Senran Kagura Burst (1): There’s more than meets the eye

“Meets the eye” is the right expression, indeed. Heck, “tries to pierce it” would be even closer to the truth. Never before had I played a game that tried so actively to perforate my retinas with glorious displays of perky bosoms and bottoms—and I was not even playing with the 3D on. 

We’re now tackling Senran Kagura Burst, a game that became famous—and infamous—for all the wrong reasons. Developed by Tamsoft and released in 2012(jp), 2013(na) and 2014(eu) for the Nintendo 3ds, Senran Kagura Burst (SKB for short) is actually a combination of two games, namely Senran Kagura: Skirting Shadows and its sequel Senran Kagura Burst. Both of these games are classic side-scrolling Beat’em Up à la Streets of Rage featuring a variety of characters with distinctive fighting styles. However, you’d be forgiven for missing that piece of information: from its very inception, the SKB series has been marketed nearly exclusively as a naughty, kinky game that would let you peek at young women’s ample bosoms and behinds through their ripped-off clothing. Since the series was kick-started by one developer’s somewhat mundane desire to see female anatomy displayed in glorious 3D on the 3ds, such a turn of events shouldn’t be too surprising. This is a heavy legacy to bear—in more ways than one—but SKB does so with grace and ingenuity and manages to emerge unscathed from the unsavoury marketing campaign that surrounded it. Behind the game’s busty chest beats a heart of gold: SKB is actually an excellent Beat’em Up that has much more to offer than a couple of risqué shots. There’s more than meets the eye, indeed; let’s now explore SKB’s often-overlooked goodness!

The elephant in the room

Let’s be honest: talking about SKB without mentioning the fan-service is purely and simply impossible. It’s so blatant and purposeful that you cannot ignore it, and every review of SKB under the gaming sun has commented on it, with tones ranging from ecstatic to disparaging. I might as well do the same—and start with it while I’m at it, since SKB’s fan-service is so in-your-face, basking in the spotlight like an attention-hungry teenager. Or is it?  

Well, that was the first pleasant surprise SKB had in store. The fan-service is nowhere near as extreme and/or pervasive as you’d imagine by seeing the European cover art—as a matter of fact, this cover is ten times raunchier than anything you will witness in the game itself. The Shinobi transformations, during which the ladies change from their school uniforms into their personalized Shinobi outfits in order to gain extra strength and speed, really don’t show that much flesh. They look like shortened versions of the Sailor Senshi transformations with a heavier emphasis on bottoms and bosoms, but it really doesn’t get more scandalous than that—as a matter of fact, you’ll probably see much more flesh in a Sailor Moon episode than in a session of SKB. As for the infamous shredding bits that let you see the ladies’ outfits being ripped into pieces, they are incredibly brief—blink and you’ll miss them entirely—and really don’t show that much flesh either. To make the fan-service even more inoffensive, all these already rather mild and short sequences can be skipped entirely by pressing the Start button, which will probably be a blessing for everyone at some point: even the most ravenous fan-service aficionado has to get bored after seeing the same snippets a hundred times. 

Furthermore, the game turns out to be surprisingly conservative in some ways. The story-telling segments are unexpectedly sober and subdued: instead of ramping up the fan-service and drowning the player under tons of risqué close-ups as one would have expected, the game favours a more dignified approach by displaying long lines of text over pictures of various empty sceneries. Kinky jokes and innuendos are very few and far between, and the couple of shots of the young ladies that appear during the storyline segments are really quite tame. Even the stripping mechanics are not that risqué when one ponders it, and it boils down to a simple reason: the ladies wear swimsuits as underwear instead of lingerie. While swimsuits don’t cover much more than lingerie and still have some kind of erotic charge (especially in Japan), they are still ten times less suggestive than your average lingerie. Having the ladies don swimsuits seriously defuses the eroticism of the stripping sequences and makes them feel more like pool trip antics than like raunchy peeping sessions. 

