The Senran Kagura series has built up some notoriety due to its hyper-sexualized character designs. I’ve always wondered if sexuality was solely what defined the series, or if there was a decent game hidden beneath all the smut. Senran Kagura Burst was my chance to find out, as it marks the first of these games to be brought to western shores, courtesy of Xseed. For the uninitiated, Senran Kagura Burst is a side-scrolling beat-em-up that features light RPG elements and a wealth of fanservice.
Senran Kagura Burst revolves around two warring factions of ninja high school students—the good ninjas attending Hanzo academy and the evil ones attending Hebijo. I fully expected story to not be one of the game’s strong suits, and my expectations were not subverted. Glimpses into potentially interesting back stories and motivations occasionally pop up, but they all too easily get lost in a shuffle of breast groping jokes and friendship speeches.
Really, the only reason I even mention the story is because it’s pushed so aggressively in the game. I felt like I was being crushed under a wall of text between missions, as the game adopts a visual novel style in order to tell its tale. It feels out of place, like the plot is aspiring for something meaningful, but it ends up being an awkward blend of ninja-themed melodrama and sex jokes. That said, on a slightly more positive note, while I hesitate to say that it gets better, the story at the very least becomes more focused and engaging as the game goes on.
That’s only if you last that long, though, as Senran Kagura Burst can easily become a slog to play. To be fair, it’s a beat-em-up, which is a genre built on knocking down repetitious waves of bad guys. However, I consider myself to be somewhat of a beat-em-up enthusiast and I’m generally looking for three things in a good entry to the genre: a decent challenge, a variety of moves, and an enjoyable feel to the game.
Playing Senran Kagura Burst does not feel good, though. For starters, the framerate is incredibly choppy. I wouldn’t say that it ruins how the game plays, but it makes the experience feel a lot clunkier than it should. The game stutters all over the place: in combat, in cutscenes, and even in the ninja school hub area where nothing is going on.
Furthermore, the game is on a 3D plane but lacks good mobility to attack up or down. I ended up experiencing the common beat-em-up problem of trying to line myself up with the enemy in a desperate attempt to hit them. One would think that the stereoscopic 3D depth slider of the 3DS could help with this problem, but surprisingly the 3D is shut off entirely for combat sections.
A slight annoyance to hitting enemies is almost welcome, though, as the game isn’t difficult at all, aside from that. After about one level of practice I was cutting down waves of enemies, barely paying attention and receiving A ranks for my indifference. Taking damage feels like a minor inconvenience, and the only time I truly felt challenged was when I encountered a boss fight that would simply ignore my attacks and wipe me out. My issue turned out to be that I was pressing Y for physical attacks, which were ineffective for this boss, when I should have been pounding the X button to fire projectiles instead. Strategies for success never really got more complicated than that.
The lack of difficulty mostly comes from the underwhelming assortment of enemies. Opponents attack in massive mobs, but rather than adding tension to the combat, this serves only to blend everything together in a smear of flashing lights and flying bodies. There are multiple types of enemies like rookie ninjas, massive schoolgirls, and, for some reason, snakes, but it’s all the same when I can trap everything in a flurry of button mashing.
I’m not saying that I’m button mashing like this is my first video game either, but rather that the game’s combo system is very limited. Almost all of my assaults involved chaining the Y and X buttons together, with the main goal being to launch enemies into the air for extended damage. It’s initially fun to look at and perform, but the reality that doing this combo repeatedly would sum up my entire experience set in rapidly.
My biggest gripe with the combat is that playing optimally gets boring quickly. Once I figured out a good attack chain, the only incentive to messing around was curbing the monotony. Every good combo will involve catching the enemies in a flurry of Y buttons, launching them into the air, and driving them down back down with X when I was done destroying the laws of physics. Unlockable moves can mix things up, as the X and Y combo chains grow larger as character levels up, and special attacks can clear the screen of enemies. Neither of these options really works to make the game more enjoyable, however. In fact, all they do is make a fairly easy game even easier. They are convenient ways to cap off a large combo, but do little in the way of adding depth for what ultimately amounts to a shallow experience.
All of the problems with the story and combat make sense, though, as they aren’t what the game is truly about. No, Senran Kagura Burst is really about the visual spectacle of 3D breasts being shoved in your face. Every one of the female characters is crafted in over-the-top detail in full expectation of being ogled by the player. It becomes clear pretty quickly that the character models are where most of the effort was focused, and the rest of the game suffers for it.
It’s hard to like the game when it’s so fundamentally flawed. The story is lacking, the combat is dull, and the dipping frame rate serves as a constant reminder that the entire game is merely a framework being used to convey panty shots. Remember when I mentioned that the 3D effect was shut off during combat, making enemies occasionally hard to hit? That wasn’t entirely true—the 3D effect activates for mid-battle animations where either your ninja’s or the enemy’s clothes are ripped off, featuring camera zoom-ins on the conveniently affected areas. This pretty much sums up the design process for Senran Kagura Burst: boobs first, everything else later.
While I don’t think there’s necessarily anything wrong with an erotic art style or focus on graphics, I do believe that the game has been damaged as a result. Some people enjoy the character designs, I know for a fact the designers who made the game do, and I respect that. Personally, I think they get in the way of having a respectable plot featuring betrayal and tragic back stories like the one this game bafflingly tries to tell. In the combat sections, so many little things could have been improved that it’s maddening to think all of the resources went into 3D jiggle physics instead.
I just can’t see Senran Kagura Burst holding anyone’s attention for long. It feels half-baked, which is odd, considering that Burst is a re-release of the original game in Japan, with a lot of added content and so-called “improvements” to the original.
Food for thought:
1. In addition to the main game, there is also a secondary story starring the evil Hebijo clan ninjas. It serves as a prequel/parallel story, adding more playable characters and missions. I didn’t find it added much diversity to the experience, but this is just one example of Burst being absolutely stuffed with content. If you have the endurance for it.
2. Both stories feature multiple playable characters, which all have their own animations and attack properties. I appreciate the effort, but no matter which ninja I tried, I felt like I was essentially doing the same thing with a new coat of paint.
3. As one might expect from a game like this, it comes with a “Dress Room” mode that allows you to view all of the character models for… research. This lets you dress them up in unlockable outfits and accessories that appear throughout the rest of the game, which gives a nice sense of customizability.
4. Missions are broken up by visits to a hub world that allow you to speak with your fellow ninja classmates. While I never particularly cared about what they had to say, some of the conversations can be amusingly meta. Although it gets a little weird when the girls are giving me tips for checking out up-skirts in the Dress Room.
5. I will say that I enjoyed the soundtrack, and it’s probably the game’s strongest aspect.