Sunday, April 24, 2016

Senran Kagura Burst

I really meant to get to this game a long time ago, when the sequel came out, but for one reason or another I never got around to it. Fortunately I now have the time, so I can finally get to it.
The Senran Kagura series is a bit of an odd duck. This game in particular isn't actually the first game in the series, even though it sort of is. You see, Senran Kagura Burst is an enhanced re-release (Basically the Game of the Year Edition) of the original game from 2011, 閃乱カグラ:少女達の真影, or romanized, Senran Kagura: Shoujo-tachi no Shinei. Wikipedia says this means "Skirting Shadows" but considering that not a single word in that subtitle means "skirting" or "shadows", and that they didn't include the obvious "girl" in the translation, I'm going with the Google Translate and Kagura Wiki version, Portrait of Girls.
This version of the game was never released outside of Japan except as part of Burst.
Senran Kagura Burst includes everything the original version of the game had as well as an additional secondary storyline, more playable characters, more stages, more 3D features, different transformation animations, and an additional library of music, glossary terms, and character accessories.
The actual game itself is a cross between a sidescrolling-3D beat-em-up and an incredibly linear visual novel. You know how in most visual novels you've at least got choices as to what to say? Well this game just forces you to sit and wait while you sort through the walls of text between gameplay sections. This is alright if the story presented is compelling, but even then, this is an action-based game. A sidescrolling beat-em-up, no less, not an RPG. I didn't come to this game to have to sit through a novels worth of text in a bunch of long, unplayable cutscenes.
Speaking of which, this isn't the only kind of cutscene in the game. These kinds of cutscenes irritate me, since they're incredibly lazy, as well as a relatively recent development. You didn't see this kind of thing in games back on the SNES or the Nintendo 64, so why are they around on a system that can handle freaking Snake Eater? It's not a technical thing, so it must have been a cost-cutting measure. It is of course, easier to cycle through stock animations than to mess with moving the camera around a dynamic cutscene with hundreds of unique animations that might be used only once ever. The weird thing is that they use pre-rendered backgrounds for almost all of the cutscenes despite having 3D environments for practically every area in the game.
There are a very small amount of dynamically animated cutscenes, and they all basically do the same thing. They're also in the secondary Hebijo storyline, not the primary Hanzo one, so it's not like they're that important.
This brings me to the issue with the two storylines. This game has the same problem that Sonic Adventure had in that the two storylines directly contradict each other at multiple points. The difference is that the two don't mesh easily to form a coherent whole, since both of them seem to be taking place in their own version of the world presented to us at the very start. I'm not entirely certain which of them is supposed to be canon to the rest of the series, but since the Hanzo storyline was the original, I presume that's the one.
Before we start digging into the plot any further, let's tackle the gameplay and controls.
Senran Kagura Burst is a three-dimensional side-scrolling beat-em-up. You can use the joystick or the D-pad to move your character around. You use the B button to jump, the Y button for a weak but fast attack, the X button for a strong but slow attack. The R button causes an explosion that blasts enemies away from you, but takes away part of your life energy, and the L button transforms your character from their base form into their Shinobi form when the Ninja Art meter is full. While in Shinobi form (Which for most characters looks nothing like actual or stereotypical Ninjas) you can use other Ninja Arts by pressing L and another button when the meter is filled. Pressing L and Y while on the ground uses one bar of Ninja Energy and activates your characters special attack. Pressing the same combination in the air activates your characters aerial special, also using one bar of energy. Pressing L and X while on the ground (And not in the air at all) uses two bars of energy, and activates the ultimate attack, which for some characters isn't as useful as their aerial or special attack.
Then there's the A button, which easily has the most use in the game. Under most circumstances you use the A button to dash around. Tapping it causes you to dash into enemies and damage them. Holding it makes you run very quickly. Why the run function couldn't have been mapped to the joystick and not the A button, I don't know. For some reason there's very little (if any) analog control in this game, and you pretty much move at a steady pace when you hold the joystick in any position. I didn't think we needed a run button in this day and age, especially since analog joysticks have been standard on consoles since the nineties.
