It’s not often that I am embarrassed to play a game in public. As a man in his mid-30s, I can train pocket monsters and manage my animal-inhabited town without caring who knows about it. But Senran Kagura Burst will never get played outside of my own private home, despite its legitimately-earned (if barely) T rating. Which on one level is something of a shame, and yet on another level completely justified.
Senran Kagura tells the story of two schools of modern shinobi, trained in secret to do the kind of things that ninjas have always done since feudal Japan. One school, the Hanzö Academy, trains “good” shinobi to protect the people; the other, the Clandestine Hebijo Academy (thought to be just a rumor by many), trains “evil” shinobi for the more traditional purposes of assassination and intrigue. You can play as either side, getting both perspectives on the narrative that eventually unfolds between the schools and their students.
Did I mention that these students are, for some reason, exclusively female? Despite the fact that male shinobi are clearly established as being a thing in this world? And that every one of these high school students (ok, save one) sports measurements that makes one wonder if one of the founding members of these academies was somehow Taki from Soul Calibur? Yeah… it’s one of those games.
While there are visual novel elements to the game, including full Japanese voice work, the bulk of Burst is an action-heavy beat-’em-up that we have seen many times. Waves and waves of enemies will come at you to be cut down by a flurry of combo strikes, aerial maneuvers and Secret Arts that are fun enough in a mindless button-mashing way, although can be a little repetitive at times with little innovation over the five chapters (per side). Once you’ve filled up your Ninja meter you can transform into a more powerful form, which grants access to your screen-slashing Secret Arts… but here is where most of the problems start.
The transformation itself is reminiscent of many “magical girl” anime series and heavily features the girls momentarily being reduced to their swimsuits before donning on their personalized ninja costume, all while insane camera angles emphasize their… assets (not to mention the game’s “jiggle physics”). The costumes themselves can take damage as you get hit, and at certain damage thresholds get shredded in increasing stages until the girls are reduced to little more than their swimsuits (or sometimes less, although never to the point of actual nudity) — again with overdone cut scenes — as the clothes get destroyed and the girls squeal in pain and embarrassment.
Completing missions will earn you experience, and increase your skills like usual. You will also unlock new costumes and accessories to let you customize the appearance of each character in the “dressing room.” Other unlocks include songs, pictures, movies and achievements (“titles”), plus an extra character per side once you’ve cleared all of the story missions and then beat her special mission. Each girl is given a grade upon completing a mission, and once you have played though a mission with the default character, you can replay it with any of the others.
You can also choose to play any level in “frantic mode,” which reduces your character to just her swimsuit at the outset to dramatically increase her power, speed and combo potential at the expense of almost all of her defense. There are reasons you would want to do this beyond just the swimsuit thing and added challenge, so consider that even more replaying in your future if you really want to achieve 100% completion.
It took me about ten hours to play though one school’s required story missions with just the default characters, so extrapolating that out suggests potentially hundreds of hours of total play if you want to do everything with all of the characters. I don’t know if I could personally take all of that button-mashing, but the game was fun enough over that stretch and quite the offering for beat-’em-up fans. But let’s be honest here: nobody is buying this game just for the mechanics. Even the eShop description specifies “buxom ninja girls,” “revealing cut-scenes” and “sexy ninja arts.”
In a year that has already seen games like Dragon’s Crown come under fire for their female character designs (and the Sorceress definitely wasn’t a dozen high-school girls), it actually surprised me that XSEED managed to bring this over, especially to a Nintendo system, and yet here it is in all of its blatant sexualized glory. Regardless of its anime-styled inspirations, SKB is certainly not going to help anyone win an argument for the portrayal of women in video games. If you are okay with that fact, then there are certainly worse titles you could enjoy.
Senran Kagura Burst is not a bad deal for $30, although be aware that the game takes up almost 14,000 blocks on your SD card (for comparison, Fire Emblem: Awakening takes up just under 9,000). Whether or not you can justify that purchase to your moral sensibility is up to you.
Pros: Fun button-mashing beat-’em-up action, crazy amount of potential replayability
Cons: Is that Chris Hansen watching you play?