Senran Kagura: Estival Versus
Publisher: Marvelous Entertainment
Available on: PS4 (reviewed), Vita
Price: $49.99 (PS4), $39.99 (Vita)
When four rival all-female shinobi clans appear together in a parallel dimension, they understandably have more questions than answers. They were just magically swept away from their predictable, seemingly dull lives and summoned by the high priestess of the Kagura Millenium Festival in order battle each other for the title of Kagura, so their concerns aren’t exactly unwarranted.
Not only does this alternate reality take the form of an island paradise (one that’s much appreciated by most of the cast) but it acts as a temporary home for the summoned souls of slain shinobi and one monstrous, destructive demon. Among these souls are the deceased parents, mentors, sisters, and childhood friends of the fighting females, which begs them to ask the question: why leave? Why battle for a title when they can live in a world where time passes slowly, the dead live once again, and their lives back in the real world don’t seem all that remarkable?
Senran Kagura: Estival Versus is a quality 3D hack-and-slash game that buries quite a few tragic stories and sweet moments of reminiscence under a plethora of fan-service and unapologetically sexual dialogue. The girls are mostly busty and don revealing apparel that becomes even more revealing as its ripped away during battle. There’s transformation scenes where each of the girls are fully nude (the sensitive bits are covered in a blinding light) while the camera pans around to their backside as they’re re-clothed in new, sometimes sultrier clothing. Some of the girls are madly in love with each other, while others make several unwanted sexual advances that would make any Human Resources manager red in the face.
Needless to say, if suggestive moaning, bouncing breasts, lesbians, innuendos, and frequent upskirts make you blush, you may want to look elsewhere for entertainment.
For those willing to either embrace or overlook what some might deem questionable inclusions, there’s a highly entertaining brawler with an abundance of content and a distinguishably delightful cast of characters to play around with.
Although it’s the seventh entry in the Senran Kagura series, Estival Versus is the first to offer a unified story that systematically jumps between each of the shinobi clans at certain parts in the narrative. You’re never given much time to get a feel for each girl’s fighting style, but it’s enough to grab a hold of a few key combos and special moves to battle your way through the objectives.
The objectives themselves are all relatively generic, largely consisting of battling waves of lesser enemies before encountering one (or even three) of your rival shinobi girls. Only a few actually strayed from this formula throughout the 13-hour campaign, though even those were dumbed down to simply defeating each batch of enemies within a given time limit.
Thanks to the variety of playstyles, the repetitive nature of the game’s mission structure never felt taxing. Most missions task you with piloting a different shinobi anyway, which acts as both a learning experience and a way of successfully keeping the flow from growing stagnant. It was more a watered-down Dynasty Warriors; removing the base-defending segments altogether and instead replacing them with more fighting game-esque rival encounters that play in to the visual novel narrative pieces.
While the combat is actually quite good, slashing it out with larger groups of enemies can often lead to unwelcome dips in framerate, and I was baffled by how poorly the camera controlled in some of the larger environments. Locking on to enemies while dashing around them would often re-position the camera in unfortunate locations, like inside of walls. On rare instances it’d even cause me to get stuck in pieces of the environment.
I mostly enjoyed the game’s combat focus of building up a special meter and unleashing devastating attacks between ludicrous hit-combos and air juggles, but it can definitely feel a bit button-mashy on the lower difficulty settings. There are a few particulars to master, like perfect guards, aerial raves (co-op attacks with your partner, if you have one), knockbacks, and one-time use items called “bombshells” that can summon mechs, deliver area-wide damage, or prevent a shinobi from transforming, but it’s not exactly Bayonetta or Devil May Cry we’re talking about.
Even still, there’s just something hilariously awesome about shedding clothing to become more powerful, while my girlfriend cackles away at the non-stop display of jiggling breasts and scantly clad anime ladies plastered across our television screen.
Battles take place throughout a diverse, yet surprisingly expected set of landscapes, like school grounds, towns, beaches, and cityscapes. None of them really stood out, serving as nothing more than generic battlegrounds in which to shred clothing, though they do provide interactive environments that trigger should you manage to KO a rival shinobi in specific areas.
Doing so prompts an embarrassing segue that usually ends with one of them being naked in a variety of compromising positions and/or situations. For instance, one might launch them through a billboard, with only their rear end peaking through, while another could send them through a restaurant window, a basketball hoop, or trap them inside of a birdcage.
While the backdrops are visually unimpressive, the cel-shading technique used to craft each of the characters is actually quite nice, encapsulating the game’s anime vibe particularly well. There’s some clipping issues here and there, namely with hair and cloaks and such, but each of their designs are discernible, like Murasaki’s gothic lolita garb, or the cutesy Minori, battling with a magical pail of candy and a gigantic stuffed hamster backpack. There’s a bunch of clothing pieces to buy and unlock as well, so you’re free to customize everyone all the way down to their undergarments. Pirate garb and thongs for everyone!
Aside from the campaign, which can feel a little verbose at times, each of the 34 playable characters (give or take a few paid DLC shinobi, like Dead or Alive’s Ayane) have their own unlockable side-story. With each lasting around 45 minutes, these all play out in similar fashion (battle through five chapters chock-full of rival battles) and serve as a mini-narrative that gives more depth to each of the characters. This significantly adds to the length of the game, and having them locked behind collectibles scattered throughout the campaign gave me something to focus on besides trying to keep my clothes intact.
Senran Kagura: Estival Versus clearly caters to a niche audience. If you’re a fan of hack-and-slash games, but find the idea of over-sexualized anime girls with jiggling breasts appalling, this is going to be a hard sell. The combat system isn’t very deep and the story, while sweet and depressing at times, is mostly an inner monologue-filled storyboard or a series of Japanese-voiced back-and-forth banters between each of the rival shinobi clans.
It’s an interesting and enjoyable experience with a ton of replay value, but the repetitive mission structure, woeful backdrops, and unapologetically sexual tones aren’t going to win over any skeptics. Neither is the practically barren competitive multi-player mode.
I’m not shy around fan-service though (I did review Gal*Gun: Double Peace, remember?), and maybe I was just in the mood for a light-hearted, mindless brawler, but I had a great time with Estival Versus. I enjoyed mastering the diverse roster of memorable characters, hunting down collectibles, and sharing ridiculous screenshots on Twitter. The more I played, the more I wanted to chip away its busty exterior in hopes of uncovering the more interesting lore bits scattered here and there, and I was rarely disappointed.
While it’s certainly easy to dismiss Estival Versus as nothing more than a pervy fan-service game, it’s safe to say I’m a fan now. I went in with an open mind and my expectations in check, and left pleasantly surprised.
*So where’s the final score? There isn’t one. I spent a lot of time conveying my opinion in the above text, and I hope that’s worth more to you than some arbitrary number or a sequence of shaded-in star shapes. Basically, I’m not a fan of scores so I no longer use them. Read the review and judge for yourself if the game is worth your time and money.
Full disclosure: This review was done using a PlayStation 4 copy of Senran Kagura: Estival Versus that I purchased myself. It is also available on PlayStation Vita, but this review only pertains to the PS4 version. While I’m sometimes given games to review, I pride myself on providing unbiased reviews to fellow consumers, along with constructive feedback to hard working developers and publishers. Whether or not I pay for the game is completely irrelevant.