The mark of a completely Japanese developed video game has been fan service. The Japanese titles from some of the smaller developers and publishers rely more on fan service to bring attention to their titles. This is especially evident in the beat-'em-up genre, where games like Code of Princess and Dragon's Crown may be good but use scantily clad heroines to ensure that at least one core demographic is attracted to the title. Senran Kagura Burst is another title to wholeheartedly embrace this tactic.
The plot is somewhat predictable when you get past the interesting setup. In the modern world, shinobi still exist and are being secretly trained in select high schools. There are good ones, who work for nations to keep the peace and evil ones, who work for power and financial gain. The game follows the stories of both the Hanzo National Academy and the Hebijo Clandestine Academy, schools that train female ninjas on the good and evil sides, respectively, and their interactions with one another concerning a secret scroll.
What's interesting about the story is how it plays out like a normal anime. While there is an overarching plot, the game plays out like several slice-of-life episodes with a healthy amount of action and humor. There are also a few scenes where you get to know the characters more personally when it comes to insecurities, motivations and hardships. The added backstory melds well, even though you'll immediately notice the usual tropes, like the troubled girl with the tough exterior, the overly serious one, the ditzy one, the one who's too young and feels out of place, and the groping lesbian, just to name a few. It isn't high-class material, and it won't compete with some narrative heavyweights, but it's nice to see some effort in a game that could easily have been utterly forgettable in this department.
Senran Kagura Burst is split into equal parts cut scene and gameplay. The scenes are a good portion of the game, as they bookend each mission and provide all of the character interactions and plot. While some of the scenes are text-only affairs, most follow the blueprint of a visual novel, where larger versions of the characters pose and provide visual cues about their emotional state. The characters are fully animated at all times, so the range of emotions is wide, making it stand out positively when compared to other games that use static pictures.
Of course, the main draw of these scenes is the amount of fan service given, and when you compare this title to others on the market, it can be quite ridiculous. Since almost every character is female, the breasts of most of the characters reach enormous sizes and jiggle more than a character in the Dead or Alive series. Dialogue is filled with innuendo, and there are lots of shenanigans, like hiding scrolls in cleavage or borrowing panties from another character for the sake of camaraderie. Despite this, it doesn't seem to jump into the borderline-porn territory. There are some revealing outfits, and the costume editor lets you hear some of the characters giggle or complain about you ogling them, but the most revealing thing you'll see are swimsuits. During action-based cut scenes, you get lots of panty shots and breast shots, but torn clothing doesn't get too scandalous. Even though you have tons of ladies with large breasts, this is actually acceptable fan service when you consider how bad it could have gotten.
Once you get to actual gameplay, you discover that this is a beat-'em-up in the most traditional sense. With your chosen character, you go from left to right and are arbitrarily stopped by an invisible wall that prevents you from progressing unless you take out all of the enemies in the area. You have two attacks of varying strength in addition to a dash move, but you don't have a block function. You can also unleash a super move once you fill up a meter.
The game has a few modern elements, like a leveling system that gives you an increase in all stats, but the most notable addition is the combo system. It's very easy to use because you can stick with one button and get in a large number of hits, but when used in conjunction with the dash move, you'll be performing air combos with numbers so high that it puts the likes of Marvel vs. Capcom 3 and Killer Instinct to shame. The combo doesn't reset if you get hit, but it does reset if you don't make another hit in the allotted time period, so you have a greater chance of hitting combos in the hundreds.
Your clothes act as armor in battles. You can transform from your regular state into a shinobi state, which comes with a complete clothing change and the ability to unleash special moves. Taking more hits makes the clothes deteriorate, so you'll take more damage. Lose your clothes, and you get stripped down to your swimsuit, which means taking on the most damage but gaining the ability to move faster. You can also start each level in this frenzied state to achieve a special starred rank.
During the first few levels, you get the feeling that the somewhat invincible state of the shinobi is taken too far. Though the levels are designed like Double Dragon or Streets of Rage in that you can move up and down to simulate depth in the battlefield, you only feel the need to do so when hitting objects and getting items, since your attacks seem to reach enemies on either plane. The enemies never block, and with the exception of a few projectile-wielding foes, they never try to fight back, either. You can inflict plenty of hits and dispatch enemies with ease, so you can level up, and that comes with a full refill on all bars except for clothing. The ease with which you can complete levels and the lack of any depth to the system can make the whole affair seem repetitive after a while, especially with no multiplayer in tow.
Despite the pitfalls, Senran Kagura Burst still remains fun thanks to some good design decisions. Though levels are plentiful, they're short enough that you can get through them in 10 minutes or less if you skip cut scenes, making it handy for portable gaming bouts. Each of the story-based levels forces you to play as specific characters, but you can always go back and replay them with other characters to level them up. Executing combos without the need to learn super special techniques is refreshing, if only because making the mechanics more complicated would work against the game. The tongue-in-cheek nature of the title also makes it feel fun amid the high-number combos if only because you're given a reason to laugh at it.
The sound works well enough. The music is reminiscent of other Japanese action games of this type in that it's bouncy and fits each scene but isn't very memorable. The effects seem to sport extra sounds if you use headphones instead of relying the system's speakers. The vocal track is only in Japanese, and when you consider some of the things that are said in the game, it is good that there's no English voice-over track available. Like the characters, the voices fall in a specific range that fans have come to expect from anime, so if you're not into hearing a range of octaves, you should skip as many scenes as you can.
When you consider that this was released in Japan in the early days of the 3DS, the graphics aren't that bad. Though they're mostly static, the backgrounds are good and varied, despite them only taking up a few screens and being recycled in battles. The overall color palette matches the anime aesthetic but doesn't go for full cel-shading. For the playable characters, the character models look good, with clean textures and smooth animations on attack movements and jiggles. The character models for the other characters, however, aren't as lucky, as they do simple palette swaps for each enemy instead of constructing different models. Also, the larger models show how few polygons are used since they appear blockier than other characters in the game. Finally, though the frame rate is acceptable during the fights, a feat made more impressive by the number of characters on-screen at any one time, the frame rate drops significantly during cut scene transitions.
As for the 3-D effect, it's used in a way that's different from most other games on the system. It isn't completely, but it isn't completely off, either. Instead, the 3-D effect only activates during certain parts of the game. Outside of gameplay, it appears in the main menu and in the Dressing Room area, though the effect is messed up when you zoom in to the characters because the distance planes provide an odd visual effect. During gameplay, the effect is used on cut scenes, both pre- and post-fight, and during any transformation scenes that involve clothing changes, including scenes where clothing is torn off. Oddly, the effect is off during the actual fights, giving the combat no further enhancements. The shifting between 3-D and 2-D can be jarring, depending on how your battles go, but playing purely in 2-D is absolutely fine here.
Senran Kagura Burst may be repetitive in nature but knows how to remain fun. The high combo count and powerful attacks may be borderline ridiculous, but the quick battles make it perfect for the portable platform. The attempts at giving characters a backstory may be too lengthy for some, but the effort is well done, even if it falls under the anime stereotypes that fans have come to expect (or dread). As long as you're OK with the oversexualized presentation that can make you groan in disbelief, you'll have some fun with this lengthy beat-'em-up.
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