Fresh from the friendly fields of Rune Factory 4, XSEED returns with another, decidedly more deadly offering from the Land of the Rising Sun in Senran Kagura Burst. Taking its gameplay inspiration from classic side-scrolling beat-'em-ups, and its over-the-top, undergarment-filled style from anime and manga, this is a fun, frenzied fighter with a unique feel that shines in spite of its faults.
Senran Kagura lets you follow the day-to-day, butt-kicking lives of two secret, rival schools of the shinobi way - The Hanzō National Academy and The Hebijo Clandestine Girls' Academy. Hanzō is ostensibly "good" and Hebijo "evil", but thankfully it's a bit more complicated than that, and each side is worth exploring; you can play through both stories simultaneously or tackle them one at a time, and they overlap in interesting ways. Slice-of-life episodes of the story are told through voiced, character model cutscenes, while more major plot points advance through visual novel segments, and both are surprisingly good fun.
The characters are mostly built around anime tropes, but they're still likeable and interesting, and the unexpectedly poetic visual novel scenes give players well-worded reasons to care about their motivations, trials, and triumphs. The rest of the game is stuffed with what is euphemistically described as fan-service (read: voyeuristic camera angles, ridiculously impractical sushi-eating techniques, and an alternative interpretation of gravity localised to a predictably puerile place on our otherwise sharp-edged shinobi heroes), but the story is (mostly) more muted in tone.
Of course, in-between discussing the merits of bean sprouts and having meaningful flashbacks, these teenage ninjas spend their after-school hours doling out extracurricular, iron-fisted justice - and that's where you come in. Senran Kagura's gameplay consists of side-scrolling beat-'em-up action in the proud tradition of Final Fight, Streets of Rage, and Code of Princess: you'll move from left to right (or vice-versa) slashing up dozens of evildoers per screen, before a blinking "GO" command gives you the OK to move on.
Like the Hanzō and Hebijo heroines, brawlers live and die by their fighting style, and it's here that Senran Kagura really delivers, with an emphasis on speed, aerial action, and massive combos that gives it a feel of its own. By chaining together weak and heavy attacks, you can launch enemies into the air and follow after them, bringing the beatdown to the skies with gravity-defying Aerial Rave attack sequences before diving like a hawk onto baddies back down below - all without breaking a combo. It's fast, frantic, and a whole lot of fun, with airtime approaching Marvel vs. Capcom 2 levels and a hypnotic combat cycle that lets you string together hundred-hit combos with ease. And though the actual button pressing gets repetitive very quickly - it's easy to find a few combos that work best for you and rinse-wash-repeat your way through levels - there's a ton of variety in how each character plays.
There are five girls to play as from each Academy, and while each Hanzō shinobi has an obvious Hebijo counterpart, the correspondence isn't a simple one-to-one: think Ryu and Sakura rather than Ryu and Ken. On Team Hanzō, Asuka is a quick fighter with dual swords and a penchant for air-launches, Ikaruga swings an impossibly large broadsword ala Code of Princess' Solange, Katsuragi keeps things lower to the ground with her powerful kicks, Yagyu uses her umbrella to slash and fire projectiles, and Hibari fights with the incredibly endearing art of seemingly random flailing. On the Hebijo side of the tracks, Homura one-ups Asuka with six-bladed style, Yomi carries the big sword, Hikage shakes things up with her collection of knives, Mirai goes B.B. Hood with a submachine gun under her petticoat, and Haruka combines Hibari's close-up combat with homemade chemical bombs.
No matter which character you choose - and the structure of the story makes sure you'll get to play as all of them - you'll fight under the aegis of two equally exciting and eye-roll-inducing systems: Costume Durability and Shinobi Transformations. You'll start out each stage in an unassuming schoolgirl outfit, with life and costume gauges that deplete as you take damage. Fortunately for our fashionable heroes, the space-age fabrics of their school uniforms serve as a first line of defense, so your character's overworked outfit will expire before they do - take too many hits, and you'll find yourself fighting in your frillies. Imagine Arthur from Ghosts 'n Goblins battling for life in his sexiest speedo, and you'll have some idea of the subtlety of the execution here.
All isn't lost when you're left in your Lycra, however; pressing the 'L' button at any time will activate your character's Shinobi Transformation, triggering a magical girl metamorphosis of embarrassingly crass camera angles - a far cry from Sailor Moon's class act - that completely refills your health and costume bars, powering the novice ninjas up to their true forms, with heightened attack and defense and a brand new outfit.
Fighting in your powered-up shinobi form will fill a multilevel Ninja Art gauge, which lets you unleash screen-clearing, character-specific Secret Ninja Arts on your foes. Each fighter has a spirit animal that lends its likeness to their unique attacks, all of which deal out massive amounts of damage and come with elaborate animations (which can be enjoyed in full or cut short smoothly with a button press). And as we all know, with great power comes greater fibre durability - the shinobi form grants an extra level to the costume gauge and a welcome halfway point in-between "fully dressed" and "underpants".
