Here it is. The most contentious game of 2014 in the eyes of the mainstream press, with some publications going as far as not even taking the game up & reviewing it. Here we are not so ignorant with Otaku games like this being our forte. Once you put all the controversy & issues aside, how does the game in question actually play out?
The first thing that you'll notice when starting the game is that its packing 2 separate stories to play through, Skirting Shadows, which follows the path of the virtuous Hanzō Academy and Crimson Girls - which revolves around the shady Hebijo Academy. The good shinobi Hanzō girls work to further national interests. The evil shinobi Hibejo girls for the highest bidder. But which path is right for a Master Shinobi? Its something you'll have to decide for yourself as you play through the game. As you would expect given the premise, the writing is silly and humorous. There are moments of brilliance, silly & serious, with the story sometimes taking on a novel aspect you have to read through (or skip, but the conversations in these small sections are voiced) giving a more serious tone to proceedings as the backstory for each character is outlined. The first you'll come across is a good example of how this aspect. Asuka meets a boy named Suzuki, a young baseball player, who is apparently in love with her. At first this story seems a little childish, but as it progresses it deepens and its true meaning comes to the fore - one of Personal growth. Each character has a novel story similar to this with a deeper meaning behind it. The narrative is broken into 5 chapters on each story, with roughly a dozen stages within each chapter to play. Only half of these need to be completed, the 'Story' stages', while the side missions can be skipped entirely if you so desire. Not the best of ideas though as you'll find with the difficulty increasing, these side missions are a good source of XP & unlocks. If the amount of stages aren't enough, There are 10 unique characters in total (5 on each academy) with their own unique abilities and attributes. While the core combat doesn't change much between characters, unique animations and move sets perfectly compliment the characters personality. Some special moves are awesome, some ridiculous (Mirai's is so ridiculous I almost cried with laughter) Certain story stages require certain characters which you'll find to be a good way to get to grips with each shinobi & level up/learn their individual traits. Each character has their own style & personality, so you'll no doubt end up with a favourite that you'll use mainly on side quests (Mine is Yagyu, but then I'm a sucker for the eyepatch/white hair/twintails thing. Oh n she kicks ass with her Parasol as well)
During the level your character will earn XP from defeated foes which in turn increases stats and unlocks more moves & combos. The game features Yin & Yang fighting styles that each offers up a different way of playing. Yin is all about power, forcing you to attack with all your might at the expense of defence with Yang being more about technique & fighting without the use of your shinobi powers. These can also be ranked up unlocking more moves as you play with each character, maxing out both styles with a character unlocks the 'Flash' style. Senran Kagura burst just doesn't stop giving with its content either. Completing levels earns you a grade based on how quickly the level was done, how many enemies defeated & the max combo you obtained. As well as the grade, theres also unlocks and these come in many forms. Costumes are the obvious ones and these can be looked at & swapped in the Dressing Room section. This can be accessed, along with the areas of the game, within your schools Dojo which acts as the story modes menu/central hub. If running around is too much for you, then all the options in the Central hub can be accessed quickly on the 3DS touchscreen. The Library is where you'll find the other unlocked tidbits you receive from completed stages. The usual pictures, music etc are here as well as a full stat page with sections for each character and titles, which act as in-game achievements of sorts. Make no mistake, this game is packing a surprising amount of content. Those expecting this review to now turn into a bashing on fan-service are going to be left disappointed. I'm only going to mention it fleetingly and to be brutally honest, the whole thing has been blown way out of proportion by the mainstream press. Its actually not that bad, with only momentary glimpses during special moves & shinobi transformations. Even the dynamic costume damage is barely seen if you play the game well and don't soak up damage (it takes more damage than you think to kick in) The game is lacking any multiplayer though, but whether that is a good/bad thing is subjective given the genre. It would be nice to have, but it doesn't affect the game with its omission due to how this title is structured. With all that in mind, this game could potentially have a huge runtime with all the unlockable content thrown in with the 2 stories & 10 unique characters to level up. Those expecting a meagre playthrough due to the game being a side-scroller will be in for a rude awakening.
