Life’s a party when you’re a Shinobi
I have to give credit to Kenichiro Takaki. He not only created Senran Kagura, one of the weirdest and most outrageous games that I’ve ever heard of, but managed to make an entire series out of it. He’s never rested on his laurels, either. Every new game is bigger than the last. More characters, more levels, more life, more hometown; whatever it is, there’s always something. And, today, we’ll be taking a look at Takaki’s latest and greatest “something” – Senran Kagura Estival Versus.
Estival Versus begins with Hebijo Academy twins Ryōbi and Ryōna visiting a lone grave in the middle of the woods in order to peacefully pay their respects to their departed older sister. Their quiet prayers are soon interrupted though, when they hear chanting coming from somewhere within the forest. With the chanting growing louder, and their curiosity getting the better of them, Ryōbi and Ryōna investigate, eventually stumbling upon a strange spirit-summoning ritual. Although quietly spectating at first, they recognize one of the spirits as their sister – rushing headfirst into the ceremony and demanding answers, but instead finding themselves teleported into another dimension. Soon after, the rest of the Senran Kagura girls are transported, faction by faction, to the same dimension (although much more comically so). Why was this happening? Why, to participate in the Shinobi Bon Dance Festival, a once-per-millennia celebration where Shinobi compete against one another to see who’s the best, of course. Duh.
Senran Kagura‘s supple Shinobi may be in a different dimension, but don’t worry – things aren’t too different. Estival Versus is once again split into two main narratives; Kagua Millennium Festival and Shinobi Girl’s Heart. Kagura Millennium Festival, the main campaign, focuses on the Shinobi Bon Dance Festival itself. As with previous Senran Kagura main campaigns, KMF is split into into chapters (with each chapter consisting of a day, in this case), but the character setup is a little different. Past Senran Kagura games had you play through stories based on factions – the Hanzō story would feature Asuka and co., and so on – but Estival Versus doesn’t do that. KMF is a singular campaign, so you can expect to be switching between all 30+ characters pretty much every level. It’s different, but all-in-all, I appreciate it. By forcing players to play through the main campaign using every character at once, the overall narrative for Estival Versus ends up more cohesive. And yes, there’s an actual story in there – it’s just buried under a lot of fanservice (which is probably the #1 reason most people would play this game anyway).
Shinobi Girl’s Heart makes its triumphant return as well, serving as a series of incredibly over-the-top side-stories that compliment the game’s main story (which is also usually quite over-the-top). Each character in SGH has their own story that spans across five levels. While these stories are generally not pertinent to anything that’s going on outside of them, and more often than not just another excuse to include more fanservice, it does quite well in terms of expanding each character’s personality. By continuing to give every single Shinobi her time in the spotlight, even with the series’ constantly-expanding roster, Estival Versus does a great job of helping players to get to know SK‘s girls a little bit better without ever backpedaling on information or stories released in previous titles.
Esitval Versus’ gameplay once again serves up a healthy does of high-octane, hack-and-slash goodness and packs into every stage. Levels follow the familiar arcade-like trend of previous Senran Kagura titles by having players cut through waves of incoming grunts as quickly as possible while trying to build up that all-important combo meter. Level layouts also remain the same, mostly consisting of single, open areas or smaller areas connected by straightforward pathways (some of which have been directly ripped from previous titles) that don’t leave much room to go exploring. There are a few levels here and there that have some hidden nooks and crannies, but Senran Kagura levels have never been designed with heavy exploration in mind – a formula that ends up working well, considering how gameplay is actually set up.
The combat in Estival Versus is still as hack-and-slash as it ever was, but the game wasn’t without some noticeable differences. Despite the fact that this series has a pretty impressive roster of characters, a lot of them felt the same when using them to fight in previous titles. I understand that a large portion of this game is just an excuse to see bikini-clad anime girls fight and sling innuendo after innuendo at one another, but it’s still a video game – and Estival Versus realized that. A noticeable amount of effort was put into making sure to distance each character’s fighting style from one another this time around. Characters with heavier weapons, such as Yomi, were slowed in exchange for hitting harder, while ranged characters, such as Mirai, were given a bit more of an advantage when fighting long-range. It wasn’t perfect, but I applaud them for trying to make combat feel a little more legitimate than it was in past games.
