About a year ago, the western world was officially introduced to Senran Kagura with the release of Burst. I found that Burst had a lot of issues, but one thing I heard loud and clear afterwards was that Shinovi Versus, the subsequent Vita release, fixed a lot of those issues. So now Shinovi Versus is here, and I played it to find out just how much has been improved.
The very first thing I noticed about Shinovi Versus is that it doesn’t run like it’s undergoing cardiac arrest. In fact, the game looks and feels pretty smooth to play, especially compared to Burst. Playing Burst often felt like an exercise in tedium, not only due to its repetitive nature but also the way its gameplay and animations tended to chug along. Needless to say, I was pretty excited about this improvement, and this isn’t the only change Shinovi Versus brings to the table.
Shinovi Versus ditches the 2D arcade beat-em-up perspective and moves into territory much more akin to Dynasty Warriors. Moving to 3D actually feels pretty natural too, as all of the mobility and combat mechanics seem to have transferred over completely intact. In many ways it’s also a straight improvement, as the extra space not only allows for much more room to dodge and maneuver, but also makes it easier to tell when you’re on the same plane as the enemy you’re trying to hit.
Yet, despite the change in perspective, combat feels very similar to Burst. Swathes of same-y enemies fill the screen, and you beat them up with a variety of simple combos, dash cancels, aerial raves, and super attacks. The strength and reach of those attacks depends on the ninja you choose, of which there are now a ton, all of them separated into three distinct schools that you pick at the beginning of the game. Each school is like its own game, complete with its own story missions and stages, similar to how Burst split itself into two games.
Most of Shinovi Versus’s stages fall into the same trappings of predecessor. Once again, you are essentially just swooping up large groups of enemies into your massive combos with little real threat that they will fight back. After you’re done with them, another group magically appears out of thin air and you do it again…and again… and then some more. Say what you will about Dynasty Warriors, but there’s usually a little more going on in those than just “kill all the enemies until we get bored of spawning them.”
Your defensive options do make things a little more interesting this time around, however. You can now block and parry most incoming attacks. Previously in Burst, your only option for defense was staying away or activating a combo-breaking “burst” move. Now there’s more incentive to pay attention to the attack patterns of enemies, as a good parry is vital to stopping an enemy’s assault and creating an opening for your own. Unfortunately these options are rarely much of a factor against normal enemies, but luckily stronger opponents await you.
Boss fights against the other main ninja girls are where you’re going to really put your skills to use. These rival ninjas have access to their own sets of combos and special attacks, making them much more formidable foes. Shinovi Versus is at its best during these battles, as not only do the bosses actually offer some much needed challenge, but they also require you to use the combat system to its fullest to maximize damage and break defenses.
Often you won’t just be fighting one-on-one either, as another new feature allows for four different playable ninjas to be on the battlefield at once. The increased number of strong enemies isn’t necessarily a good thing, though, as these fights can often be too hectic to take advantage of the combat mechanics in the same way one-on-one fights do. When all four characters are filling up the screen with attacks, it’s easy for situations like getting interrupted after making a good parry against someone else, or accidentally getting sucked into attacks from out of nowhere to occur.
While the four player brawls can get messy in and of themselves, they also highlight some general issues with the camera. Since Shinovi Versus takes place in a 3D environment rather than 2D, you no longer have a full view of everything going on. Additionally, you will want to use the lock-on feature to make sure all of your attacks are connecting, further limiting your camera control. This means that it’s really easy to get hit by something you weren’t expecting, or in worst case scenarios, getting the camera stuck at a bad viewpoint, making it easy to lose track of what’s going on for a little while and taking extensive damage.
Of course, the whole experience is wrapped in the expected Senran Kagura aesthetics, complete with even more spontaneous clothes explosions than scientists previously thought possible. Clothes seem to be exploding almost all of the time now. I take a little damage and my clothes explode, I hit back and the enemy’s clothes explode, and this continues until the fight ends and the arena should probably be completely shrouded in a haze of cloth particles. I didn’t think it was a big deal in Burst, but now the explosion cutscenes happen so frequently that they start to become obnoxious, and feel like an unneeded repetition in a game that is already about doing the same thing over and over.
The narrative itself is also somewhat repetitive and tiresome. Shinovi Versus is a direct sequel to the events of Burst, but this time two sets of ninjas challenge the main characters from the first game in some kind of ninja school battle thing instead of just one, and from there the story generally follows the same beats of the original. For what it’s worth, I think the people at Xseed likely did the best they could with the material given, but I just could not stand the story at all this time around. Some people are invested in seeing these stories play out and that’s fine, but Senran Kagura’s combination of awkward sex “jokes” and unsubtle dialogue mixed with unfittingly tragic backstories and anime “power of friendship” resolutions just doesn’t work for me.
In the end, I was actually kind of surprised by how similar my experience with Shinovi Versus felt compared to Burst, despite their key differences. If I had to choose, I’d play Shinovi Versus any day of the week over Burst just for the improved framerate and combat, but they both share some common flaws in addition to their unique quirks. They’re both very simple, repetitive games that lack polish and feature some aesthetic and narrative choices that certainly aren’t for everyone. I can usually get beyond a lot of that, but in the case of Shinovi Versus, I just don’t think the gameplay is worth it for anyone who isn’t already happily initiated into the Senran Kagura fold.
Food for Thought:
1. If you read the part about four playable ninjas fighting at the same time and thought that sounded like an idea for a multiplayer mode, you’d be right! In addition to the single player missions, you can actually play some competitive modes both online or against AI bots.
2. What happened to all of the snakes? I don’t often miss repetitive grunts, but the idea of beating up random giant snakes on the road was so bizarre that I kind of miss them now.
3. The lock-on feature doesn’t always feel like locking on to the most obvious target sometimes, but I seemed to have better luck using the touch screen instead of pressing the button.