If you can count on the anime industry for anything, you can count on it to try to combine cute characters and improbable sports. Kandagawa Jet Girls on the PS4 and PC is just the latest in a venerable tradition of making fun competition out of unlikely sources.
This time around, Kandagawa Jet Girls combines bubbly high school girls and high-speed watersports. In its vision of the near future, “Jet Racing” is a sport with global recognition, with young women the world over competing to drive futuristic jet skis in combat races. Jet Racing teams consist of two people. One is a “Jetter” who pilots the fancy watercraft, and another is a Shooter” who attacks competitors with advanced (and non-lethal) water guns. Nowhere is the Jet Racing scene more fierce than along Tokyo’s Kanda River (the Kandagawa). The river’s heavy urbanization makes it the ideal race course, teeming with twists, turns, and obstacles both natural and man-made. Fighting for dominance over the course are seven distinct race teams, each representing their school and rocking a unique aesthetic.
Like the anime series it’s based on, Kandagawa Jet Girls shines brightest when it focuses on the color and quirk of its fourteen-strong cast of characters. The titular Kandagawa Jet Girls are Rin Namiki and Misa Aoi, a classical hot-cold combo of enthusiastic sunshine and competitive intensity. Team DRESS combine unflappable dignity and ruthless efficiency, pairing wealthy heiress Kaguya Shijyuin with her loyal ninja-maid Kuromaru Manpuku. The Pan sisters who make up the idol duo Hell’s Kitchen combine expert teamwork with showboating grandeur. And there’s no better word to describe Jennifer Peach and Emily Orange, a pair of American exchange students, than “Weeb”, considering the way they idolize Japan. Other teams run a diverse spectrum of anime-girl stereotypes, from sassy fashionistas to secret agents to cameos from the Senran Kagura series. Ryona and Ryobi from Senran Kagura: Shinovi Versus are in the base game, with more couples planned as premium add-ons.
Kandagawa Jet Girls’ is strongest when it comes to dealing with this large slate of characters. Every main team gets its own surprisingly lengthy campaign that spins an original yarn starring the girls. Rin and Misa are an upstart team and want to win the Kandagawa Cup as a way of proving themselves (and deepening their relatioship). Meanwhile Kaguya wants to take Team DRESS to the winner’s podium because a Jet Racing championship would be something she won through her own skill, rather than handed to her thanks to her family’s privilege. Though the narrative beats are fairly predictable if you’ve watched enough anime, it can still be affecting, and is delivered well. The character models in particular are a standout, with an expressiveness that rivals the character animation in much more expensively-made 3D anime-style titles. The cracks in the narrative presentation only really show when you notice that the story would hit much better with a wider selection of backgrounds, some bespoke event art, or a token cinematic cutscene. Either way, I ended up preferring the game’s story to the one I found watching the anime series, which functioned as a flatly mediocre exercise in getting the girls to prance around in swimsuits.
Sure, the story features the girls finding any excuse to settle their differences through a race, but if anything, it proves that it doesn’t need the kind of fan-service stunts the anime pulls. Nowhere in the game are there bits where shooting a competitor with a water gun would cause their wetsuit to pop off as a “safety feature”. Nor is Kandagawa Jet Girls the kind of game that needs to sell an “uncensored” version on premium services. It’s happy to make it through as a completely work-safe (if still somewhat risque) arcade racer, and makes the cut on those merits.
Unfortunately, the merits are unevenly distributed. For all its appeal as a place for cute characters to interact and banter, it’s merely adequate as a racing game. There’s no denying that some depth can be found in Kandagawa Jet Girls‘ racing mechanics. The game aims for a spot somewhere between more simulation-style watercraft racers like Aqua Moto and peppy arcade-style fare like Mario Kart, but unfortunately fails to fully capture the best elements of either end of the spectrum.
Kandagawa Jet Girls features some advanced jet ski racing techniques, like being able to adjust the nose depth of the craft to balance control and speed. Landing right off a jump becomes an important factor in keeping speed up, and the water racing format makes drifting for additional speed boosts quite fun to master. The combat racing elements also add a welcome sense of pressure. At any time, a button-press can cause your team’s Shooter to fire their water gun in a straight line, potentially drenching and slowing down enemies ahead. Pick-ups littered about the course also grant one of a number of different weapons, ranging from water shotguns that trade power for range to slow-moving homing (water) rockets that can blast a whole group of opponents. You can also charge and spend boost energy to restore shields, summon hazardous water spouts, and do a “blue shell” trick that targets whoever is in the lead. Mid-air tricks can even be executed to add RPG-like buff effects while in the race.
While this makes for a good time on paper, in practice Kandagawa Jet Girls gives a player little reason to truly engage with its many mechanics. In part this is due to desperately poor competition from the computer. During the story modes I was regularly gaining thirty- to forty-second leads on my opponents, and had to deliberately race terribly just to see what it was like to shoot someone from behind. The story mode is a frank testament to the notion that not all cases of “rubber band” AI are bad, for at the very least, its presence in Kandagawa Jet Girls might have made playing the story mode feel slightly more than perfunctory.
AI woes aside, Kandagawa Jet Girls lacks a sense of speed. In reality, river racing can be one of the most exciting motorsports imaginable. Negotiating tight turns at in churning waves and along narrow channels should make for a harrowing experience to race. But the game has almost no water dynamics to speak of, and other than having the nose-control element, the water of the Kanda river might as well be a sparkly-textured floor. The sense of speed is also lacking, and the girls’ sleek Jet Machines never feel like they’re moving as quickly as the speedometer claims.
Kandagawa Jet Girls sadly isn’t quite the return of Wave Race as some hopeful fans might have wanted, but leaves plenty to chew on for players that would rather enjoy the story and character interactions.