The A button is also useful in combo attacks, which brings up the biggest issue with the controls. If you hit an enemy or group of enemies with the right combo, they will fly up into the air in something they call an "Aerial Rave," with a green circle surrounding them. You can chase the circle by pressing the A button, launching yourself into the air while your enemies are helpless, allowing you to get in a load of hits at once. The problem is that this can also happen when your enemies are out of health, since they don't actually disappear until they hit the ground. This can be rather irritating when you're trying to run after another enemy on the other side of the screen and you wind up in the air chasing after a dead body. Why the bodies don't just disappear when they hit zero health is beyond me. Especially when they actually do when you're in the last of the main Hebijo stages.
Going back to the R button, under what circumstances do you think a quick explosion that knocks enemies back would be useful in? Well, naturally when you're surrounded by them. The problem is that you can't activate any special abilities, or even do much of anything while you're being hit, which can lead to you getting pinned between two mobs of enemies and losing most of your health before you can try and jump out of their range. You also can't activate a Limit-Break when you're lying on the ground or in the air. Plus, if you've just been hit and haven't pressed B to recover, you can't activate an aerial attack. This rather odd control restriction has led to a number of otherwise avoidable deaths. There's also the issue of not being able to recover from some attacks easily without taking a crapload of damage. The controls are responsive most of the time, but when faced with a huge mob they get a bit inadequate. If they tightened the controls up and removed a few of the stranger conditional restrictions, it'd be a much better game.
Something that I found pretty odd is the fact that you don't use the A button to retry a mission when you've failed to complete it, you use the X button. The B button works to exit the level just fine, but I would prefer to see the A button being the one you use to continue, since most games use A for accept and B for cancel, or whatever. This isn't PlayStation, we don't switch between two buttons for confirmation and four buttons for cancellation.
There's also no support for the Circle Pad Pro, which might have alleviated a few of the control issues, such as the A button issue. With the two additional buttons the controls could be spread out a bit more, and there would be less incredibly irritating overlaps.
For instance, Mirai, one of the Hebijo girls has the irritating tendency to activate her shield when you're trying to finish a combo, which causes her to stop where she is and freeze in place for a few seconds, which leaves her open to attacks from behind. (I'd just like to mention that most enemies can use a shield, but Mirai is the only player character who can to my knowledge) If the shield function was mapped to one of the trigger buttons instead of one of the attack buttons, I wouldn't be so hesitant to play as Mirai when trying to clear out optional missions.
Some of the control issues I've mentioned would be easily fixed by just reconfiguring the controls in the settings menu, swapping some functions around and leaving a couple of them out entirely. But no.
Look at this settings menu. This is it. No control options, no sensitivity settings for the analog stick, nothing. The only options are to adjust the audio. Nothing about removing clothing damage animations, or transformations, or special attack animations.
This might not sound like a huge issue, but it becomes one later on in the game. If you know anything about this game, you know that it's got clothing damage in it. When that happens, the combat just stops and the camera cuts to whoever's clothing is being shredded. This isn't too bad at first, but eventually it starts getting on your nerves and you want to turn it off. It's like the battle animations in Fire Emblem: Awakening, they're pretty cool at first, but after about thirty hours they start to get kind of old. I know that they're part of the point of the game, but once the titillation factor wears off (Which if you're particularly jaded is fairly quick) they're just irritating.
This brings me to an issue with the clothing damage. It literally just stops at a certain point once your characters clothing meter has been depleted by damage, which I presume is because they didn't want the game to get an AO rating. It still brings up the issue of inconsistency, since the characters undergarments don't seem to be destructible, which begs the question, why don't they just make Shinobi gear out of whatever the bathing-suits/other undergarments are made of? Although a better question would be "Why do the elite Ninja students of the two biggest organizations in the world wear sweaters, skirts, maid outfits, and school uniforms in the field?" I'm not a member of an international organization of ninjas and I own better ninja gear than they do.
