Senran Kagura Burst Re:Newal Review

After a couple of questionable releases (Gal Metal and Gungrave VR), XSEED Games is back on track bringing the very best – and quirkiest – Japanese games to the West. Senran Kagura Burst Re:Newal is a full remake of the Nintendo 3DS game that introduced lovable and buxom shinobi girls to the unexpecting world. Re:Newal transforms the original 2D side-scrolling beat’ em up into a blisteringly fast 3rd-person action, all bountifully presented and honed to nigh perfection. After all, only the best will do to honor mysterious ninja arts, cherished by modern shinobi wannabes divided into two schools, Hanzo Academy for government-endorsed candidates and Hejibo Clandestine Girls Academy for shadier slice of covert and assassination action.

The tease Senran Kagura franchise offers can get stale real fast if there’s not a good game backing it up. That’s exactly what happened with Bon Appetit and Reflexions, two entries to the franchise that took away its exciting core gameplay. Fan service is one thing and a good game another, and more often than not they don't meet. Here, though, both sides of the coin are mint instead of cheating horny nerds with a second-class product just plastered with tits. Sure, there are big, bouncy and juicy fun bags all over the place that are (almost) exposed when the fighting takes its toll on attires. What’s more important, though, that behind boobies galore is a bona fide game with great care and attention to detail, providing for some smooth and sexy martial arts action. In the context, sexual imagery seems almost superfluous.

There are two campaigns to play through, one for each school, both consisting of 41 missions divided into five chapters. As there’s no tiresome open world to plod through, you can play the game as little or as much as you want at each go. Completing chapters unlocks a bunch of free missions for some quick action fix. Story missions always have a designated character to play with, but for free missions you can choose your desired shinobi. All missions can be replayed as many times as you like to grind experience points to level up the characters with, increasing their hit points and attack and defense values. When jumping into action, you can skip story segments that take place before and after story missions.

Ten characters, five for each school, may not sound like much (Peach Beach Splash had 24 characters!) but it ensures that every girl is guaranteed to have a unique fighting style. There are no cheap skin swaps here. Dignified Ikaruga’s disciplined single tachi-style is the most beautiful representation of the sword arts in video games since Hibiki Takane in SNK’s Last Blade 2, something you wouldn’t probably expect to see in a game featuring bouncy boobs. Fierce and tanned Homura lets it rip with her six blades she wields between her clenched fingers for some wild and free-flowing combos. Senran Kagura’s poster girl, good-hearted Asuka, settles with two blades she uses to a great effect and Yomi, who loves nothing more than bean sprouts, grabs a huge bastard sword, not unlike Cloud Strife’s trademark weapon, for heavy-hitting attack strings.

Seemingly fluffy and uninhibitedly titty Katsuragi goes for a series of agile powerhouse kicks while naïve Hibari’s notion of unarmed fighting extends to her butt. Mirai and Yagyū don’t only share a corrective eye patch as both utilize an umbrella for a weapon. Diminutive Mirai hides a multi-purpose rifle in it and calm and composed Yagyū uses brolly for dangerous melee slashes. Bitchy Haruka doesn’t bother with much exercise as she employs hovering mechanical arms to wreak havoc with. Hikage, eerily reptile-eyed and emotionless girls, wields disposable knives she hides under her sleeves, slithering and stinging like a serpent she is (it’s her movement that ensured me with a trophy for no received hits during a mission).

The action takes place on closed arenas and depending on a mission, it’s either brawling against multiple enemies or a duel with an opposing shinobi girl (and sometimes against a comrade, too, in an exercise to boost their confidence). Either way, gameplay is blistering fast and smooth. Target lock is nicely loose as it doesn’t tie you up to a certain enemy but more like gives an attack direction. The animation of cel-shaded characters is nothing short of superb. Moves connect to each other beautifully with plentiful in-between frames to smooth out the movement and the girls’ figures and limbs twist and bend convincingly with just the right amount of exaggeration to make it look more dynamic (it’s this area where the Western developers lack the know-how).

