Publisher: Marvelous AQL Europe | Zen United
At face value, Senran Kagura Burst is essentially a 3D boob delivery system.
Legend has it that game director Kenichiro Takaki only needed thirty seconds to decide what gamers secretly wanted to see on the 3DS' stereoscopic top screen. Jiggling breasts. Thus Senran Kagura was born, a franchise designed to relay cleavage from the art designers' mucky minds to our eyeballs as efficiently as possible. The story revolves around a team of ninjas-in-training who conveniently also happen to be schoolgirls, sporting implausibly ample bosoms, with a penchant for flashing their underwear and eating enormous California Rolls in the most unnecessarily provocative ways possible. More cheeky, tame and cringeworthy than degrading, Takaki might as well have called it Carry On Shinobi. I genuinely expected Kenneth Williams to make a cameo ("ooh, Matron-san!").
As you'd expect, Senran Kagura Burst has attracted a fair amount of flack from pundits convinced that it actively harms the videogame industry, while import fans flock to the defence. It's easy to appreciate both sides of the debate, and I'll personally weigh in later on, but first we need to discuss something rather more important.
See, all the heaving lady lumps disguise a surprisingly capable handheld brawler built on a bouncy, outstanding combat system. Though perhaps I could have phrased that better.
In stark contrast to the likes of Onechanbara and Girl Fight, Senran Kagura Burst is fantastic fun from a gameplay standpoint, and perfectly designed for a handheld platform. After choosing your shinobi and selecting from some fairly tasteless if silly outfits, you'll fight your way through some simple Streets Of Rage-style arenas against massive hordes of expendable enemy ninjas, odd practice dummies and the occasional boss fight from a rival shinobi school. The Y button thrashes out blindingly fast light attacks, X deals with ridiculous launches, while the A button sends your buxom shadow warrior smashing through foes in an offensive evade dash; all instantly and effortlessly chained into fluid combos.
It's nothing we haven't seen before, but it's blisteringly fast and brilliantly responsive, each key press resulting in an immediate satisfying reaction. A quick tap of the A button sends your ninja zooming up to lock horns with launched enemies, mauling them in midair with aerial raves, then homing straight back down to Earth with a ground pound. Combatants can transform mid-battle to take advantage of devastating ninpo skills, balanced by a replenishing power gauge. Better yet, all of the characters boast differing combat styles that are similar enough to switch between without hassle, but nuanced enough to suit your personal playstyle. Personally I alternated between Ikaruga's tactical sword-wielding DPS style (partly because, honestly, I like her name) and Katsuragi's ruinous kicks. Before long, you'll be chaining together combos of 500 hits and upwards, and revelling in one of the most versatile and smooth handheld brawlers we've seen in some considerable time.
There's a huge amount of it, too, dozens upon dozens of missions spread throughout two full campaigns. Senran Kagura Burst is literally two games in a single package, further bolstered by a massive slew of unlockables, clothing and a two-tier experience system that rewards various bonuses depending on your play style. Continued play reveals unlockable Shinobi Ninpo attacks, improving stats, extra costumes and an appropriately-named 'Frantic' mode that sacrifices defence for boosted attack power (by stripping down to bikinis); nothing fancy or particularly deep, but enough to keep you engaged for a fair few hours.
Though boredom (and thumb cramp) will set in if you try to crush through the bite-sized missions in long sessions, it's perfectly suited for handheld 'pick up and play' action. A few more enemy types wouldn't have gone amiss, mind.
I wish that were the end of the story, but now we have to grab the boob by the horns. Sorry, I mean grab the bull by the boobs. Oh gawd, I feel one of those stereotypical anime nosebleeds coming on...
This is a game in which characters' clothes rip when they take too much damage (down to the underwear), where the camera zooms in to lascivious advantage at every opportunity, and every fighter sports a heaving bosom that would undoubtedly lead to severe back pain and complications in later life. So... erm... here's my take on it.
In short: I don't really have a problem with Senran Kagura Burst. Though unapologetically provocative and exploitative, as mentioned, it's tame and harmless in the main, making no effort to actively degrade or debase its characters beyond the outfits and lascivious camerawork. The imagery -- girls in swimsuits -- is no worse than we see in many JRPGs, most teen comedies, glamour shoots or even pop music videos.
Unlike music videos, however, it's in no way aspirational nor pitched at a mainstream audience; rather Senran Kagura Burst is aimed squarely at a small hardcore fan following who probably ought to know better, but still have every right to enjoy their ultimately inoffensive niche (that exists in almost every other form of entertainment, for the record, from Nuts magazine to Piranha 3DD and Mills & Boone novels). Videogames absolutely do need to buck their ideas up when it comes to creating, writing, designing and marketing female characters, it's a real problem that needs to be fixed, but whether this straight-shooting piece of fan service deserves to become a type example in this important discussion is entirely up to you, and where you personally choose to draw the line.
Off the top of my head, this game might be a better place to start. And this one. Don't even get me started on this appalling mess, among countless others. All of which actively debase their female characters in terms of mechanics and storyline, not just a little teasing titillation for a niche audience.
What I do have a problem with, though, is how the exploitative premise undermines the plot and art direction.
Competent character design should visually inform the player about a character's personality and backstory without the need for dialogue, but here, the costumes are solely intended to inform the player that massive breasts are happening. Also swimsuits. It's attractive and colourful, but ultimately meaningless. Worse, though the storyline is clearly an afterthought, its ponderous text-heavy narration buries a handful of entertaining story arcs beneath an avalanche of prosaic waffle. At least the translation is competent, if not a patch on the localisation masterclass we recently beheld in Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc.
It's a shame, but it's not enough to eclipse the fact that Senran Kagura Burst is still an impressive handheld brawler. The audience may be limited, but there's still a lot to love if you're able to look past... or plan to look directly at... all the jiggling. Frankly, that's your business, not mine.
- Fluid, responsive, blisteringly fast brawling action
- Attractive visuals, surprisingly addictive experience system
- Buckets of fun content; loads of missions and unlockables
- Immature, embarrassing and divisive infatuation with breasts
- Can and will become repetitive if played in long sessions (more enemy variety would have been welcome)
- Naff storyline and chaotic character designs
The Short Version: Though its ecchi overtones and puerile obsession with jiggling oversized breasts will deter many players, Senran Kagura Burst is still a very capable brawler that's perfectly adapted for a handheld platform. There's a huge amount of content and responsive action to enjoy, so long as you're comfortable with the source material and tone.
A niche proposition, then, that offers so much more than just eye candy.