I believe I’ve said it here before but Senran Kagura is my guilty pleasure. The fanservice rich, action-oriented multimedia franchise is unabashed in its sexiness and to suggest that I enjoy it mostly for the combat and character dynamics feels an awful lot like saying I look at Playboy for the articles (now there’s a dated concept). It’s true though! The combat, and the large arenas they take place in, are really fun. No one needs to justify the games they like but I’m down with Senran Kagura because it’s a colorful, upbeat, and bright departure from the more thematically mature games I play. And it has happy anime ladies in it, too! There is more to these games than over the top lewdness. Core entries in the series have a lot of depth, character customization, large scale mob battles, and interpersonal relationships between a growing cast of characters with different personalities. Senran Kagura games also tend to find creative ways to maximize the technology of the systems they are designed for, like Senran Kagura: Bon Appetit for the PlayStation Vita and now Reflexions for the Nintendo Switch. However, an effective use of the Switch’s hardware is the only nice thing I have to say about Marvelous’ latest game in the franchise.
Senran Kagura: Reflexions is a visual novel built around reflexology. Summoned by Asuka, a poster girl for the series, the nameless player character (whose gender is unequivocally male) is asked to perform a series of massages to ease the “strange feeling” in her heart. The probing of her palms and fingers serve as springboards to vignettes featuring Asuka in unique costumes and scenarios - the star volleyball player, a saucy school tutor, monster slayer, and an idol singer to name a few - whose personal needs can only be assuaged by a sensual massage. When you get right down to it, what Reflexions does is gamify the “secret” dressing room feature from mainline Senran Kagura titles where you play grabby hands with a 3D character model of your choice. Using your “hands,” you’ll probe Asuka’s body for different pressure points that can be poked, rubbed, and slapped until she’s ready to receive “special” treatment. Special, in this case, means using the Joy-Con controller to mimic the use of implements like hands, spiked rollers, electric hand massagers, and hair brushes to ease the muscles mostly on and around her legs and thighs. These scenes are substantially more lurid because of creative and strategic camera angles.
Reflexions wouldn’t be a visual novel without multiple endings to unlock. The massages you give influence Asuka’s mood and steer the direction of the story making where you touch more important. Different parts of her body trigger a burst of color when touched that indicate her emotional reaction. Dark blue, for example, is discomfort and red is a bit more... amorous. Your path through the story is marked by a crystal filling up with the color that matched Asuka’s mood by the end of the massage. Mixing or matching colors eventually triggers one of several finales in which Asuka makes a life decision. In one scenario, Asuka professed her deep and undying love for me and declared her intent to walk away from training as a Shinobi to be with me. In another, she once again professed her love but promised we’d be together after completing her training. You’ll need to play the game several times to see all the endings and unlock her heart, which turned out to be a fairly tall order.
I developed a strong dislike for Reflexions because it’s boring and doesn’t do enough as it should with its game mechanics. As a visual novel, it’s pretty weak. Asuka is painfully vague about the “special feeling” that has drawn the two of you together and instead of reflecting on the different scenes that play out, she simply urges you to keep rubbing her fingers and hands. The massage vignettes don’t have much of a connection to anything, either. In the classroom, she doesn’t comment on the wacky scenarios that precede the physical rub downs. The touchy-feely portion of the game was, at best, an amusing diversion in other Senran Kagura adventures as something to do between combat bouts (or in the case of Peach Beach Splash, gunning down combatants with elaborate water guns). The mood-based massage portion of the game lakes nuance and quickly becomes a chore that you’ll do anything to breeze through. It got to a point where I searched around for the mood color I wanted and just pressed the face buttons until the scene was over. The special massages in Reflexions don’t do enough with the Joy-Con controls and the “HD Rumble” advertising bullet point is silly nonsense. Like the game itself, holding and moving the Joy-Cons in different ways to simulate the use of massage tools is fun until you discover that the button combinations is quicker and easier.
Once the story ends, a modest collection of costumes, hair styles, and accessories are unlocked and made available to play dress up, which is par for the course. What really bums me out, though, is the lack of any other characters from the different shinobi schools. Asuka is the only girl you get to interact with and additional characters will be made available at a later date as paid DLC. The biggest outrage, however, is that the best Senran Kagura character Haruka - isn’t even on the list of upcoming characters! Hell hath no fury like a waifu scorned! Seriously, though, I’m wary of any new character additions to the game because what’s to stop Marvelous from developing them as simple reskins? Part of the reason why I like the characters is because they are so unique and different from each other in their mannerisms, attitudes, and presence. It’d bug me too much to see bean sprout loving Yomi talk to me about opening up her heart without mentioning her favorite vegetable every five seconds. It’s weird enough to see Asuka fall over herself for a boy because many of the characters like her are defined by their skills and abilities and don’t need to be tied down to a relationship. I cannot even fathom Homura turning her back on Hebijo just because someone rubbed her fingers in a really nice way. All this lovey-dovey material in Reflexions is pure romantic fantasy that feels decidedly out of place in the Senran Kagura universe I’m familiar with.
Senran Kagura: Reflexions is a half-baked attempt at a visual novel. I was over the whole thing after getting the first two endings and walking away from it for a few days did nothing to muster up any further excitement. The game’s use of Switch controllers is OK and the “HD Rumble” is hardly revolutionary. I wouldn’t be surprised if I saw this game ported to the PC or Vita within half a year, to be honest. The superficial nature of the visual novel format is strange, considering this series would be perfect for the genre given the size of its character roster and the high stakes confrontations between the different good and evil shinobi schools. What we get instead is a half-assed story connected by a monotonous mini-game. A total bust (not that kind).
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.