Anyone with passing knowledge of the Senran Kagura franchise already knows what to expect when a new video game bounces onto the scene. Large stages occupied by a large number of enemy grunts, colorful characters, frenetic button mashing action, and boatloads of unabashed T and A. By all accounts, Senran Kagura Estival Versus hits all the line items on the checklist. Beyond its sun-drenched setting and a cornucopia of bikinis, there isn’t much that will surprise those coming from Shinobi Versus save for a few modifications and an increased intimacy with the female cast.
The story of Estival Versus is utter nonsense, much like the others in the series. The premise of a mystical summer festival that has the power to bring loved ones back from the dead for eight days has such little impact on what most people want out of a game like this. Though, to be fair, that’s great if there are those interested in the “deep lore” of ninja schools Gessen, Hebijo, and Crimson Squad. Yet their pre- and post-game antics have a tendency to be nothing more than empty calories. Suffice it to say, there is a reason that the girls have been whisked away to an endless summer realm: they must participate in a battle royal to determine who will be invited to reach the Kagura, the highest rank of the Shinobi arts. Doing so means each school must destroy each other's festival platforms during their engagements. It’s worth pointing out that after the game makes such a big deal out of this task, you won’t be doing much of it in the first few hours.
Battles play out as vignettes that jump between the perspective of the cast. A loose setup provides the battles with some purpose, though the visual novel method of storytelling means a lot of the plot is presented as text dumps between characters. Once the battle begins, you'll either be confronted by a large gathering of low-level enemies (who now lose their clothes as they take damage) or must face another shinobi - sometimes up to three at once. Using both weak and strong attacks, you’ll string together button presses to create combos and juggling enemies in the air. What I don’t like was the main story’s mechanic of switching player characters on you to fit the story. Not every character plays the same, which is a good thing, but playing through a stage with a character who has awesome, rapid-fire attacks only to start the next with someone, like Katsuragi, whose attacks are slow and deliberate is let down.
The sheer number of enemies on screen is cool, but I first worried that the chaos would make it difficult to watch for counters and air juggles. Thankfully, there is a multitude of visual and audio cues that call out for your attention. The grunt battles are mostly fluff because it doesn’t take much for them to be destroyed. They’re nothing like the boss engagements that feature a mechanic the series is infamous for.
Battling other ninja girls is ultimately a test to see whose health meter depletes fastest. To speed things along, your ninja is a master of the Shinobi arts, which gives them the ability to transform into a stronger, more combat efficient fighter. Like the magical girl genre of anime, these transformations are represented as short cutscenes where the girls are stripped naked (their arms and hands covering up the anatomical bits) and they coyly pull a ninja scroll from between their breasts, under their arms and other...more creative hiding places. As the camera pans up from their feet, stopping only at their butts and chests, their outfits change into more complex and cool designs. If there’s one thing I like about the Senran Kagura series, it’s the character designs. Each has a different outfit that plays to their personality. These threads, though, are fragile. Battle damage is represented by three stage clothes destruction. The more hits sustained, the more shredded their outfits become until nothing’s left. Performing a special attack when the boss’ health is lowest is usually enough to strip them completely and trigger a brand new feature to the series: the Special Finisher. These are, essentially, sexy versions of Mortal Kombat’s level fatalities only instead of getting ripped to pieces, the girls will find themselves naked and vulnerable as they get wrapped up in volleyball nets, get slammed against a glass door, have their bathing suits fall out, spanked atop taiko drums and other goofy little vignettes.
Battles are graded on time completed and damage auditioned. The higher the grade, the better score and experience received. New fighting skills develop as the characters earn experience points to increase their character levels. They’ll also get money to spend in the shop on new hairstyles, accessories, clothes, diorama poses and backgrounds, video clips, music, and images from the in-game store. Estival Versus provides for an overwhelming amount of customization options for your harem of ninja girls. It’s clear much of the planning for the game was spent on creating ways to customize each character. I wish that much planning went into the actual game. The franchise’s lasciviousness is featured in the game’s dressing room where you can use a pair of floating hands to grope, slap, rub, and pat the girls (who, with the exception of a couple practitioners of BDSM) don't like it very much. This “interaction” culminates with the chance to give the girls a kiss. That's right, friends: slap their boobs around enough you’ll get to kiss these virtual anime ninja girls. I tested this feature out extensively. For research, that is. Yeah. Research! And my in-depth research into this mechanic yields that kissing girls really doesn’t amount to much in this game. Someone wanted it, though. Why else would it be there? Not judging, of course!
If there is something to talk about that doesn't make me feel a little icky, I will say that Estival Versus is a great looking game on the PC. Although it doesn't feel as smooth and crisp as Shinobi Versus, the new game allows for a lot more enemies to appear on-screen. The environments are simple but the palette is extremely colorful, cheery and positive. Because of the summer setting, Estival Versus feels like the obligatory anime episode where the character spend summer at the beach. That means lots of sunshine and fun, cheery locations to battle around in. Given the theme, expect to see the Senran Kagura girls show up wearing swimsuits and their casual clothes far more often than any other game. Again, I like the costumes, including the assortment of swimsuits. There are a lot of them to purchase in the store, about 120 of them, and each sport a different design. It's nice to see that some effort went into making them fairly distinct.
By now, if you've played one Senran Kagura title, you've pretty much played them all. The games stress character play over gameplay and that'd be a problem if the practice of battling other ninjas until their clothes fall off wasn't fun. The combat is solidly built though sometimes it feels as if there isn't enough of it to go around. That’s where the Shinobi Girl’s Heart and Special Mission modes come into play. Unlocked by satisfying certain requirements, the Shinobi Girl’s Heart missions follow the personal stories of each girl, fleshing out their lives as they live and explore their supernatural paradise. The Special Missions are a series of battles that are really hard to win at first because the enemies are much stronger and better combat AI than those in the story. After losing the first stage multiple times, I was left thinking that this was Estival Versus’ form of end game content. So, if the story mode has you bored, there’s more action to be found.
Senran Kagura Estival Versus appeals to a very particular taste. Those who love fanservice and ecchi-rich anime will have a fantastic time as the girls fight and dilly dally on the beach. I do appreciate that the game made some changes to its design and presentation, making it a more animated and spirited game than Shinobi Versus. With a new dynamic camera, sexier transformations, and “interesting” finishers, and more robust playtime systems for the girls, the game knows its audience. Though the plot is lacking and the battles are often repetitive, such concerns are not going to stop fans from having some fun in the sun.
Librarian by day, Darkstation review editor by night. I've been playing video games since the days of the Commodore 64 and I have no interest in stopping now that I've made it this far.