Platform: PS Vita
Publisher: Marvelous Games
Be advised: the Senran Kagura franchise is all about jiggling anime breasts. It's as blatant and unabashed as fanservice gets, and Tamsoft are absolutely up-front about their intentions. Here we have a series in which infeasibly well-endowed schoolgirls literally kick each other's clothes off for our amusement, because they conveniently also happen to be ninjas, while the camera pans around for what can charitably be described as cinematic close-ups.
I had my first Senran Kagura experience earlier this year with Senran Kagura Burst, and I rather liked it.
I admit to enjoying a slice of cheesecake every once in a while, but I mainly enjoyed Burst because its embarrassing and cringeworthy premise was draped over a surprisingly excellent handheld brawler with responsive mechanics, diverse characters and addictive pick-up-and-play action. Several months on and having swapped the 3DS for the vastly more powerful PlayStation Vita, Shinovi Versus fleshes out practically every aspect of the game and makes sweeping improvements across the board, though a move from 2.5D to full 3D comes with some unique drawbacks.
And Pile Bunkers. Great big pneumatic ones.
Shinovi Versus picks up where Burst ended, as a number of rival all-female ninja schools battle each other for honour and revenge, each of which boasts their own campaign, characters and headquarters. On the side of good we have Hanzo academy, whose perky roster remains unchanged from main character Asuka to the calculated sword-wielding Ikaruga and uninhibited kick-heavy Katsuragi - my personal favourite. Meanwhile the forces of Evil have undergone a major shakeup thanks to the defections of Homura and co. to their own freelance outfit, leaving a new crew of reprobates to pick up the slack. Naturally the schools eventually collide in increasingly tense ways as a rather hackneyed story plays out.
The basics are all present and correct; after choosing a school, you'll deck out your characters in a variety of unlockable (revealing) outfits, transformation suits, and lingerie (perhaps lingering to admire them in the touchscreen-enabled character viewer... that's your business, not mine), then dispatch them on brawling missions to earn XP and credits to spend in a new shop. It's the same setup as before, only vastly crisper and more detailed thanks to the Vita's processing power, beefing up what was a colourful if somewhat underpowered game to one of the most visually impressive cel-shaded titles on the PS Vita to date.
However, Shinovi Versus fleshes up the experience in a number of ways beyond the visuals. First of all, the quality of the writing, dialogue and translation has vastly improved since Burst, giving all of the characters a real backstory motivation, at least compared to most other fanservice-heavy games. I described the writing in Burst as "prosaic waffle," but I actually found the visual novel storylines to be engrossing and entertaining enough to follow this time, whether you're learning more about Katsuragi's reasons for becoming a Shinobi, Ikaruga's relationship with her brother or being introduced to one of the newcomers.
On the subject of newcomers, the new Gessen Academy faction is probably the biggest improvement of all. This new quintet of female fighters hinge around absolute justice, are well-written and bring some diverse new fighting styles to the experience. From ice blasts and dual-wielded blades of differing lengths to crazy props such as enormous pancakes and lollypops, this new crew is a force to be reckoned with. Personally, brawly Yozakura steals the show with a great backstory and the most distinctive weaponry in the franchise to date: a pair of wrist-mounted Pile Bunkers that can smash through entire enemy ninja formations.
My thoughts on Pile Bunkers are a matter of public record. Sorry Kat, but I think I'm in love.
Meaning that we should finally discuss the combat itself. On the face of things, everything about Shinovi Versus is a step up for the franchise, as all of the diverse and powerful characters now have full 3D battlefields to strut their stuff around. The controls and battle system are incredibly responsive and free-flowing, allowing you to chain combos and launches together, use homing dashes to engage aerial targets or move out of range, deploy 'Limit Break' abilities to break stuns at the cost of your health and pull off a range of utterly insane special abilities if your scroll gauge is high enough.
This makes for some fantastic boss battles as the rival shinobi face each other down in organic and blisteringly quick engagements, requiring you to tactically turn into a more powerful Shinobi mode at the perfect time for maximum effect, and... well, watching all the characters' clothes rip off in some titillating and distinctly puerile cutscenes. Whether you enjoy this or skip them with the Start Button is entirely up to you, as is the unique ability to strip down to a swimsuit to massively increase speed at the cost of defence. Whatever your tastes (and the game's lack thereof), there's no denying that the range of characrers and their unique combat roles make for a pleasingly varied experience.
So the combat is great, but the move to full 3D comes at a serious cost. First of all, the camera now makes it very difficult to keep more than one target in frame, meaning that battling hordes of enemies is now an absolute chore. Throwing down on massive armies of rival grunts used to be an absolute joy thanks to the 2.5 perspective perfectly framing the action, but now it's a miserable and frustrating experience, especially since most characters' attacks are fairly directional. Tamsoft seems to know this, as these sections have been cut down to tiny scuffles against a pathetic number of palatte swapped grunts, with 1v1 battles now practically the only real draw.
There's also a smaller variety of missions all-told, with side missions now condensed into samey 1v1 bouts linked together by a little exposition, meaning that Shinovi Versus can lack that 'pick up and play' appeal that defines a great handheld game. An enormous and fully-featured multiplayer suite is on hand to make the most of the new mechanics, and it's fun as far as I can see (having found a couple of sessions after hours of hosting), but I sadly suspect that getting a game will be difficult since the staggered international release means that the original community moved onto new games months ago.
I suppose that we should probably discuss whether Senran Kagura is actively hurting the videogame industry with its blatant pandering and treatment of female characters. Though I've argued for years that the industry needs to seriously up its game when it comes to representing and including women, and that it's an important issue that deserves to be debated, I'd also argue that Senran Kagura is basically just the gaming equivalent of an exploitation movie, lad's mag, Cosmo or Mills & Boon novel. A bit of titillation for a niche audience that's up-front about its intentions, though has more real substance underneath than any of the above.
Shinovi Versus flirts dangerously with common decency at times, especially in an early Gessen visual novel section where the master of Hanzo academy abuses his ninja powers to grope the five girls in a seriously uncomfortable moment. This bothered me for some time, but ultimately it's not glorified or deemed to be acceptable and sparks off Gessen's quest for revenge, ending up as water under the bridge.
You'll have to ask yourself where you draw the line, but at the end of the day, Senran Kagura is as honest as it gets. Solid fighting. Great visuals. Implausibly large breasts. If you're a fan of any two of these things, chances are you'll enjoy what Shinovi Versus has to offer.
- Responsive full 3D brawling with gorgeous cel-shaded visuals
- Great characters with unique weapons, fighting styles and vaguely interesting backstories
- Loads of content and additional multiplayer
- Yozakura's Pile Bunkers
- Potentially offensive, definitely puerile
- Move to 3D brings camera issues, battling hordes is no longer fun
- Smaller variety of enemies and side missions
- Localisaton delay will result in low multiplayer population
The Short Version: Once again, Senran Kagura defies expectations by providing more than jiggling busty eye candy. There's a very capable handheld brawler here with plenty of content and great boss battles, though the transition from 2.5D to 3D fighting introduces as many issues as it solves. If you're comfortable with the material, or in its target audience, don't dismiss Shinovi Versus as another piece of gross fanservice.