I’ve got to admit, Senran Kagura Burst is not a game I expected to be playing in a localized format by anyone other than fan translators. Not that I’m too familiar with its Japanese incarnation, though I was completely aware of the game’s primary “gimmick” prior to firing up the download. Which before you make any assumptions was not the reason I volunteered to review it, I swear. Hey, wait, come baaaaaaack!
Anyway, the point is, XSEED did bring it to North America in a downloadable format and it somehow managed to only net a Teen rating with the ESRB (and to my knowledge, the only “censorship” is the omission of character ages). Whatever sensitivity you may have to the game’s presentation and subject matter, underneath all of that is an incredibly solid and addictive beat-‘em-up title.
Senran Kagura Burst is actually the second game in the series, though it contains the entire story mode from the original alongside the new content (think White Knight Chronicles II), so you’re not missing out on anything story wise for not having played the first. The plot focuses on two rival ninja schools, the Hanzo and the Hebijo, both of which seem to be predominantly female (save for the former which has a male instructor). The Hanzo are known as “good” ninjas, which were originally established by the Japanese government and only enroll those with a clean record. The Hebijo on the other hand, or “evil” ninjas, are usually employed by corporations and politicians to do their dirty work. They go by the slogan “the darkness accepts all” and as such, will not turn away those with seedy backgrounds.
Both of the game’s story campaigns focuses on a school and the five elite ninja from each. Much of the plot is told via visual novel segments that wear several faces throughout the game. As to be expected of a game from this genre, there are many silly scenarios designed to coerce your kunoichi characters into a fight with several dozen enemies. There’s also numerous fan service segments where the female protagonists compliment each others’ breasts and get intimate with one another. But buried underneath all of that are some legitimately well written narratives told from the perspective of one of the characters that gives insight into their motivations and sheds light on their backstory. This is where the localization truly shines the most, as you begin to see real depth of character in these moments. Tales of loneliness, revenge, finding oneself pepper an experience that didn’t really require it, but is made all the better for its presence. You’ll just have to get through several bouts of anime tropes to find it.
It’s important to note that the two storylines do not occur sequentially, even though the game recommends that you experience the Hanzo route first. Rather, both are a retelling of the same basic premise but with different protagonists and slightly different events and dialogue. As such, they share characters and the game’s core theme of “good and evil aren’t always what you think.”
Aside from the visual novel segment, Senran Kagura Burst also has a central hub where you can interact with NPCs as well as access the rest of the game’s main features. If you’d rather not explore the small playground you’re given, the full roster of options is accessible from the bottom touchscreen as well. These include your standard settings, such as a configuration screen and a save option, but also a library where terms and unlocked portraits can be viewed, plus a dressing room to customize your characters.
Much like Code of Princess, game progression is handled via a mission based system that opens up new stages as you progress through the story based quests. Some of the story missions require a particular character to complete initially, though after your first run through you have the option to play it again with a different character (thus earning letter grade ranks for each one depending on your score). Most missions require that you beat the snot out of anything that crosses your path, though there are certainly ones that task you with surviving for a set amount of time, breaking down objects, or reaching the end before the clock expires. Objectives are conveniently laid out on the bottom screen, though you can option in your moveset if you’re confident that you know what’s going on.
The action is viewed from a 2D perspective and while you can move towards either the front and back, you’ll primarily be navigating either left or right during each mission. Each ninja gets a weak attack, a strong attack, and a jump button. If you combo an enemy enough, they’ll emit a green ring that indicates that you can dash towards them in mid-air and continue the assault. Often they’ll continue the green rings and you can air combo them to death before they even hit the ground, which brings with it the satisfaction of the airborne assaults found in Final Fantasy XIII. If you get surrounded, you can use the R button to trigger a Limit Break (no intended FF reference here) and at the cost of your health, scatter all of your foes with a contained explosion of power. As you inflict damage, a Ninja Art gauge will fill, thus allowing you to transform from your schoolgirl outfit into your shinobi gear, which depending on your character might mean a pair of jeans and a ripped t-shirt, or a thong/cape combination. Trust me, it only gets weirder from here.
Once transformed, your Ninja Art gauge will start fulfilling a new purpose: performing Ninja Arts. Each character has an arsenal of these at their disposal that unlock as they level up, but needless to say they are devastating attacks and render your ninja impervious to damage and allows them to clear out a room effortlessly. Some of them are rather mild in concept: a whirlwind attack that consumes anyone in range, a furious onslaught of blade slashes, or a midair roundhouse kick of death. But then you get the real bizarre ones, such as a cloud/bunny that rockets through enemies or a giant cannon that emerges from a young girl’s nether region and fires damaging shells. I’m still not done.
What’s really the defining characteristic of Senran Kagura Burst is its… um… “battle damage” mechanic. You see, there is a third bar apart from the health and Ninja Arts that illustrates the status of your clothing. As this drains, your ninja’s outfit will begin to shred into pieces. Considering the all female cast and the fact that none of them wear all that much to begin with and you might see where this is going. It even goes so far as to stop the action to show you a close up cutscene if your clothes getting torn apart and the affected girl reacting with tears (or in the case of the dominatrix type character, licking her lips seductively). The game seems to have borrowed its breast physics engine from Dead or Alive, because they are all disproportionately large and bounce with a complete disregard for the laws of gravity. Yes, there’s still more.