As silly (and sleazy) as these systems sound, they make for a wonderful risqué/reward mechanic in gameplay: do you fight to the last shred in your schoolgirl suit, so you can squeeze the most out of your first lifebar before filling it back up? Do you pull off the Shinobi Transformation right away, eschewing the extra health to power up your attacks from the get go? Or do you bet and bare it all by going "Frantic" at the start of a mission, starting out in your shinobi'd-up skivvies and forgoing any "armor" at all for increased speed and attack?
Regardless of your play style, Senran Kagrua controls very well, too. 'X' and 'Y' are used for light attacks, 'B' jumps, and 'A' is used to dash, as well as to follow your enemies into the air for Aerial Raves. Combo inputs are processed as quickly as you can mash them in, and both the D-Pad and Circle Pad allow for smooth movement and mid-combo direction changes - essential for taking down the hordes of enemies thrown at you in every stage.
At the end of each mission, you'll earn character-specific EXP, and you can unlock more combos and new Secret Ninja Arts as you level up. But character progression isn't limited to a simple linear grind - how you fight feeds directly into the game's novel Yin and Yang system. By taking and dealing out damage in equal measure - rushing in to attack, going Frantic, and fighting to the edge of your Costume Durability - you'll eventually unlock the Yin mode, which grants a huge attack bonus, special moves, and longer combos in return for greatly reduced defence. If you mostly fight with Shinobi Transformations and Secret Ninja Arts, you'll work towards the Yang mode, which extends your Aerial Raves, helps your Ninja Art gauge fill faster, and lets you take hits without being stunned or knocked down.
If only the missions and minions were as thoughtfully produced as the combat. No matter how fun or elaborate the story set-up is for a mission, no matter who you're supposed to be beating up or who you're supposed to be saving, you'll still find yourself railing on the same three or four types of palette-swapped enemies - some of which feel like placeholder objects in the first place - throughout the entire stage. And aside from a few exceptions, almost every mission has the same objective: defeat so many enemies, move forward.
Granted, repetition is a common trait in the genre, but it's especially conspicuous here, and stands in stark contrast to the commendable variety that runs through the rest of the game. It also lends an disappointing sense of disconnect between the story and the action - if Asuka's supposed to be stopping underage classmates from drinking, why is she spending the stage beating down the same generic thugs from last level? Code of Princess married relatively repetitive gameplay with varied, story-driven mission types; surely Senran Kagura's shinobi deserve the same treatment?
Thankfully, it's easy enough to overlook the phoned-in foes and monotonous missions when the actual combat is so dizzyingly fun, and when each level brings the promise of seemingly endless unlockables. There are costumes - including dozens of outfit options for each character's swimsuit, schoolgirl, and shinobi forms - accessories, movies, and music (complete with composer commentary!). With seventy stages each on both the Hanzō and Hebijo sides, there's plenty of content on offer - and while the beatings do tend to blur together over extended sessions, the modestly-sized missions make perfect pick-up-and-play material. Unfortunately, you'll have to tackle them all solo, as there's no multiplayer action here.
Early on in the Hebijo storyline, Homura tells a fellow fighter: "Your appearance is a childish concern. It has no bearing on your strength as a shinobi." She's right, of course, but unfortunately the development team also seems to have taken that fact to heart - Senran Kagura isn't much of visual showpiece for what the 3DS can do. For starters, the 3D effect is only enabled in certain sections of the game: the single-room hub area for each school, the talking heads cutscenes, intro and victory poses, Secret Ninja Arts and Shinobi Transformation sequences, and - no prizes for guessing! - the dressing room.
That leaves the actual gameplay in two-dimensions, which makes sense when you consider the inconsistent framerate at which the game often runs, from relatively smooth in the action sequences to bordering on picture-book in the post-battle victory pose animations. That's a shame, because in its shining moments of smoothness (especially in the indoor environments), Senran Kagura looks like a much better game. Still, the character models are fantastic, and the backgrounds bright and colourful, with smooth lines and polygons that remind us happily of Dreamcast days.
The original Japanese voice acting accompanies XSEED's excellent localisation, and it's a fantastic fit - it gives the already personable characters tons of personality, and it really does feel like playing a (well translated) anime. The soundtrack for the action sequences consists of relatively generic rock (albeit with interesting instrumentation), largely covered up by the cacophony of combat and not likely to stick with you after playing, but the Japanese-meets-light-jazz tracks that play during the story sections and menus are wonderful.
Senran Kagura certainly has its issues - an inconsistent framerate, repetitive missions, and a sketchy, ecchi aesthetic that's likely to turn off as many players as it turns on - but it delivers an intoxicating blend of quick, combo-heavy combat that's an absolute blast to play. Silly-and-serious visual novel sequences, fun characters with markedly different fighting styles, and tons of customization round out the package, and with two full stories to play through, there's enough game here to outlast a wardrobe full of outfits. More than just the world's most effective PSA for battle armor, Senran Kagura Burst is a lovely, lighthearted brawler that's well worth a round.