For those who have managed to avoid coverage of the game, Senran Kagura is a sidescrolling beat 'em up featuring a cast of ninja anime girls. The Ikkitousen PSP games provide the best point of reference in terms of both how the game plays and the level of fanservice on show. So far, so unsurprising maybe, but the main gimmick (or attraction, depending on the players point of view) is boobs – ridiculous in terms of size and physics (think Dead or Alive) and also in glorious (or not so glorious, depending on preference) 3D. But is it a shallow experience for lonely Otaku, or is there a decent game hidden beneath?
The game starts with the player in a room that acts as the main hub for the game – other characters can be talked to, costumes changed, game saved etc. There is a choice of five characters available, each fitting a different anime girl archetype and each playing differently, which can be changed whenever the player so chooses. Leaving the room accesses the mission select menu – there are multiple levels to select, each containing a number of missions. These range in difficulty and also what it takes to clear them. Some will require a certain amount of enemies to be defeated, some will task the player with finding and recovering an item and so on. Additionally, some can only be played with a specific girl, so it is worthwhile for the player to rotate their selection of character throughout the missions so that each is suitably levelled up and powerful enough in preparation for these. On that note, once each mission is complete, the player will be awarded points and a grade. These points are used to reward experience which will eventually raise the level of the character, providing increased health and strength. Every so often will be a mission that progresses the story – typically these start off with screens of text (with some voice acting) that provide a bit of insight into the reason the girls are fighting and their day-to-day life and will culminate in a boss fight against one of the rival groups of characters. These boss fights are the highlight of the game as they require some strategy and on the whole cannot be won by button-bashing alone and break up the repetitive nature of fighting the same few enemy types on each mission, which leads on to the battle system itself.
The controls are simple and easy to pick up – X and Y are the strong and weak attack buttons and B is used to jump, although this is rarely used. More interesting is the L trigger button which will transform the girl from schoolgirl to ninja (complimented by a 3D transformation scene that makes sure to show some risqué camera angles and jiggle), something that is required to trigger the screen-filling special attacks, performed by pressing L and Y together. Once performed, the action stops and the focus shifts to a 3D sequence, where the girl will perform an attack that weakens or defeats all enemies on screen. Similarly, the R button performs another powerful attack, although one with no flashy 3D sequence to go alongside it. Two meters above the players health bar represent when these two actions can be used. Defeating enemies, stringing together combos and picking up replenishing items throughout the stages will fill them and allow either the R or L+Y attack to be used.
The most interesting button however is A. At its most basic level it is pressed to dash (useful for avoiding enemy attacks) and held to run, but really comes alive when used it conjunction with a combo. A green circle outline will appear briefly on screen after a combo has been performed using the X and Y buttons. Pressing A at this point launches the player towards the enemy, where the combo can be continued, dealing a lot more damage and leading to a higher score. Not only that, but it adds a lot of depth to a combat system that many people will not expect from this sort of game. It's not exactly up to Devil May Cry standards, but chaining a couple of combos together, followed by a press of the R button and then quickly entering a special attack is extremely satisfying, especially when controlling one of the faster characters. It can also be used to cancel out of some attacks, providing yet more use for more advanced players.
Adding more depth and strategy to the game is the yin yang system. Based around the concept of the player being able to affect the personalities of the girls based on how they play the game, placing an emphasis on combos will raise the characters yang level, representing itself by making the girls voice sound more aggressive. The yin level on the other hand is raised when special attacks are performed, the result being increased attack power and ability to chain combos at the expense of becoming more vulnerable to damage. Used in conjunction with the aforementioned advanced combat options, those that spend time with the game and each character will be rewarded more and more.
Presentation wise, the game is something of a mixed bag, especially when it comes to the use of the 3D effect. The actual combat element of the game – the main focus for most players – is 2D only, although runs very smoothly. 3D scenes are limited to the transformation sequences and introduction / results screens. The ability to view the girls in different costumes (over one hundred and eighty are available once unlocked, although a lot of this number are made up of palette swaps) from the home area is also only 2D, which feels like a real missed opportunity on the part of the developers. There is a decent amount of voice acting throughout the game, most notably in the 3D 'talking heads' sections before certain missions. For the most part it does the job well, adding to the personality of the game and the girls. The summary screens before story missions mentioned previously that set the scene feature occasional voice work but overall have a low budget feel, mainly consisting of text on several different backdrops. The music does a good job of providing atmosphere, with upbeat tunes used for the fighting stages and more relaxed audio, similar to that found in dating sims and Japanese adventure games, used when the action takes a back seat.
Senran Kagura is a game that, due to the region lock on the 3DS hardware, few people will get to play. Those that have access to a Japanese system however, that can look beyond the obvious fanservice and are willing to give the game a chance based on its gameplay may be surprised at how enjoyable and deep the combat system actually is. It's not a game that can stand toe to toe with the main players in the action genre, but taken on its own and played in short sittings, it is an enjoyable experience with a nice sense of progression, some challenge and plenty of fanservice.
- Deceptively deep combat system
- Where 3D is used, it is used well
- Playable characters all play differently
- 3D used sparingly at best
- Presentation of a low-budget release
- Region lock on hardware means few will play the game