When you first begin a mission, you will get a prompt to hold the L and R buttons in order for your character to “Go Frantic.” What this is supposed to mean so far as game mechanics go is that you sacrifice defense for a far more inflated offense. What it really means is that your kunoichi will throw her clothes off and fight in nothing but a bikini. Perhaps this was an attempt to mirror the intensity that occurs when Yakuza characters remove their shirts and brandish their tattoos, though the more likely scenario is that it is yet another way to watch clothes come off.
Speaking of clothes, you will unlock more outfits as you play, and can configure your ninjas’ outfits to your liking. Everything from your schoolgirl outfit, shinobi outfit, and swimsuit can be altered down to its color, and additional accessories such as glasses or wigs can be equipped too. Now clearly, none of this could be appreciated on its own without integrating many of the hardware features of the 3DS and most of them are showcased in the dressing room. At some point you can unlock the ability to rotate your selected ninja around with the gyroscope and get a better look at any part of them you deem necessary. And let’s not forget the 3DS microphone. No, you can’t make cat calls to the women in the game, though blowing into the mic will cause a draft of wind to blow up their skirt. The fact that someone thought to use the technology in that matter and then actually did it made me bust up laughing the first time I tried it out.
The 3D effect isn’t really used to a wide degree in this game, though it does exist. The core gameplay and the anime openings don’t take advantage of it, but cutscenes showcasing the special moves, the Sailor Moon style transformations, and the clothes ripping does. Its primary purpose seems to be seeing how well the 3DS can render breasts with the game’s engine and to give due credit to the developers, I did feel as though I was going to get hit in the face with them. All jokes aside, the visuals do look very good. The anime styled characters move fluidly and the backgrounds are varied enough that you rarely notice when you battle on the same landscapes multiple times. Many objects in the environment are destructible too, and breaking everything in sight is a good way to uncover hidden power-ups.
All characters maintain their original Japanese voiceovers, so purists should most definitely be pleased. Not all of the visual novel parts have voice acting, though there is some during the occasions where characters actually speak during the narrative. Beyond that are your typical fisticuff sounds and the screams of foes as they fall beneath your feet. The rocking soundtrack is very befitting of the experience as well.
It’s unfortunate that Senran Kagura Burst didn’t get a retail release, though I completely understand why it had to be that way. Even so, $29.99 is a reasonable price compared to games that you find at retail and there’s quite a lot of content that you’re getting for your money. If you strictly did just the story missions for both campaigns, it would take you roughly fifteen hours to get through the whole game. Throw in all of the optional missions plus unlocking characters and trying to get a letter grade for each of your ninja, you could easily triple that. The most impressive part about all of that is that despite its simplicity, the combat remains addictive throughout and I didn’t ever feel like the missions were a slog. I will say that the difficulty can vary wildly at times, with many of the Hanzo missions being a complete cakewalk while the Hebijo ones seek to overpower you with sheer numbers. There’s also the fact that enemies can hit you while you’re down and can sap your health ridiculously fast if you drop your guard at all. Even the most challenging missions can be overcome if you spend enough time replaying missions and building up your levels, as this also increases your health and overall attack power.
One regret I do have is that there is no support for co-op play like there is in other recent portable releases like Dragon’s Crown or Code of Princess. The genre lends itself so well to the concept and I think this game could have made it work well, so long as you’re comfortable watching your ninjas get stripped down together with a friend. Though to use the Dragon’s Crown example again, it’s no worse than playing that game and having everyone play as the sorceress character… then losing the dress after enough damage is sustained.
One thing I will warn you about though is the sheer size of the download. This is to be expected on account of it being technically a full retail release, but the download size of this game was a whopping 13,929 blocks. I’m not sure what that translates into in regards to file size, but it nearly wiped out my 4GB SD card (which up to that point the largest game I had was Fractured Soul at 2,982).
As much as I poke fun at Senran Kagura‘s thinly veiled perversion, I want to emphasize that I had a lot of fun with the core game and would recommend it to anyone who likes beat-‘em-games. So long as the idea of young women with impossibly large breasts doesn’t offend you and you don’t mind playing this style of game by yourself, you’ll have a good time. In fact, it’s probably best that no one sees you playing it.
Short Attention Span Summary
Senran Kagura Burst is the ultimate guilty pleasure if there ever was one. The beat-‘em-up combat emphasizes dodging and air combos to succeed, and remains addictive throughout the duration of both story campaigns. The story mode is fairly lengthy for a game of this genre and contains a number of optional missions in order to enhance it further. Sadly, there’s no leaderboards or co-op mode in the game despite having a scoring system and gameplay that would lend itself well to multiplayer. Be forewarned, though, that if you’re uncomfortable with the idea of large breasted women losing their clothes while taking damage, this may not be the game for you. For everyone else, this is one of the best eShop releases I’ve had the pleasure of playing this year. Just don’t forget a large capacity SD card.