Mostly because I have some clothing that isn't brightly colored, or the kind of thing that you could easily get your legs caught up in when you're trying to crawl.
Then again, this is the kind of game where the player-characters can summon massive machine guns from beneath their dresses, wield huge buster-swords and shoot energy from parasols, so the baseline for realism is set fairly low. I'm not complaining about the awesome weapons or the cool attacks, or the supernatural awesome stuff that happens, all that's fine. It'd just be nice if the so-called Shinobi actually dressed like Shinobi, or at the very least military stealth-operatives. Then again, without fanservice, the game might not have been as successful.
It's not like the plot is anything special. While it's fairly compelling at the best of times, at the worst it's a bit of a chore to wade through. It's far above, say, Lord of Magna in terms of plot (for both storylines) since the antagonists actually show up and make themselves your problem on a regular basis, and the characters actually have enough personality to go around, and interact enough to actually make you care when everything comes to a head at the end of the game.
In terms of fanservice ensembles, we're not exactly operating at Rosario + Vampire levels of compelling characterization, but I've honestly seen worse. Most of the characters appear to be archetypes, but they're at least fleshed-out enough that they're a bit more than just stock characters hanging around. We also don't have a personality-free main character hanging around taking up space, so that's good. The closest they get is Asuka in the Hanzo storyline, and even she's got stronger characterization than the guy from Lord of Magna.
I suppose this brings us to the plot. There are two ninja schools in Japan. Hanzo, the "good" ones run by a load of elitist douches, and Hebijo, the "evil" one run by cartoonishly evil faceless politicians who are trying to summon up an eldritch abomination akin to Dai Shi's final form from Power Rangers Jungle Fury. Along the way, the two schools clash multiple times, but they ultimately wind up teaming up to take down the monster. They learn that they're more alike than they think, and despite being given opposite ends of the stick, they become friends and the Hebijo team goes rogue to avoid having to clash with Hanzo in the future, and because they'd killed their corporate overlords who were using them to summon the Orochi monster. This appears to be Yamata no Orochi, the eight-headed dragon from Japanese folklore. I suppose in this context Asuka is Susanoo.
Like I said, the plot isn't exactly complex, but I appreciate the simplicity at times. If I was trying to unravel intricate double-crosses and complex plot threads I might not appreciate the massive amounts of text in the visual novel sections.
Now we come to the art. There's two different kinds of art, the 3D models most of the game is presented in, and the still images that most of the visual novel sections are made up of. The 3D animation is fine for the most part, but every now and again the jiggle-animation on the breasts of the Hebijo girls starts going seriously haywire. Sometimes they expand and contract with their breathing, occasionally they flop around, jiggle and bounce when nobody is moving, and sometimes they wind up flying in the air for not much reason. Then we get to the 2D art. It's good for the most part, but every now and again there's something really weird going on. For instance, the above screenshot has a mixture of good art and bad art.
Take a look at Haruka's face on the right, and her breasts, then take a look at her 3D model. Her face isn't nearly that wide, and her breasts are both not that big and not nearly that saggy. In fact, nobody has saggy breasts in this game, so I don't know why they were that floppy in that one shot. There's also the issue of the cloth going down way too far on her stomach. Haruka seems generally off-model in quite a few of the Hebijo-exclusive 2D cutscenes, but the biggest case of this is in the screenshot above.
For that matter, there are quite a few issues with the Hebijo cutscenes. Take a look at the below screenshot.
 At one point in the game all of the girls go to a spa and take a steam-bath naked. Obviously this is all for fanservice purposes as anyone who knows anything about fanservice could tell you, but there are some strange things going on with the art.Take a real close look at Haruka's breasts in this picture. Notice how her left breast doesn't have a nipple. Yes, her breasts are rather round on her model, but human-beings tend to have nipples on their chests. Unless Haruka has some odd condition or her breasts are formed in such a way that her nipples wouldn't be seen from this angle, it seems like the artist forgot to cover that breast with steam from the back.