Last but not least is the fan-service’s saving grace, which is none other than the delicious irony that pervades it. SKB’ s brand of fan-service is self-aware and self-derisive: the developers joyously take the piss out of their own fan-service obsession—and the player’s one as well—by inserting tongue-in-cheek jokes and puns about their own design choices. The fact that the young ladies wear swimsuits also has a ring of irony to it: it’s nearly like the characters are being aware that they are going to be peeped at and donned swimsuits in order to be prepared for it, taking the piss out of the player in the process. And let’s not even mention the relaxed and  playful atmosphere created by the all-female setting, which has the girls bantering joyfully, acting in ways that could definitely be considered un-sexy, not caring in the slightest about having their body parts exposed and being friendly and supportive towards one another instead of worrying about their looks and vying for male attention like in your average harem RPG. Oh, and there is also the hidden irony at works behind the ripping mechanics: having your clothes ripped into pieces may be serious eye candy, but it’s not a good thing as far as gameplay is concerned, since it means that you’re heading closer to defeat; and the better you become at playing SKB, the less shredding—and flesh— you will see. It doesn’t get any more ironic than that, really. 

So indeed, there is some fan-service at work in SKB; however, it represents only a small fraction of the whole game, and that fraction definitely more comes across as more campy than salacious. Most importantly, it doesn’t desecrate the ladies; and that makes complete sense, since you actually play as them. No gamer can enjoy to see the very character(s) they incarnate being routinely mistreated and humiliated, and Tamsoft understood that perfectly. More than that, they actually went to great lengths to flesh out the young ladies and turn them into interesting characters that the player can care for as well as relate to. Without further ado, let’s see how this was done!

Fleshed inside out

There is no doubt that the ladies were generously fleshed out as far as their measurements were concerned; however, their personalities were not forgotten and have been given as much care and love as their body lines, if not more. 

On the narrative side, each of the young dames was granted her own private backstory, as well as a personalized ending that can be uncovered when meeting certain conditions (namely clearing every single mission in Yin Mode, which is easier said than done). Those backstories are both interesting and touching and give a great incentive to relate to the ladies; they may be young, but their struggles and responsibilities are heavy ones indeed. Their personalities are equally clear-cut and distinctive; and while said personalities are a little bit on the cliché side (the inexpressive and nearly mute girl, the ever-smiling clumsy one, the dignified one with a serene look and so on), they remain endearing and compelling. It is a real pleasure to discover the ladies as you play the game, and caring for them as well as relating to them comes  as naturally as delivering blows (more on that later, he he). 

This commendable attempt at crafting deep and moving characters is conveniently consolidated by subtle yet effective features. The voice acting is the most blatant one: it is amazingly good and fits the ladies’ personality like a glove, and is a pure pleasure to listen to—and this is coming from a person who usually hates voice acting in videogames. Another element that may take more time to sink in is the fact that each girl is granted her own individual musical themes during the fighting sessions, both in Normal and Frantic Modes; and amazingly enough, these themes manage to fit their personalities just as well as the voice acting—and they are pure ear-candy to boot. 

The fact that this crew of young dames is as nicely fleshed out outside of battle is already pleasant enough, but there is even better in store. This is a Beat’em Up after all, and Beat’em Ups are typically the kind of games in which characters’ personalities should shine first and foremost on the fighting field, in the heart of some red-hot action. And fortunately, SKB gloriously delivers in this department and doesn’t disappoint one bit. The ladies’ respective fighting styles are as distinct as they could be while remaining totally functional (or nearly so—more on that later). Each girl has her own moves, special attacks and weapon, and they are all neatly polished and carefully balanced. Granted, some of the ladies are a teeny-weeny bit stronger and some a teeny-weeny bit weaker than the rest of the crew, but the differences are kept to a minimum and don’t hamper the gameplay nor drag the game down in any way. At any rate, it’s an absolute pleasure to try your hand at so many different fighting styles, and getting to know and master each girl’s distinctive way of kicking butts certainly goes a long way in establishing them as rock-solid characters. And that’s quite a good thing, since kicking butts is, after all, the primary point of the game.