The gameplay is fabulous. There I said it straight off the bat. Those with a yearning for the side-scrollers of old will find enough here to feed said desire. Games within this genre tend to live or die by their combat & fighting mechanics, so luckily Senran Kagura Burst has an accessible & refined system in place to make things as fun for the player as possible. As you make your way through each stage your tasked with the eliminmation of enemies for the main part, but the game does try mixing things up to its credit. Rival shinobi from Hanzo/Hibejo act as boss characters in levels, with their skill against you climbing quickly as difficulty increases. Time limits, Objects to destroy within the levels etc also spring up in missions to mix things up a little. The games control system has been refined to maximise the fluidity of the combat it seems. The key aspects of the controls are laid out in a simple way - Y Light attack/X Heavy attack/A short dash or dodge/B is used for jump (A & B can also be used for a 'safe fall' allowing you to dodge before hitting the ground when attacked) with the shoulder buttons being used for the more advanced Shinobi & Limit breaker techniques. A key aspect of the combat system is what I like to call 'juggling'. When you finish a combo, you'll smash the enemy away from you but if you keep an eye out for a green ring that appears at the final hit, your combo is far from over. A tap of the 'A' button sens you dashing after your foe, ready to continue your combo. This can be done again mid-air (and a third time if in Shinobi mode) before a final smash sends you foes to the ground, more than likely defeated after your torrent of blows. You'll soon learn to value this technique over any other as it helps with dealing with the amount of foes you face while beefing up your level grade with huge combo streaks. Shinobi mode, activated with a tap of the L button, & a limit break move activated with R finishes up the move set. Your characters special attack is activated by pressing L + Y, great button combo for not accidentally activating it, as long as you have built up enough of your Ninja art gauge by picking up items or defeating foes. Items also make an appearance as noted. Simple health, Ninja energy & XP scrolls are usually hidden within the destructible aspects of the scenery. During levels theres a handy menu on the touchscreen that displays your objectives, but a quick tap on techniques tab shows up your unlocked techniques and combo chains. All of this comes together to create an accessible system that allows you to jump straight in and have fun, with your skills improving beyond simple button mashing as the difficulty increases. Its refreshing to have a side-scroller that has its depth & difficulty go hand in hand as the game progresses. The game also likes to add variety to its skirmishes with numerous enemy types, sporting differing weapons and attack patterns. Just as you begin to tire of your enemies, the game seems to chuck in 1 or 2 new enemy types to mix things up. The linear nature of the levels is alleviated somewhat as you get further into the game and it begins using levels with the odd area away from the usual line you can go to fight your foes. Its surprising just how well the gameplay mechanics & structure seem to have been thought out, making a game that's both fun and enjoyable to play.
As you would expect, the game is rich with colour & vibrancy due to its use of Moe. The developers have gone with a mix of 3D & 2D elements when constructing levels, which no doubt helps with the games decent detail levels. Some parts of the scenery like lampposts, fences etc are made up of 2D sprites with all the characters, items & background buildings etc being full 3D models. This helps create some nicely varied stages packed with nice little features. As the Hanzo, you start in a school before making you way out to the towns streets, onto night time rooftops (complete with nicely rendered strobing searchlights) Parks, Hots Springs and so on. There seems an endless amount of variety to the stages which helps a lot with combating the repetitive nature of side-scrollers. A nice variety of effects during combat allow you to see, visually, how your attacks (and the enemies too) fare, with different colours and shapes denoting its effect. Enemies also come with some variety, colour denoting strength & design giving a clue as to their attacking intent. Obviously, the best is saved for the games 10 main characters, each packed with detail & their own personalities. Even if all characters were dressed the same you'd be able to pick them all out correctly due to the amount of work that seems to have gone into making each one unique. Voice work, animations, move sets and back story give each character a unique personality. Voice work is also really good, being used not just for cutscenes. As with most niche games, cutscenes are done with the characters talking like a visual novel. Here though, the game uses its 3D models from the game and animate them accordingly. Some of the exchanges in these cutscenes are satisfyingly amusing with their runtime thankfully not being overly long and seeming just right. The games only technical issue seems to be framerate. Whilst by no means is it bad or frequent, it does crop up on the odd occasion. Usually when a group enemies spawn in or when destroying a lot of objects. In the think of battle, its hardly noticeable though, but worth mentioning for those wanting to know. Soundscape is fitting for the content. Music & SFX fit the Shinobi/Ninja theme perfectly, with the stellar voice acting at times fleshing out the games supporting sound.
3D - As always when talking about 3DS, I look at the 3D aspect separate. This game doesn't have 3D activated at all times, thnakfully disabling it during gameplay. Not only does this keep framerates high, but also wont end up hitting you with eye strain & head-aches due the games blistering speed at times. When it is activated, its clear the developers have put the effort in. Cutscenes look as though your watching actor on a stage, with clear depth between background & screen that the models sit within. The Shinobi transformations & special moves also benefit a lot from the effect, with a lot of depth and pop-out adding to the fun. Level intro's and outro's are also of the same standard of the other in-game uses of the effect. This is most definitely a game you won't mind leaving the 3D on for.
The game will suprise you with its arcade style side-scrolling action breeding bouts of 16-Bit nostalgia before blasting through it with a superb fluid combat system that will make you feel like a true shinobi with its depth increasing as diffuculty rises. The games issues are the usual tropes of the genre, linearity & a slight repetitivness with the odd difficulty spike if unprepared for the encounter, which the game does try to alleviate to its credit at times. The much maligned fan-service moments are just that, moments, that seemingly get lost within the games frantic gameplay. Its surprising just how much thought & effort seems to have gone into this games development. So let the haters hate in their ignorance, and allow yourself to enjoy one of the most fun & amusing releases you'll find all year.
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