 Then we pan over to the center of the image, where we see Homura and Yomi. Homura (left) is sitting far enough below the water that her breasts are obscured by distortion and reflection. Yomi, however, is sitting above the water, and her breasts are mostly covered by a cloud of steam from the bath. I say "mostly" because her left breast is shorter than her right breast. Yes, humans are naturally a little bit asymmetrical, but they're not supposed to be that lopsided. You can also see that her left breast ends above the cloud of steam. This shows us that she also doesn't have a nipple on her left breast, which as before, I presume must be an art issue.
Now take a look at this image, where Haruka appears to have a nipple on her left breast, but not on her right, although that could just be the perspective at work. It's just a really weird thing to see them go from no nipples to nipples. It sort of makes me wonder what kind of artist they were working with on the Hebijo storyline, since there was never anything quite this inconsistent in the Hanzo half of the game.
Wrapping up the art issues with the game, we now move into analyzing the game from a technical standpoint.
If you talk to a character inside the Ninja Room from behind, they don't turn around to face you for some reason. Final Fantasy VII managed to get this kinda thing down pat back in the mid-nineties, and one of the first things that I learned to do when I was studying game development. It's not particularly hard to make an NPC face the player when the player talks to them.
This game shares a few issues with another Marvelous developed game I've reviewed, namely the bizarre frame-rate and clipping issues from Story of Seasons. While you're inside the Ninja Room, where you find most of your options in the game, the frame-rate dips to something around fifteen to twenty frames-per-second at best. Then, occasionally during combat missions the framerate jumps up to thirty to forty. Not all the time, not in all the missions, but often enough that it's noticeable.
This is more of a gameplay design issue than a technical one, but there's enough overlap that I feel it fits. Since this is a 3D Beat-Em-Up, enemies can spread out across the screen, and the sidescrolling perspective makes it a bit difficult to tell whether you're in range of them or not. Sometimes you'll be hitting enemies across the room you don't think should hit, and other times (Especially against bosses) you'll be right next to them and none of your attacks will hit. Since this game doesn't have any 3D features during gameplay, you can't even rectify this issue by turning the 3D on. There's also the problem of only being able to attack left and right from the cameras perspective, which is especially irritating when you're trying to destroy a crate with an item in it, or if you're trying to attack an enemy that's right next to you. This is what leads me to say the following: This game would have benefited from a Devil May Cry 3 style control scheme, something which allowed for more freedom of movement and attacks, and this would have cleared up a lot of issues with the combat-system. Dante isn't about to get dogpiled by a group of enemies in any of his games, you know. He's always able to recover as long as you know how to use the controls. I want to know that I died because I either wasn't paying attention, or because I dodged right into my enemies attack, not because the controls are poorly programmed.
Every now and again, be it in the Ninja Room or out on a mission, my character would get stuck on a bit of the scenery, and I would have to jump to get out of it. In the Ninja Room however, most controls are disabled, so the one time that happened, I was able to get out of it by going to the Home Menu and then returning to the game. Sometimes there would just be an invisible wall in the middle of the stage that probably shouldn't have been there, just like the kind of thing that happened in Story of Seasons. There are also invisible walls on top of fences and walls in multi-layered stages, which mean that despite being about to jump about twelve feet in the air, your characters are still forced to use the stairs, which increases the amount of time between your combos, which ultimately reduces the amount of experience you get when you finish the level.
I also noticed a few times when enemies would float in the air and stay there until you killed them. There were other things that I unfortunately wasn't able to screencap, such as the time when a group of enemies all died and just stood there for a few seconds until they keeled over, or when I was attacked by an invisible ninja, although that last one could have just been an actual enemy in the game considering the fact that we're dealing with, you know, ninjas in this game.
