Valkyrie Drive Bhikkhuni is cut from the same cloth as Marvelous’ previous all-women action brawler, Senran Kagura: Shinovi Versus. Both games feature a cast of young women with breasts that confound the laws of gravity as they engage in a method of combat in which damage is represented by torn clothing. Where Senran Kagura featured rival ninjas schools fighting for dominance for their disparate philosophies, Valkyrie Drive focuses on women with the ability to transform into weapons through a surprising provocation. The core concept is novel, and while the game is stuffed with unapologetic sex appeal, I found its repetitive nature and failure to better differentiate its cast to take a harmful toll.
Aside from a smattering of gameplay differences, it's difficult not to see Valkyrie Drive as a Senran Kagura reversion. You’ll experience the trials and tribulations of women as they live on the island of Bhikkhuni, a sanctuary for those afflicted by a peculiar condition called the V-virus. This condition allows them to fall into one of two categories: Extars, those that can transform into weapons, and Liberators, women who can safely wield those weapons. The purpose of the island isn't so much treatment as it is a chance for the women to contain and control their powers to live a somewhat normal life. Sisters Ranka and Rinka, along with the spiritually minded Mana and the tsundere Momo, are the latest batch of recruits to enter the program.
Large swaths of gameplay are built around fairly linear stages designed after prominent island locations. Reminiscent of old school brawlers, you'll battle through these areas fighting mob after mob of enemy units until the end level boss appears. The combat system involves chaining attacks together to create combo moves that play to the strengths of an Extar. Mana, for example, is a ranged fighter and uses Momo as a bow to hit enemies at a distance while Ranka’s gauntlets are better suited to close combat. Each strike against an enemy drone increases the character’s Synchro Stock and opens up the opportunity to launch a Drive transformation.
Senran Kagura developed infamy for its bold characters and the frequency with which they were punched out of their clothes. Valkyrie Drive has its own sexy hook, one that the game is coy about initially. Unless you've seen the companion anime series Valkyrie Drive: Mermaid, there's no way to be prepared for the revelation that Extars can only transform when sexually aroused by their Liberators. This process plays out in transformation animations that feature escalating scenes of intimacy between two women. There’s a reason to actively fill the Synchro Stock, and it’s not to watch two women do naughty things. The Drive process increases the attack power of the Extar, making it easier to take down large groups or tougher enemies.
Ideally, it's good to save up Synchro Stock for the game’s boss fights because they are stronger, capable of using juggling attacks and special, shirt tearing power hits. They can even trigger their own Drive transformations. During higher level play, in which both opponents have reached their maximum Drive form, it is possible to strike a boss hard enough that she and her Extar will split and crash to the ground completely naked (with their anatomical bits tastefully censored). When the stage is over, your score--determined by the time spent and damage sustained--yields experience that can be fed to the Liberator, Extar, or both. To encourage replay and exploration, levels contain special collectibles and secret areas that can only be accessed by a groping robot. Fun fact: entry into these special zones is determined by your character’s Rack Rank. Yeah, that rack.
The personal journeys of the characters are told primarily through a visual novel format as they share their thoughts, feelings, and experiences of the world around them. Free time is relegated to the dining room, a hub that lets you save the game, interact with other people, customize a character’s appearance, and spend money on new accessories, music, lingerie, and character art. The dressing room, shamelessly lifted from Senran Kagura Shinovi Versus, grants “private time” to dress each woman from the ground up. The thing is, though, adding cute clothes and odds and ends doesn't have any strategic value so the practice offers little more than the satisfaction of fully controlling their appearance. The only useful thing about the dressing room is the task of raising their Rack Rank. This is done by poking, groping, and patting them down despite their annoyance and pleas to stop. Do this enough times and a massage-themed mini-game is unlocked and features your bikini-clad warrior writhing and moaning as you click on strategically placed hearts.
Valkyrie Drive is bound to turn a head and raise an eyebrow or two just like its cousin. However, the game is lesser for it. Strip away the lurid bits and what is left is pretty much a carbon copy of the other game. It suffers from a shortfall of ambition. Rather than use Shinovi Versus as a foundation to make something different, like Senran Kagura Estival Versus, Valkyrie Drive simply doesn’t do enough with what it has. Once the process of maxing out an Extar’s Drive level and its ensuing cutscene is complete, there isn’t much to see after that. All of the characters use the exact same animations for the Rack Rank minigame and Drive transformation, ignoring their unique personalities and defining character quirks.
In the end, the game fails to be anything more than a Senran Kagura also ran. While I’m not opposed to over the top games of this type (not to mention that the combat is pretty fun), it annoys me when the developers don’t do enough with the material they have. The best thing I can say about the game is how well it adapts to being ported to the PC from the PlayStation Vita (which I played quite a bit). The graphics are sharp and the frame rate is slick with minimal slowdown even when numerous enemies fill the screen. That’s where the good mostly ends. Valkyrie Drive Bhikkhuni has short sidedness to its design that Senran Kagura addressed in its own sequel. So who knows? Perhaps Valkyrie Drive Bhikkhuni 2 might be better.
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.