I also noticed a considerable spike in difficulty with Estival Versus. Levels filled with nothing but waves of the same common grunt are a thing of the past, with Estival Versus favoring more varied unit types. As I played through each level, I found myself needing to strategize a bit (although not a lot, to be fair) more to compensate for the different kinds of enemy types being thrown at me. Boss battles were also tougher. The AI seems to have sharpened up, and the fact that a good chunk of the levels threw two or three Shinobi at me at once kept me on my toes.
I appreciate Estival Versus diversifying characters and levels, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out what I didn’t like. I didn’t have too many problems, but they were still there – and they all revolved around guarding. Characters, both Shinobi and special kinds of grunts, have the ability to guard. Guarding does what you’d expect it to do, it blocks attacks, but does so a bit too well. Guarding not only makes you (or your opponent) impervious to damage, but it nullifies damages taken from all sides – it doesn’t matter where you’re hitting someone from, if they’re guarding, then they won’t take damage. Estival Versus’ omni-directional blocking combined with the inability to deal even chip damage made some fights feel a little frustrating. On top of that, guarding is slow. While the AI had no problem with perfectly putting up their shield, I could never properly get the hang of it. Guard breaking is possible, but it often took too much effort. And still no guard canceling? Argh!
Anyway, enough about guarding. We still haven’t talked about the girls, so let’s do that! Estival Versus not only brings back every previously-playable Senran Kagura character, but adds five new characters to the mix (12, if you include DLC). You’d think that personalities would start to run together after such a continuous introduction of new characters, but they don’t – each new Shinobi is her own person. Estival Versus also does a nice job with character development, focusing especially on Shinovi Versus newcomers in order to round out their personalities and help them catch up to the Hanzō and Crimson Squad girls (but they aren’t forgotten, either!).
And, of course, we can’t forget the Dressing Room. I’m not sure how this game managed to come up with even more ways to dress up your favorite SK girls, but they did – and it’s more interactive than ever. Not only does Estival Versus present players with an impressive collection of clothing for players to doll up their favorite femme fatales with, but also includes a surprisingly in-depth diorama mode which allows players to take pictures of up to five Shinobi together (with a slew of unlockable poses, to boot). It’s definitely shameful, but would this really be a Senran Kagura game without something like this? Nah, of course not! Live it up!
Considering what it’s about, a game like Estival Versus has to look good – and, fortunately, it does. With its original transition from Vita to PlayStation 4 (and later on, PC), Estival Versus enjoyed a bit of a graphical upgrade that, while not leaps and bounds above Shinovi Versus, is still noticeable. Character models look better, the scenery is more vivid, and clothing is more detailed; there’s really nothing to complain about. It’s also worth mentioning that Estival Versus got more creative with its KOs. Often times, depending upon which level you’re in and your location in said level, KOing an opponent will result not only their clothing being entirely ripped off (because we’ve already seen that before), but them comically falling into some sort of trap. It actually kind of made me question how you could be so clumsy and still be a Shinobi, but it works well for this game so I guess that it doesn’t matter.
Music, on the other hand, didn’t really wow me. I’ve never been blown away by Senran Kagura‘s music, and I continued to be, well, not blown away. It wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t great either. It was just kind of there.
Senran Kagura Estival Versus is an action game wrapped up in about as much fanservice as you could possibly get – and at this point I really wouldn’t have it any other way. If you’re not into this kind of thing that’s totally cool, congratulations on keeping your dignity, but for the rest of you out there, I doubt that you’d want to miss this. Keep ’em coming, Takaki, keep ’em coming.
FINAL VERDICT: 4/5
Available on: PC (Reviewed), PlayStation 4; Publisher: XSEED Games, Marvelous USA Inc. ; Developer: Tamsoft ; Players: 1 – 10 ; Released: March 17, 2017 (PC), March 15, 2016 (PS4) ; ESRB: N/A (PC), M for Mature (PS4) ; MSRP: $39.99 (PC)
Full Disclosure: This review is based on a copy of Senran Kagura Estival Versus given to Hey Poor Player by the Publisher.