Now we come to balance issues. The enemy AI seems to switch back and forth between aggressive and cunning to dumb as bricks without much transition or middle-ground. Sometimes enemies will just stand there on the other side of the screen and not attack you unless you come too close, or they'll dart around the screen without attacking you for a while before noticing you're there. Other times they will literally dogpile you to the point of making it nearly impossible to get loose and get a few good hits in on them without taking loads of damage and possibly getting killed within a few seconds. Occasionally there's a middle-ground where the enemies are aggressive as all hell, but not numerous enough to utterly overwhelm you. That's where you've got plenty of challenge to make things worthwhile, while not being overwhelming. If the rest of the game was more like those stages are, then the gameplay would be significantly more engaging, since there would be decent stakes in every combat encounter.
The enemies also don't seem to be able to avoid your special attacks despite the fact that the player can avoid enemy special attacks. Some enemies also don't seem to be able to grasp the fact that they probably shouldn't walk into your special attacks if they're not currently stuck inside them, especially Homura's ultimate attack. This also brings me to an issue with Homura's regular ultimate attack. While she's in her normal mode, she spins her six swords in a flurry of blades. The thing is that unless the enemy is currently lying on the ground the momentum on the hits will fling them out of the range of the attack. She also doesn't do nearly as much damage with her ultimate attack as some of the other girls attacks do. It's still useful, but it's not as good as her aerial attack, especially when attacking a single powerful opponent.
Despite the fact that my characters in Hebijo were significantly under-leveled compared to the Hanzo characters, and despite the game saying that Hebijo was for more experienced players, I found the Hebijo levels, especially the later ones significantly easier than Hanzo ones. This is taking into account the fact that most of the Hebijo characters appear to play a lot slower than their Hanzo counterparts, and the fact that Hebijo seems to throw large groups of huge enemies at you, even in optional missions. Part of the reason it's easier is because the Hebijo girls seem to have significantly more powerful special, aerial, and ultimate attacks, as well as getting certain powerful techniques at lower levels, despite having less experience growth.
It was also easier to beat Hebijo's ultimate Shinobi than Hanzo's, despite it being incredibly difficult to beat her in the Hanzo branch. Every now and again I'd run into an optional mission with a low time limit that I'd wind up skipping, but overall, even after I'd cleared both halves of the game Hebijo was still easier than Hanzo.
This brings me to the final bosses. In Hanzo, you fight the eight-headed snake Orochi, which can wreck you easily if you don't make extensive use of the dash, or otherwise don't know his weakness. In Hebijo, you just fight the other Elite Students with a powered-up Homura, who at this point has got a more useful Ultimate Attack. It's not particularly difficult, especially because at this point in time you've already fought the Hebijo girls at least three times each if you're just going by mandatory missions and not replaying them, plus the AI is as I mentioned before, dumb as bricks for one on one competition. I suppose that's part of the reason why the game usually spawns a mob of enemies to attack you even in what are deemed by the story to be one-one encounters.
Last, but certainly not least on our list of glitches is the time when the screen turned white in the middle of a fight when I tried to take a screenshot with Miiverse. I still completed the level, and the white screen went away at the end of the level after I hit the home button and took a screenshot of it, and it never came up again, but this was the glitch that stuck out the most to me, and for good reason. Visibility is key in a video-game. The good thing is that no matter how many screenshots I took, no matter what I interrupted with the Home button, this never happened again. I don't know what caused it and I don't know how it stopped, at least from a technical standpoint, but the important thing is that whatever it was was a rare occurrence.
There's been a lot of hubbub about accurate translations as of late, and while XSeed typically has a good track-record for decent translation, this game tends to outright make up the English translations for certain words, evidenced by the fact that the Japanese voice-track has been left 100% intact from the Japanese version of the game.
For instance, to the left you can see a character saying something incredibly ludicrous in English, while in Japanese she said "Itadakimasu" which translates to "I humbly receive" or in plain English, thank you, typically said before eating. The translators decided that this rather strange rhyming joke was a good thing to insert into the game, despite it making no sense, and not being something anyone actually says.
