For some, Senran Kagura needs no introduction. This fleshy and jiggly IP bounced on the scene with as much subtlety as Dead or Alive Xtreme Beach Volleyball. From a distance, Senran Kagura was little more than a booby show, a shallow attempt to attract lovers of fanservice worldwide with a bevy of cute, well endowed anime girls. The series is also notorious for its clothes tearing battle damage mechanic. It’s not as over the top as, say, Valkyrie Drive where girls turn into weapons after achieving heights of sexual arousal. In comparison, hearing girls moan suggestively as their clothes are torn away is pretty tame. Now that we’ve established that Senran Kagura is a friend to perverts, there’s more to Shinovi Versus than titillation. Beyond the sex appeal you’ll find a pleasantly solid combo-driven brawler.
Shinovi Versus picks up six months after Senran Kagura Burst, which featured Hanzo Academy’s run-in with the Hebijo girl’s school, a rival ninja academy that trains its students as mercenaries for hire instead of proponents for peace and justice. The story concerns a long standing tradition among rival schools in which they undergo a battle royale to determine the fate practicing dojos. If one dojo challenges another and wins, then they are free to literally burn the other school down to the ground. Concerned with preserving their legacy and tradition, Asuka and the girls of the Hanzo dojo train to confront their haughty challengers. Major plot points are delivered primarily through a visual novel format, which means reading through several pages of voiced text, sandwiched between gameplay levels. Unless you’re a fan of the visual novel genre and have the patience to sit through dramatic readings of on-screen text, this will likely be the most boring aspect of the game.
What makes Shinovi Versus’ story a little more interesting is the opportunity to experience it from the perspective of nearly twenty characters. Seeing how the plot to destroy Hanzo Academy from the eyes of its students and rivals helps to make the story a little more colorful. And the best part about this system is that you can switch characters and schools in between missions. You’re not beholden to one character per playthrough like the first Senran Kagura game. It helps to add some perspective to the proceedings. For the most part, you’re allowed to play as any of your current school’s roster of ninjas, unless the narrative dictates otherwise. The game’s secondary sub-missions allow you to choose a ninja and experience a personal, non-essential vignette that helps to underscore the character’s background and personality. These secondary missions are structured similarly to the main missions but more arcade-like in nature.
Whether you’re defending Hanzo Academy in the battle royales or helping Asuka find the right ingredients for a sushi roll, combat is designed the same across both game modes. A combo-heavy brawler, fighting ninjas brings to mind games like Dynasty Warriors and, to an extent, Final Fight. In a given stage, be it set in the city, a high school, a park, or a snow covered shrine, you’ll fight mobs of enemies (with as many as ten to fifteen on screen at once) before encountering a boss, which is usually one of the girls from a different academy. By stringing weak and strong attacks, it is possible to create devastating combo moves that can make short work of any unprepared shinobi. Performing these combos isn’t particularly difficult as the game is generous about maintaining successive hit counters. It’s even easier to juggle enemies in the air making it possible to perform over 500 hits against a single group of enemies. Seeing the hit counter quickly increase is a really beautiful thing. The downside to combat is that many of the girls have pretty much the same combo techniques. Their weapon proficiencies offer different combat animations and range, I often felt like I used the same combo string for every single one of the game’s characters.
There is more to fighting ninjas than using strong and weak attacks. The true power of the girls comes from their mastery of Shinobi Transformations. During the game, a meter indicating the girl’s Ninja Art gradually fills as enemies are defeated. After reaching maximum, it’s possible to activate a Shinobi Transformation that initiates a Sailor Moon-style transformation cutscene in which your ninja gets out of her civilian clothes and into their ninja outfit. While in Shinobi mode, the girls can use their remaining meter to initiate special power moves that can easily eliminate all nearby enemies. When used against bosses, Ninja Arts presents the mechanic Senran Kagura is (in)famous for. Through continual use of special attacks, you’ll tear away an opponent’s clothing, exposing more and more skin. The optional goal, in this particular case, is successfully get the opponent down to her underwear (read: “lingerie”) and perform a Ninja Art technique in order to expose her breasts (not really, they’re covered by chibi characters of that character). Think of it as a humiliation move used in wrestling. This sort of attack can and will be used by bosses, turning them into a battle to protect one’s clothing and dignity. There is another way to (safely) see your playable character fight in her underwear. Characters can willingly be put in Frantic mode which drops their defense way down while significantly increases their attack power. With their bra and panties exposed, this particular move is useful as a last ditched effort against enemies and bosses.
Eliminating enemies and defeating bosses contribute to an experience system that awards swift play and minimal damage. Levelling up characters unlocks new combo tiers and increases their health and Ninja Art meters, making them more and more capable of tackling some of the game’s later challenges. Money is also awarded for good play though it is only good for buying new clothes and accessories for the girls to wear. You can purchase level music, movies, and gallery images, but outfitting your girls with bunny ears, sexy costumes, and various odds and ends is where the cash ends up going. As if the shop wasn’t already brimming with clothing options, a Lingerie Lottery offers an increasingly sultry collection of colorful undergarments.
Modelling your girls in the game’s dressing room and activating Frantic underscores the key differences between this PC port and the original Vita game. On the whole, this is a fantastic PC adaptation. Using a controller is much more comfortable for extended periods of play and the solidness of the Xbox gamepad means I can mash buttons with impunity instead of worrying about whether or not I’m damaging the Vita in some way. Graphically, it’s gorgeous and the framerate is spectacular, making it the superior version. In game, the characters have a nice, subtle cell shaded look, giving them an appearance similar to their anime counterparts, that is clean and crisp. However, certain pieces of interactivity are lost in the transition. Initiating Frantic halts the action and brings the camera in a tight closeup against the character’s chest. On the Vita, you’re prompted to use your thumbs to swipe across both sides of the screen, to simulate the act of spreading their breasts apart. In the dressing room, you could poke, prod, fondle, and tickle by touching the handheld’s screen. You can do these things on the PC with either the analog sticks or mouse, though the perverted, tactile effect is lost.
There’s more to the game than all the skin, boob jokes, and double entendres. The game part of Shinovi Versus is actually quite fun. It brings to mind the mindless brawlers of old, like Dynasty Warriors and Final Fight, where the thrill lies in fighting mobs of enemies as a one-person fighting force. It helps that the action here is fast and frenetic. It’s so easy to get riled up when confronted with a mob of fifteen enemies because you know your combo attacks are more than capable of taking them out. Common enemies are no more than cannon fodder, bosses are noticeably more intelligent and know when to push the attack, hold back, and activate their Shinobi Transformations. Outside of the game, I even found myself caught up in playing dress up with the characters, trying on different permutations of Ninja Gear and Shinobi clothes. There’s a whole positivity about the game that is pretty infectious, despite any puerile intent.
With its attitudes towards sex and the female form, it is clear that Senran Kagura Shinovi Versus won’t be for everyone. While there is no nudity to speak of (any accidental glimpses behind censored filters reveals Barbie doll-like anatomy), it’s bawdy sense of humor more than justifies a Mature rating. This is a game that doesn’t think twice about sexualizing its cast of characters and putting them in situations that they might find compromising. Still, there’s a strong sense that everything done here is all in good fun. There’s no salacious or mean-spirited intent here and there’s a keen awareness of what it’s doing. Look past its sexy veneer and Shinovi Versus is a solid, well made brawler with panache. Come for the boobs, stay for the empowering battles against ninja hordes.
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.