How much can you forgive a game with gratuitous amounts of fan-service? Can you look past somewhat shallow gameplay that's more about titillation than innovation? Then boy do I have the game for you, though if you are a fan of XSeed games then you already know what I'm talking about. Senren Kagura: Burst, horribly oversized mammaries (I feel dirty just typing that) and all has been brought state-side in one of the most ridiculously over-the-top beat-em-up games I've played in the past few years. On one hand you've got to hand it to the teams at Tamsoft, Marvelous, and XSeed for having the balls to release something like this on the Western world. On the other it's a totally serviceable popcorn game that you can waste minutes or hours on, with endearing characters who unfortunately(?) have assets to match their boundless energy and charm.
Senren Kagura presents an interesting world where Shinobi train in various schools, some are on the up and up, while others are producing ninjas that are used for more clandestine purposes, 'Where good favors few, evil accepts all' is a common theme that this game likes to drive at. From the outset you'll choose either the Hanzo or Hebijo school, and follow the story of five students and their struggles to become full-fledged shinobi. The Hanzo side features the game's heroine, Asuka, and her classmates, Katsuragi, tomboyish, and overly aggressive with the sexual harassment of her classmates, Yagyu, the silent but dependable one, Ikaruga, the stoic class representitive and motherly figure of the group, and Hibari, the ditz. While the students on the Hebijo side of the story seem to only exist to provide a counter-balance to the Hanzo's good. But each character is fighting for their own reasons, and their growth as characters at least gives the world some substance, and you'll see that the two sides are not so different.
When you get down to it, Senren Kagura isn't going to win any awards based on its gameplay. The experience actually mirrors last year's Code of Princess in terms of structure. In the game's story mode you'll choose a character from one of the five selectable (with one more unlockable) from either the Hanzo or Hebijo side of the story, and from their you'll have missions to complete. Some of these will advance the game's story, while others are there for leveling up your respective character. There are five chapters in total for each side of the story, with each side taking roughly six to seven hours to complete. Though whether or not you'll do so is dependent on how much you can handle the repetitive nature of the game.
Starting off a mission in a chapter, you dive right in to the thick of combat. Most of these missions have a simple object to reach that can be completed by brute force. You'll be using combo attacks using the DS's X and Y button. The combos can be taken to the air as well for 'Aerial Rave' combos that are initiated after hitting the A button after launching an enemy in the air. As you level up each shinobi you'll increase the lengths of these combos and before long you'll be chaining hits in the thousands. Though it has a very dull feeling to it, take out one enemy, then move the next as quickly as possible, rinse and repeat for the rest of the game. This results in missions that are never longer than ten minutes (until you reach the final chapter which doesn't really have any breaks), and thankfully makes the game easy to just pick up and play for short bursts. Unfortunately each character also plays rather similarly, with the same combo structure at your disposal, the only difference is the special attacks, and even then you could just button mash to win. Though it is very possible to get overwhelmed, there is a limit burst attack that will repel nearby enemies, though at a cost of some health.
As you level up your characters you'll increase their Yin and Yang rating, which affects the combos and special moves you can pull depending on which mode you are currently in. You'll start out most stages in your standard outfit, and as you earn Ninja Energy you can transform into each of the girls' Shinobi garb, replete with magical girl transformation, though the result doesn't look much different from every day clothing. As you take damage though, your clothing can become damaged, resulting in you taking more damage. The same rules apply to your enemies as well, as you fight girls from the Hebijo, you'll be able to tear away their clothes with strong attacks, and increase the damage you deal to them. You also gain access to special moves while in your Shinobi form, which are great for clearing out crowds and useful for getting out of a jam. There's also a ton of unlockable stuff like additional costumes, artwork, and information on the ninja world, so at least when you're plowing through enemies the game does a good job of rewarding you for doing so.
So, I'm a fan of anime visuals, sure, I can appreciate some good character design, and there are things that I like about Senren Kagura, but then there are two things I don't like. This isn't some white knight check your privilege place I'm talking from either, but it's just off-putting the size of these characters' breasts. It's actually more ridiculous than the previously reigning champion, Dead or Alive Xtreme Beach Volleyball 2. The game is pretty tongue-in-cheek about it too, with art that acts to specifically highlight the girls' biggest assets. You see them in their Shinobi transformations, in the cut-scenes, and in the game art. And these are supposed to be girls in high-school. It's ridiculous, almost to the point of being funny, and it counters any good-will the game had built up by trying to give you likeable characters. The rest of the game gets a pass as it looks pretty good for 3DS visuals, although there are repetitive character models that all use the same color palettes. The frame-rate kind of takes a dive when there are too many characters on screen as well, which is a shame because when you're doing some of the one-on-one boss fights and the game runs just a little bit better, it looks great in motion.
It sounds like I'm down on Senren Kagura: Burst, and for the most part I am, but I can't deny that I got sucked in to the storyline, and found it to be something that redeems an almost otherwise pedestrian effort. The basic gameplay kind of gets a little bit better by the time you're at a higher level and can string together longer combos, but it takes a bit of time to get there, and it's quite possible to burn out of this game long before you reach that point. But I'd be remiss if I didn't say that it's worth it to stick it out to the end, because at that point it's actually a decent brawler, which the 3DS is kind of short on. If you're curious, I'd say give Senren Kagura a shot, it's got heart and charm, you've just got a lot of explaining to do when people ask what you're playing.
* The product in this article was sent to us by the developer/company.
In a past life I worked with Interplay, EA, Harmonix, Konami, and a number of other developers. Now I'm working for a record label, a small arm of casual games in a media company along with Gaming Nexus, and anywhere else that sees fit to employ me.