Then there's one of the mission names. It's the one in the middle of the screen that's selected. I don't have access to the Japanese mission-list, and the Senran Kagura wiki isn't giving me any help on this front, but something tells me that this isn't anything close to the original title of the mission. Call it speculation, call it the intuition of a guy who picks up on things other people tend to not care about, but I'd bet that it said something significantly different in the original Japanese version.
Now that we're done with talking about everything from the significant issues to the more minor ones, let's take a few minutes to delve into a bit of otherwise pointless nitpicking, shall we?
Why the hell does Asuka wear her swords with her to the beach? There's water and sand galore at the beach, which will get into the scabbards, dull, scratch and rust the blades, screw with the wrapping, and if the hilts are made of wood, warp and or rot them. I know they're her primary weapons, but the other girls are able to summon their gear from the ether, so why does Asuka have to carry hero swords with her to the beach? For that matter, why didn't anyone object to her carrying a pair of deadly weapons with her on the train here, or on the way to the beach?
At one point int he game, Yomi from Hebijo and Ikaruga from Hanzo are taking part in an eating contest, and they are forced to eat endless bowls of live gigantic earthworms, pictured to the left.
Why are they pixelated? Why do they have to eat them live? Doesn't that violate health standards in several countries? Why, if the contest had allocated all the noodles in the area, do they only have earthworms? Why do they have endless earthworms? Why in the hell are they pixelated?! If they're supposed to be earthworms, then there's no reason to pixelate them. Unless of course, the artist didn't know how to draw them.
Why does a clandestine organization involved in illegal dealings have internet forums? Even if they have adequate security, if they're ever caught, then they've got loads of digital evidence for the authorities if they're ever caught! If the forums aren't accessible from the internet, and only from the Hebijo grounds, then what's the point of having a forum? It seems like you could accomplish the same thing with "mingle time" on the grounds, where the students get together and talk about... Whatever Ninjas in training talk about. Maybe they're there for alumni to give tips to students. Who knows.
There's this one thing where meta-references start to get a bit annoying. Especially when they're bolded out specifically so you'll notice them.
I never use the 3D features on the 3DS in regular gameplay, and since this game doesn't actually have 3D features outside of the fanservice bits, I didn't feel particularly bad about leaving it turned off. Maybe if they had 3D features in the rest of the game it'd make it easier to tell where your enemies are in relation to your character.
There's also the fact that the game put me through the tutorial level in the Hebijo branch after I'd already cleared and saved my Hanzo clear data.
Honestly though, all of this takes a back seat to whether the game is fun or not, and it is fun. If you're not bothered by loads of text in between story-missions, and can manage to ignore the rather bizarre frame-rate fluctuations (Fifteen FPS indoors, might I remind you) then there's a rather fun beat-em-up to be had. However! A thirty-dollar price-tag is a bit much for a game as unpolished as this one is. Despite being an enhanced re-release, there are still a host of technical and art issues, the kind of which I would have sent back for a second draft, especially before an international release. Isn't the international version of a game supposed to squash the bugs, balance issues and technical problems present in the domestic version?
All in all, taking everything into account, my fun outweighed my frustration, but even being fun doesn't excuse some of the more egregious issues I encountered. In the end, I give Senran Kagura Burst a 6.2* rating.
I wound up deciding to take a week off and just play the game to completion rather than trying to rush through the story missions, plus I had already spent most of Friday and Saturday doing other things, and there's the fact that my birthday was coming up and I didn't want to stress myself out over it if I didn't have to. Next week I'm either gonna try and get through Deep Crimson or possibly one of the other games I've got in for review. In the event that falls through I'll probably just get around to publishing one of my best/worst lists of 2015. I'll see you then! For now, as of time of writing, I'm off to bed!

Cover from, screenshots taken by me.