Coming west at long last.
UPPERS is a game I remember hearing a lot about in niche gaming circles a few years ago. Originally released on PS Vita in 2016, it was produced by Senran Kagura creator Kenichiro Takaki, and was originally slated to be remastered for PS4 and PC and released worldwide in 2018. That never ended up happening, and now here we are in 2020, the PS4 release was canceled, and it received a surprise release on Steam. The question to answer here is: Was it worth the wait?
UPPERS follows Ranma Kamishiro and Michiru Sakurai, who return to their childhood home of Last Resort Island after being absent for a number of years. The island is a place where the strong reign supreme and girls fall for men in droves who are able to win lots of fights. Ranma’s drive to win the affections of his high school’s student body president Fuka Kujo leads him to climb the island’s ranks to fight her father Mukuro Kujo, the strongest man on the island. Along the way, the duo fights through high school delinquents, pro wrestlers, assassins, and legions upon legions of henchmen, as dozens of female spectators swoon over them.
The gameplay of UPPERS is a 3D beat-‘em-up. Gameplay twists are introduced through the aforementioned spectators, and they will give requests that the player can fulfill to gain Voltage which can then be spent for a Rise Up, which can lead to a high-damage Uppers Rush. The requests vary, including objectives such as simply defeating a certain number of enemies, countering attacks, using stage gimmicks, and others, all of which sometimes include a time limit or a requirement that you not take damage in the process. Completing attack strings on enemies can also trigger Panty Slots in the onlookers, which can provide a number of different temporary buffs.
There’s a reason why I refer to this game as a “beat-‘em-up” rather than a “musou” like the Senran Kagura games, particularly the more recent ones. It’s extremely difficult to engage large groups of enemies under normal circumstances without making use of stage interactions such as spinning on a pole or running along a wall, and even then, it’s not exactly easy. This becomes a particular problem on certain boss stages, where henchmen respawn endlessly and it’s impossible to whittle down the crowd. Your attack strings get interrupted by attacks from enemies, and once you get surrounded, one of the only options at your disposal to avoid getting overwhelmed is Rise Up. You’d better hope you haven’t spent all of the limited Voltage that you get in each stage.
There are multiple rewards available for fulfilling any given audience request, including temporary stat buffs, a free Rise Up, and a Love Letter, which restores health. Love Letters are the most valuable, given that they impact the rating and Affection that you receive at the end of the stage, especially given that a specific amount of Affection for an Act is required to unlock the Act’s final stage. It’s possible that there’s some factor that determines what reward you get from a request, but from what I saw, it seems to be random, which is extremely frustrating in later Acts while trying to build up 60% Affection to progress the story.
Audience requests are the only wrinkle that gets introduced to mix up the gameplay. While there are 13 playable characters, they all feel the same to play as, with no variance in movement or attack speed, or even fighting style, aside from superficial differences. There’s also very little in terms of progression, with only the ability to spend Love Points collected throughout the game to improve characters’ health, attack speed, and techniques. That sounds like a lot, but the advancements are minimal, and nothing will feel different between a base character and a fully upgraded one. The gameplay grows stale fast, even when compared to Takaki’s own Senran Kagura series, where even if the gameplay can be seen as shallow, the characters still feel different to play as, along with being generally endearing and fun. Meanwhile, even outside of the gameplay, the characters in UPPERS come across as being one-dimensional and bland, which is not helped by the equally uninteresting story.
The music and voice acting are both fine but not outstanding or memorable. The graphics are very transparently upscaled from a PS Vita game, with low-polygon models in the audience and every character sharing the same animations for Uppers Rushes. There are also issues with camera controls since the default setting is excessively sensitive and only turning it down almost all the way can make it feel right. Beyond that, though, the camera will fight attempts to control it manually. It’s common in games, especially those originating from handheld platforms, for the camera to have some degree of automatic movement, even if manual control is an option, such as swinging around to a character’s back while moving forward. In those sorts of games, manual control usually overrides this automatic movement. However, in UPPERS, it attempts to do both, where if you rotate the camera in the direction it attempts to move will rotate it much faster than usual, while moving it opposite will make it stop in place. On top of that, it can get stuck on level geometry, making it a nightmare to look in the direction you want while in a tight space.
In my opinion, UPPERS was not worth the four-year wait and lengthy localization process. As a beat-‘em-up, it lacks creativity and variety, although it may succeed somewhat as a fanservice game, even if none of the characters have any significant degree of depth. That being said, if you go in with the proper expectations, you’ll likely get some fun out of it, especially if you pick it up on sale since I think the $29.99 USD price point is a bit steep.
Final Verdict: 2.5/5
Available on: Steam; Publisher: XSEED Games, Marvelous; Developer: Bullets, Honey∞Parade Games; Released: October 21, 2020; ESRB: N/A; MSRP: $29.99 USD (standard), $39.99 USD (deluxe)
Full disclosure: This review is based on a Steam copy of UPPERS given to Hey Poor Player by the publisher.