Publisher: XSEED Games
Platform: 3DS (eshop only)
Release Date: November 14, 2013
ESRB: T for Teen
A download code was provided by the publisher for this review
As much as I love Japanese video games, every now and then there are certain game properties from there that make me furrow my brow in bitter disappointment due to their ”target demographic.' On consoles specifically, this includes shallow, sexualized, and arguably sexist titles like Gal*Gun, Onechambara, and Dream Club. Of course, there are also games that embrace very questionable ”fanservice“ like Dragon“s Crown, Ar Tonelico 2, and Skullgirls (not Japanese, but still), that pave very solid, arguably great, titles with plenty of gameplay substance. Recently, XSEED did the completely unexpected by finally localizing Senran Kagura Burst - a 3DS title that makes it quite apparent that it follows its own sort of gravitational field in regards to presentation, like other questionably sexualized franchises.
What was originally two separate releases in Japan, Senran Kagura Burst is the definite 3DS release containing two different story campaigns: Senran Kagura: Skirting Shadows and Senran Kagura: Crimson Girls. Skirting Shadows focuses on a cast of "Good Shinobi" from the Hanzo Academy, while Crimson Girls focuses on "Evil Shinobi" from the Hebijo Academy, both having very different narrative scenarios and playable characters. Does Senran Kagura Burst help buck the trend of shallow fanservice games, or is it yet another unfortunate and tasteless example of a game stripping all of its potential pride?
At its heart, Senran Kagura Burst is a very fast-paced and mobile beat 'em up. The cast of characters are generally eccentric, full of visual personality, and the moves they use are also over-the-top. Outside of more traditional beat 'em up titles, though, it is far more aerial-based, especially for combo attacks. And in spirit of more anime-like fighting games, you have a combat skillset with light/heavy attacks, air-dashes, defensive bursts, and more.
While I would love to avoid the topic, you can't honestly get away with talking about Senran Kagura Burst without mentioning exploding garments and tattered midriffs, which occur to characters when they take a certain amount of damage. In addition, when the characters change outfits mid-battle or use certain special moves, they flamboyantly emphasize the characters', erm, exuberant physical proportions, which are more than a bit distracting (but you can skip the lengthy animations of them). Even if these features are purely cosmetic and not integral to the core game, it's quite apparent that the game wears its fanservice boastfully, and is likely to either please simple minds or put off, or outright offend, others.
Where Senran Kagura is most likely to shock people (beyond its hardly subtle 'fanservice') is actually within the dense amount of visual novel-styled story sequences. Narrative backdrop initially starts off with a simple explanation on the difference between the Hanzo academy "Good Shinobi" and Hebijo academy "Evil Shinobi" and focuses on whichever narrative side the player chooses to play through. While the storytelling does more than occasionally feel like typical long-winded, slice-of-life anime fluff, especially on the Hanzo side, it gets a surprising amount of substance when it fleshes out the various individual characters and their backstories, especially of the darker Hebijo characters' side which tends to play on expectations the most.
Despite the exposition-heavy visual novel portion of the title, the fast-paced gameplay generally lends itself pretty well to portable bursts (pun not intended). Each mission usually lasts no more than ten minutes, assuming you have the confidence to play it outside of the house. Unfortunately, the fun and fast-paced combat does lead to repetition pretty quick like many beat-'em-up games due to the limited combo moveset. The playable characters themselves are varied, but the overall mechanics and enemy encounters lead to most battles feeling very familiar, especially if you play both story routes. The game does try to spice up regular missions with a leveling progression, mission grades, frantic mode (a pseudo-hard difficultly), many cosmetic unlockables, and plenty to work toward, but overall the gameplay leans more on mindless fun and overlooking the repetition.
Though it is basically a two-year-old 3DS game in Japan, Senran Kagura Burst isn't a bad looking game on technical level. The 3D character models in particular have a lot of visual personality that definitely stand out in their glorified, albeit excessive, animations. Also, in the visual novels scenes I do like how they utilize the 3D in-game visuals to propel them, instead of the still-frames that are so common in VN's and RPG's, showing the character's extra personality quirks, like Hikage's snake-like tongue movements or the bashful side of characters like Yagyu. In the midst of gameplay and combat, however, it seems to buckle down a very noticeable amount in regards to framerate. It doesn't become as much of a presentational mess (like Code of Princess on 3DS) and ruin the overall experience, but the framerate is rather choppy in contrast to its speedy nature and it is extra apparent in the very few smaller scale fights that run very smooth.
For a game that seems to really like surpassing expectations, even the audio caught me off-guard. The battle music is fairly varied, going from a remix of Schickhardt's Sonata with a Japanese flair, to some intense upbeat rock themes that usually fit the cast of characters. Also, for the extra nerdy (like myself), there is a lot of fitting and popular Japanese voice actors for the various characters, despite the hammy and bubbly script they have to work with at times.
Senran Kagura Burst is the very definition of a game that is better than it has any right being. Very unlike most ”fanservice-y“ games, it feels rather earnest with trying to be a fun game while also providing a surprisingly in-depth character focused narrative, but it is also keenly aware of what kind of (perverted) market it is after at the end of the day. It is unfortunate that the gameplay isn“t nearly deep or varied enough to satisfy more technical action game fans, like myself, and the story isn“t strong enough to recommend solely as a visual novel. Still, it“s a game that is better than the sum of its parts, regardless of its very apparent rough edges. If you are willing to spend some time and give Senran Kagura Burst eye contact, you may be in for a pretty pleasant surprise, but only if you pay attention to the right places.
+ Surprisingly in-depth, character focused, visual novel narrative
+ Fun, fast-paced, and mobile beat 'em up gameplay
+ Polished 3D character models with plenty of personality in cutscenes.
+ Solid battle music
+ Plenty of unlockables, missions, and playable characters
- Pretty unapologetic about ”fanservice“ especially during gameplay
- Hanzo story route is rather slow and predictable
- Gameplay is generally pretty repetitive
- Presentation has noticeable framerate drops during most battles
Overall Score: 7.0 (out of 10)
The fanservice alone will more than likely push away or outright offend some people, but if you can play along with it in a tongue-in-cheek mindset, much like the game does, Senran Kagura Burst offers more gameplay, and dare I say it, narrative substance than you“d expect.