Simply put, the action is amazing to watch and play, easily best since NieR: Automata. Sublime animation transfers into rapid and abundant martial arts display of effectively flowing combos and easily executable ninja arts and aerial combos, taking the fight up into the air and all over the arenas. Thankfully, though, there’s a lot of depth behind the obvious show-off, as you have to learn ins and outs of each girl’s individual discipline to make it through the more difficult fights later on. Indeed, it’s as if you’re taking classes in ninja school yourself, coming to terms with advanced techniques beyond seemingly carefree button-smashing and learning to read each shinobi’s move and attack patterns to best them in duels. The game makes you accommodate different strategies depending who you play a mission with and what or who she faces in it. What works for one girl won’t work with another, as each as her strengths and shortcomings, and part of the fun is figuring them out in any given situation.

The titular Burst comes into play when the odds are against you. To regain lost health in mid-fight, battling shinobi girls can burst out of their clothes, with white glow covering their nipples and private parts before new clothes are magically layered onto their exposed bodies. Shinobi Transformation gives a new lease on life, a partially new moveset and secret ninja arts to balance out the fight with. For a hardcore challenge, you can enter missions in a frantic mode where the girls fight just in their undies. Their defense is low but attack values are higher, allowing to test out how punctual your combat skills are (for a real test of mettle, I’ll advice taking a duel with Mirai in the frantic mode. She may be small but her rapid placement changes and the wide array of rifle attacks are a handful to deal with). There will be times when you need to grind levels to keep up with the gradually steepening challenge but the core gameplay is fun and missions are short so it’s never a chore to replay them. Successful fighting also earns money to buy new clothes, art, videos and music from the in-game store.

Who would have thought that behind such a skin-deep outlook and premise lies wisdom and depth, not only in the gameplay but also in characterization. Despite some silly stories, shinobi girls are well-rounded characters (ahem!) and obvious sexualization aside, the game doesn’t abuse them but treats them with respect. They’re all unique personalities with their traits and vices, and the more you get to know them, the more depth you will unearth behind the peep show. There’s also gravity behind the writing, as more or less deliberately the game tells about coming to terms with oneself and gaining self-confidence to face the daily challenges each of us meets. The Japanese culture - its code of conduct, concept of honor and, of course, cuisine – is also prevalent factor in the story, but thanks to XSEED’s excellent translation and localization, the game is very welcoming.

The PC version has the infamous intimacy mode in the dressing room that was censored from the PlayStation 4 version on Sony’s command. I think it should be decided by the players themselves whether they want to engage in some virtual (and ultimately harmless) fondling or not, and not by some hypocritical execs. It always beats me why mindless violence is considered okay but sexual content is a definite no-no. Technically speaking, the game may have modest system requirements but it makes most out of hardware. The fast action runs in consistent 60ftps and the character models are incredibly crisp and smooth. At the expense of maintaining a flawless frame rate, backgrounds graphics are a bit sparse but who will have time to pay attention at them amidst frantic action anyway? Catchy J-rock paces the action, and the game is fully voiced in Japanese with a mix of fluffy and devoted performances nailing the cast’s personalities.

It comes off almost as a shame, then, that the lovable girls are obviously also sex objects, which is bound to alienate some of the players who otherwise would potentially enjoy the deep gameplay. Usually, games with extravagantly sexy characters are B-grade trash where scantily clad girls are the sole reason for their existence. Here, though, the game is a real deal with immensely satisfying action, clearly thought-out in great detail and executed in a manner that tells about proper dedication to the subject matter that goes beyond the (cute) face value. Having said that, I found Hebijo school girls more titillating than Hanzo students, with Hikage, Homura and Mirai being my favorites (though I really dig Ikaruga’s beautiful fighting style). As often the case, bad girls are more enticing to an ordinary guy!

If you can choose between PS4 or PC versions, go for the latter. It’s not that you need the intimacy mode, it’s more like showing you don’t endorse any unwanted censorship. This year, when many upcoming hit games threaten with scenes of explicit, detailed and prolonged violence, this is what we need: more fan service and less gore! In many ways, Senran Kagura Burst Re:Newal presents a win-win situation; it’s undoubtedly the best game in the franchise and as it happens, also an excellent introduction to the wacky world of sexy shinobi girls. However, if you object sexualization for any reason, the game is not for you. For everyone else, Senran Kagura Burst Re:Newal is pure video game entertainment that is satisfying on many levels, in and out!

Video game nerd & artist. I've been playing computer and video games since the early 80's so I dare say I have some perspective to them. When I'm not playing, I'm usually at my art board.