The name of the game

Indeed, it may seem a bit pathetic to cover all things fighting only at the end of that post, knowing that SKB is first and foremost a Beat’em Up; but it was hard to proceed otherwise. I’m following an agenda set by the game itself, willingly or not; and since SKB clamoured for attention in the most unsavoury way by aiming straight at the player’s groin, I first had to dismiss the idea that this game is just a load of fan-service crap. Now that the deed is done, we can pore over the heart of the game, namely the butt-kicking. And boy, is it good

A Beat’em Up lives and dies by its physics, and SKB’s physics are absolutely brilliant. The control over your character is total, with no trace of the sketchiness or wobbliness that plagues games such as Code of Princess, and foes have a kind of pleasant density that makes the fighting incredibly fulfilling—you can really feel yourself punching them, so to speak, and it’s quite the guilty pleasure. The action is fast-paced and nervous, and combat is very much aerial-based: the most devastating combos are performed in the air and a couple of aerial attacks are available, as well as a double jump which is an absolute blessing and can be a life-saver at time, especially when combined with the aforementioned aerial attacks. And there is a dedicated jumping button to boot, saving you the trouble of having to fumble with the analog stick. 

Talking about buttons, it’s worth mentioning that SKB keeps things as simple as possible in that department and spares the player a lot of button-mashing. You never need to press more than two buttons at a time to perform any action, and the combos are based solely on various combinations of the X and Y buttons—displayed at all times on the touch screen for your convenience. SKB is as close to as beginner’s Beat’em Up as it gets, while remaining deeply fulfilling thanks to the sheer variety of moves that you can execute—a variety made even wider by the size of the roster. 

Said roster, and the array of fighting styles that comes with it, is most definitely another highlight of SKB. Each of the shinobis offers her own interpretation of the fighting system, prompting you to adapt your way of playing accordingly. This is obviously a staple of the genre, but SKB pulls it out better than most Beat’em Ups. Each girl is obviously endowed with her own exclusive combination of speed, strength and endurance as well as granted her own private combos—this was already the rule in Streets of Rage, and it’s still valid today. SKB then pushes the envelope a tad further by allotting different ranges and areas of effect to each lady’s Secret Arts (i.e. powerful special attacks), and pushes it even further by giving the same treatment to their regular attacks. This could have ended up as a giant mess of unbalanced characters, had things not been handled admirably well; what you get instead is a lively, vibrant and multifaceted fighting system that can nearly give you the feeling that you’re playing a different game every time you switch characters—expect that you’re not, so you still have the benefit of fully mastering the game’s commands. This obviously gives SKB a huge amount of replay value; as a matter of fact, I’ve been playing the game for a good twenty hours and still didn’t fully explore all the variations of the fighting style embodied by the ladies. 

When all is said and done, and when one looks beyond the campy fan-service coating, Senran Kagura Burst is a gloriously good game. It’s a fun, lively and exuberant Beat’em Up that offers a rock-solid and exhilarating fighting experience, as well interesting characters that are highly loveable and relatable and a touching storyline. The wealth of content packed by SKB is truly staggering: there are so many different modes, stages and fighters that you can rest assured that your initial investment in the game will be recouped several times over. The amount of content is actually so enormous that it borders on being overwhelming, leaving the player queasy and with the feeling that there is way much more than they can chew and that they will never see the end of it. I’d like to elaborate on that point, as well as on the other flaws of Senran Kagura Burst; however, this post itself is on the verge of becoming overwhelmingly huge and indigestible, so these matters will have to wait for my next post, which will be dedicated to the less glorious aspects of the game. Thanks for reading, and be my guest anytime!

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