Senran Kagura Estival Versus, the fifth in the series thus far, delivering exactly as promised. There are plenty of buxom shinobi clad from four different schools in revealing outfits clashing against rival clans. This time around they've all been sent packing to the beach for the Kagura Millenium Festival where a lot of danger and hijinks are afoot. There is no doubt about it that this game, much like every other before it, is all about displaying well-endowed girls dispensing destruction in outfits that explode off their bodies at a moment's notice.
Series creator Kenichiro Takaki has remarked that "Tits are life, ass is hometown." The apparent meme-worthy status of the statement aside, it acts as a bit of a series tagline. It has helped to shape the identity of a series that can defy expectations at times but, ultimately, the ideology associated with the development of the franchise can ultimately do it a disservice in the eyes of outsiders. Takaki likes boobs. A lot. He wants to make games that celebrate mammaries, and he did just that. He does not apologize for making these games either. There is an audience for them and, well, if you're not among them that is okay. It is a niche group that enjoys these games, and that's fine too.
One can't help but think of Bayonetta when it comes to this sort of action-driven game. The brawling is sound (though Senran Kagura's combat systems don't come anywhere near the depth or mastery of Platinum's Bayonetta series) and feature sexuality that is overt and fully embraces what it is. The religious symbolism and overtones tied together with the devil may care attitude of the Umbra Witch in question might feel similar to Senran Kagura in their fan service appeal, but they are quite opposite. Cheeky and unabashed Bayonetta may be but there isn't a direct approach to sexuality taken in it. It's all provocative camera angles and tongue-in-cheek dialogue that gives so much flair to Bayonetta. The large cast of the Kagura-verse is approached with a down-to-Earth way in dealing with the seemingly bombastic exploitation. Is it exploitative? Of course. There is far more to it, though, as Estival Versus is one of a many in a series of entries in the franchise that continues to build on the overarching story of shinobi in modern-day Japan. These disparate groups of girls, all training to become the best at what they do, span the moral spectrum and have far different means of achieving their school's given objectives.
Players do not just fill the shoes of the "good guys" within Senran Kagura but, rather, see the story from all sides. There are surprisingly subtle moments peppered throughout the interactions between classmates and would-be rivals. Whenever romance comes into the equation, it isn't the typical yuri (a genre known commonly as "Girl's Love") freakout narrative or far too cutesy mode that so many visual novels and the like stumble into but, rather, can be quite measured and approachable despite the Kenichiro Takaki motto mentioned earlier. The women on display all have differing levels of comfort with the idea of romance, intimacy and sexuality and while some, such as Yumi, for example, take the more conservative path there are those who dive head-on into the extreme end of the pool. An excellent example can be seen with Ryona and Haruka in Shinovi Versus. Ryona, a noted submissive masochist, deals with the far more stern and big-sisterly Haruka in a way that evolves over time. It seems so very overt at the beginning, but nuance begins to shine through and, by the end of it, players are given a more thorough understanding of just who these two are in their interactions and quirks.
These games, for all their brawling and musou tendencies, really have firm roots within the world of Visual Novels. Be prepared to read through a lot of text (all voice-acted) and context aplenty. It could have simply been sexy boob ninjas fighting against each other for no real reason yet each game makes strides in furthering the evolving narrative warring factions, interpersonal relationships within different academies and the plethora of unique personalities that comprise them. It is a heady mix of narrative and competent action complete with smartly designed combat mechanics that has come to define the series as a whole. It is easy to overlook that, though, in the face of such seemingly "overwhelming" fanservice, though. There is plenty of action to be found within Estival Versus and those familiar with the Dynasty Warriors series will feel right at home on the beach battling rival shinobi.
The basics are easy to grasp with weak and strong attacks that can be chained together depending on certain sequences of button presses. It begins with a fairly pedestrian combo system that gets more complicated as air dashes, wall-walking, blocks and the Shinobi form. This salacious transformation sequence (a more sexed up version of the typical "magical girl" sequence found in countless other anime) powers up each girl's attack strength and offers new special moves that can be executed with the press of L1 and weak or heavy attack at the same time. The moves are quite flashy with really great particle effects on the more explosive ones but there is a trade-off. More power comes at the cost of defense being lowered and if players aren't keeping their guard up it is possible to get swarmed by countless enemies. It is immensely satisfying to parry an incoming blow to chain together a series of attacks into a launcher that allows for air dashing into a huge attack for critical damage. If the mission is being executed with an AI partner then it's possible to team up for even more damage and a higher combo. Each mission is ranked afterward on attack, defense and combo score. So, much like the heavier character action games before it getting a higher rank will net more experience to build up one's favorite ninja waifu.
The story of Estival Versus begins with a rather somber even reverential moment as two sisters and students of the Hebijo Clandestine Girls Academy, Ryona, and Ryobi, are pausing to pray at the grave of their fallen sibling. A noise off to the side draws their suspicion, and they go to investigate leaving Ryona crawling through the bushes, panties exposed to her sister and the viewer to see. Five minutes in and we're already revving up the moe machine. This situation leads to a summoning of dead ninjas, a big mob of hooded ninjas to plow through and a conversation revolving around Ryona's need to be abused or have pain caused to her. This leads to a revelation that their formerly deceased sister, Ryoki, is now back thanks to the necromancy. It isn't long before the pair is back with their classmates in the midst of dealing with a rival school's charging foes when a portal whisks them away to a far away beach. The Kagura Millenium Festival is in full swing, and it seems more shinobi from all over Japan are arriving by the minute. All the schools are at the Millenium Festival, and there's no shortage of enemies to wail on.
Estival Versus is far more light-hearted in its tone than some of its predecessors. The raunchy humor serves as a reset of sorts for the series. Normally things are quite dire and self-serious as far as fan-service heavy brawlers are concerned. Things got raw in Ninjaville, folks. Time for a fun ecchi (loosely translated as "sexy", "naughty" or "dirty") beach festival to lighten the mood. All the potential sleaze that could pollute the game is, instead, like the others before, an empowered romp filled with an all-female cast that kicks major amounts of ass all the time. I suppose it speaks further to the divide between violence and sexuality in the West and the way Japan approaches the two. Ultraviolence can be acceptable, but the smear campaign is on if the game features buxom ninjas in two piece bikinis plying their deadly craft? If anything Senran Kagura is a prime example of video game exploitation done right much as pioneers within the landscape of cinema did before it. The single player might be thinner in comparison to past games in regards to heavy narrative punches, but it makes up for it by leaning into its subject matter hard. The multiplayer modes, up to ten people can play online, include capturing Bra Flags, a Panty Collection game and classic Point Battle dependent on combos and precisely timed hits.
Kenichiro Takaki and his team over at Tamsoft continue to do so in the medium of digital entertainment and, honestly, the game is just damn fun to play. Don't buy into the poor Puritanical opinion of this sort of game. Enjoy the jiggly ride, my friend.
Senran Kagura Estival Versus was reviewed on PlayStation 4 with a code provided by the publisher.
Senran Kagura: Estival Versus continues the series forward momentum of compelling character-driven narrative and addictive and accessible combat in the best-looking entry to date. The light-hearted tone pairs well with the brawler gameplay x musou meets visual novel. Don't buy into the hate and give this one a shot.