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[Disclosure: The publisher provided a review copy for the contents of this article]
At first glance, the new PlayStation Vita brawler, Senran Kagura Shinovi Versus, appears to be nothing more than a stereotypical fanservice game, overflowing with innuendo, sexually suggestive artwork and breast physics that make a waterbed caught in an earthquake look tame. You might be surprised, then, to find out that there's actually a solid beat-em-up engine running under the hood, as well as story segments that give the characters more dimension than their physics-defying figures might usually suggest.
To be clear, this latest romp in the Senran Kagura universe is absolutely a fanservice game. But just because the gameplay its built around is far deeper than the genre usually offers, that doesn't take away from the fact that we're talking about a universe where every breast jiggles like mad, every opportunity to give a panty shot is taken and characters literally fight to tear their opponents' clothes off, revealing lingerie that ranges from modest to band-aids covering the naughty bits. No, really...Band-aids.
I begin here simply to give you an idea of my mindset going into the Vita's first Senran Kagura title. If you find this kind of content offensive, then absolutely nothing here is going to change your mind. The game's icon on your Vita screen is a close-up of a pair of nearly-exposed breasts, and the initial load screen is a naked woman with a rolled up scroll tucked against her crotch and a carefully placed katana obscuring her nipples. If nothing else, nobody here is trying to hide the type of content this game features. It wears it proudly on its (non-existent) sleeve and, if that's not your cup of tea, then simply walk away now.
On the other hand, I'm well aware of the fact that, as stated above, fanservice games are a genre in and of themselves, not to mention one with a very large fan-base consisting of men and women alike. There's an audience for these games and, so long as no one is getting hurt, my motto is usually to simply enjoy what you enjoy. Just because I have a hard time with some of the content doesn't mean that everyone does and, while I may not appreciate the overabundance of blush-worthy moments and what I consider to be antiquated and offensive treatment of its characters, I'm not sure I can fault those who dive in simply because they enjoy a massive dose of T&A in their games.
What really makes Senran Kagura Shinovi Versus difficult to write off for its potentially offensive content is the fact that the game itself is far more solid than it has any right to be. Going in, I assumed that all of those jiggle-physics would be bolted onto a bare-bones game that served as little more than a vehicle for the crotch shots and bits of dialogue where one character constantly talks about grabbing everyone's boobs. Most games of this ilk fit into that stereotypical archetype, but not so for Shinovi Versus.
Again, that's not to say that the naughty content is toned down or anything. One of the in-game mechanics can be triggered by touching your thumbs to the screen, which is exactly where your character's breasts will appear. You then move your thumbs apart, causing their clothing to explode and send them into a different fighting stance that is, apparently, fueled by near nakedness. In the game's dressing room, you can view your character in portrait mode and zoom in on every single inch of their body. You can also touch their body in this view, causing them to jump, blush, and yell at you for being so naughty. Even the store clerk, who is little more than a portrait for a menu box, slides onto the screen with breast a-swinging. If you're looking for that kind of content, it's here in spades.
But, if you're looking for a competent hack-and-slash brawler with a meaty chunk of content, story aplenty and a decent amount of strategy, then you might be pleasantly surprised by what Shinovi Versus has to offer. Buried under all of that content you might not want to be seen playing in public is a solid game that tells the tale of four shiobi schools caught in the middle of an age-old struggle.
From the onset, you'll have three schools to choose from, with a fourth to unlock as you play the game. You can freely swap between which school's story you're playing, allowing you to bounce around or just take them on one at a time. Within each school are five female fighters, for a total of 20 playable characters. Each school's activities take place in their own central hub, giving you access to the various gameplay options and classmates to chat up between chapters.
Within your hub, you'll have access to training grounds for honing your skills, as well as a library that allows you to re-watch videos, view unlocked game images and check out your stats. There's also a store, where you'll be able to spend in-game money (or special coins purchased from the PlayStation Store) on a ridiculous number of costume options. My understanding is that the Japanese version of Shinovi Versus has a huge amount of DLC available, so expect to see lots of extra content making its way onto the PlayStation Network in the coming weeks.
The main draw of Shinovi Versus, though, is the combat. You'll be able to take the fight online, taking part in Ad Hoc or internet battles that let you duke it out with friends, AI opponents or folks from all around the world. Modes include standard and team deathmatches, a showdown that tasks you with stripping the most clothing off of your opponents and “Understorm,” in which you race to collect the most falling pairs of panties before the clock reaches zero. That last bit was a sentence I never really expected to type in my life.
If you're diving into the campaign, though, each school has its own story with visual novel scenes to flesh out the details. Each of the school's fighters also have their own side stories, giving you additional details on their backgrounds and what drives them to fight. XSEED always does an exemplary job in the writing department and most of what's on offer in Shinovi Versus is no exception. Some of the stories get surprisingly dramatic and, while there are anime tropes aplenty here, it's just another facet of the game that could have been written off but clearly received extra time and care to create.
The same can be said for the fighting engine that beats at the heart of Senran Kagura, made all the more engaging by the detailed environments, nice settings and super flashy combat.
Each character has a weak attack and a strong attack, which can also be charged for additional damage. Your base set of maneuvers is rounded out by blocks, parries and dodges, as well as an intuitive lock on system that lets you tap up on the D-pad to keep your focus on the character directly in front of you, or simply tap them on the touchscreen to make them your target. You can also hit down on the D-pad to force nearby enemies back, but at the cost of a little health. And then there's the Air Rave ability, which lets you follow launched enemies and keep your combo going while airborn.
While doing battle, you'll collect scrolls that can be used to activate your Shiobi form and, once activated, pull off your more powerful ninja arts. Your move set in Shiobi form is also altered, along with your base stats. Shinobi form also refills your health gauge completely, so choosing the proper time to activate it becomes a whole new part of the strategy.
Conversely, you can choose to go into Frantic mode, which strips your character down to their skivvies. They also gain access to ninja arts in this mode, and their attack abilities and speed are increased, but at a drastic cost to defense.
Knowing which mode to shift into, and when, is important, since you can't revert to normal mode or switch between Shinobi or Frantic mode freely. One is best suited to tackling overwhelming hordes of smaller foes, for instance, while the other is best utilized when tackling tougher opponents. On the downside, the gameplay does get pretty repetitive, even with such a robust set of options at your disposal. The game is never really difficult, either, meaning that a lot of the strategic options can be ignored in favor of semi-mindless button mashing. Also, the camera could use some fine-tuning, especially when you find yourself backed up against a wall with enemies surrounding you.
Not to sound like a broken record here, but this type of gameplay is not par for the course in games that typically feature this type of mature content. Senran Kagura could have been little more than an excuse to look at sexy visuals and, instead, was given the time and attention necessary to make it into a legitimate brawler. Whether or not you appreciate the thematic material, you have to at least applaud the developers at Tamsoft and Marvelous Inc. for respecting their fans enough to create something worth playing. It elevates the genre, making it difficult to call Shinovi Versus “just a fanservice game.” It's a decent beat-em-up, that also happens to feature more jiggles than a marathon of Jell-O commercials.
Players: 1 (4 online)
Developer: Tamsoft and Marvelous Inc.
Publisher: XSEED Games