and “bad” are merely a matter of perspective – that there is not only light in shadow, but shadow in light and in the end they are both simply young girls trying to achieve their own perception of what it means to be a shinobi (one quote from the game that really stands out to me is: “While the light favours few, the dark accepts all“). The message of challenging perceptions comes into the gameplay by presenting us with what looks like a 2D side-scrolling environment but actually features three-dimensional movement and depth and a complicating character levelling and technique system in a genre usually known for its simplicity and then of course, in the unreserved frankness of its fanservice. The attractive character designs will no doubt attract the attention of people and might lead them into thinking that this game is nothing more than a bit of fun, but then you get to know each of these pretty girls and gain a new-found respect for them. In fact, that sounds pretty familiar – isn’t that how people tend to fall in love? By noticing a physical attraction, then talking to that person and learning more about them.
Obviously, there is a very serious issue of the perception and depiction of women within the media, but this really isn’t the time or place to get into that. The fanservice in Senran Kagura Burst isn’t that explicit and is presented as nothing more than a bit of cheeky fun and a source of humour (aside from the odd verbal reference about Katsuragi wanted to grope other characters, it doesn’t really go much further than the screenshots you’ve already seen in this review). If you really can’t stand the nature of the fanservice or object to it (which is perfectly understandable), then this game simply isn’t for you. I have heard suggestions even going as far as saying that this game is damaging to the wider industry as a result of this and in my honest opinion, in an industry plagued with generic first-person-shooters and annual rehashes of the same franchises, we need more games like Senran Kagura Burst: Games that are willing to embrace their inspirations, to offer innovative gameplay that challenges our perception of genres, that are willing to open the door and let us discuss the wider issues and most importantly, games that take pride in being different.
Senran Kagura Burst will be available as a digital download from the Nintendo eShop this Thursday, with a physical cartridge release following on Friday.