Before Uppers released on PC, it was only a much-desired Japan-exclusive PS Vita game. Produced by Senran Kagura creator Kenichiro Takaki, it was originally released in 2016 and scheduled for an ill-fated remaster on PS4 and PC by 2018. As years passed with seemingly no word, most assumed the game was buried, until a sudden Steam drop on October 21, 2020. Now that it’s here, though, was the wait worth it? And if you’re like me, who only recognized Uppers at all because one of the characters in it is available as a default PlayStation Network avatar on the Asian PSN, does the game make a good first impression?
Incidentally, “making a good first impression” is basically what Uppers is all about. But rather than dressing nice and cleaning up for a job interview, in Uppers first impressions are about testing your might against the toughest toughs on Last Resort Island. Two youngsters, Ranma and Michiru, arrive on the scene and aim to get to the top by using the piled up bodies of the badasses they beat as a stepping stone. And why do they wanna get to the top? To impress girls, naturally.
As expected of a brawler from the makers of Senran Kagura, Uppers doesn’t exactly spin a particularly complex yarn, though it does lean in on the presentation. Narrative is presented using well-animated 3D models in the familiar visual novel style. The animations are expressive, and thanks to the increased power and resolution available to modern PCs, the character models look clean, though they do have that slightly-too-shiny look that seems to affect similar games that rock an “anime in 3D” aesthetic (case in point: Kandagawa Jet Girls).
You’ll take each of the 13 available Uppers characters — including Senran Kagura‘s Daidoji-senpai — on a tour up the top of Last Resort’s fight rankings brawling with hundreds or thousands of nameless baddies in the name of exciting crowds of screaming schoolgirls. Those crowds actually do play a role. The girls will occasionally yell out a request to take down an enemy with a special technique or to perform a specific environmental gimmick. Obliging them increases your favor, and before long you’ll have support characters following you around like groupies. The groupies also have an impact on gameplay. They’ll like you more if you take them into battle, and increasing their affection will net new missions, and, in the fanservice-heavy tradition of Senran Kagura, a bunch of leery animations where you can ogle, dress up, and interact with the girls. There’s even a slot machine mini-game that unlocks new patterns and colors for your groupies underpants. Interacting with groupies and gaining their favor also confers passive bonuses and even in-combat benefits: If you get knocked away by an enemy’s counter, you might be sent flying into the loving embrace of your nearby companion’s bosom or lap, suffering no damage, or even recovering health.
The fighting itself is no slouch either. Though Uppers’ lineage extends from Senran Kagura, I’d actually say it feels a bit more like PSP classic Kenka Bancho: Badass Rumble to play. Uppers combat involves lock-on targeting, combos aplenty, elaborate QTE finishers, and includes lock-on targeting, elaborate QTE finishers, and combos aplenty to send your groupie audience into ecstasy. You can even call a buddy character to tag in or deliver some extra damage, or use a fairly simple grab and counter system to move enemies around the field. Unfortunately, though, the sense of variety quickly wears off, thanks to some egregiously repetitive mission design. Almost all there is to do in Uppers is beat every enemy in a fairly small selection of levels to a pulp, between narrative sequences and buying upgrades and clothes. Granted, brawlers aren’t exactly the most complex games you can find, but Uppers‘ lack of variety makes Dynasty Warriors look like Skyrim. This is most likely a holdover from its placement on the portable PS Vita: Short stages and repeatable gameplay are perfect for killing a few rounds between train stations, but in 2020 on the PC there are many more ways to use that time.
Uppers may be a wish come true for some longtime Vita or Senran Kagura holdouts, but outside of that odd legacy, it can’t really compete with its contemporaries. Fans who know what they’re getting into will find satisfaction in the game’s mix of fast action and pervy distractions, but others need only try to conquer Last Resort island…as a last resort.
Uppers is immediately available on PC via Steam.