I hate summer. Maybe it’s because I live in the South, where our summers are unbearably hot and humid, but I can’t stand this season. And ever since I became an adult, summer has lost the one benefit it carried, which was being out of school.1 All that’s left are the heat and the insects. So give me fall. Give me winter. I’ll even take spring with all its allergy-triggering pollen. But the rest of you can god damn keep summer for yourselves.
However, even I can’t resist the call of the beach. And never mind that I’m a neurotic nerd who refuses to go out into the sun without wearing long sleeves and pants, or even that I live four hours from the coast, because I’ve got Senran Kagura Estival Versus. I’ve had this game for over a year, in fact, but until recently it’s just been sitting in my PS4 backlog. I decided to dig it up again about a month ago, and I’m happy I did, because it makes for the perfect escape.
The Senran Kagura series is a bit infamous among gamers for its copious amounts of fanservice, and it’s naturally gotten more than its share of complaints from the big western game review sites for it. But God bless them, developer Marvelous! and creator and producer Kenichiro Takaki keep putting these games out, and they keep getting NA and EU ports (though unfortunately not without some cut content recently thanks to Sony’s new policies, namely in Senran Kagura Reflexions for the PS4.) The look and feel of Senran Kagura owe a lot to character designer and artist Nan Yaegashi, whose artistic direction is responsible for the “bouncy” nature of these games.
Released in 2016, Senran Kagura Estival Versus is a beat-em-up starring the usual cast of ninja girls grouped into different academies that seem to have been built for the express purpose of teaching young ladies how to beat the hell out of each other. One day, each of the four first-string teams of shinobi are magically summoned to an extradimensional tropical island by Sayuri, a retired shinobi and grandmother of Asuka, the leader of one of the four teams. Sayuri explains to the girls that they must fight each other in the “Millennium Festival”, a battle royale that pits all four teams against each other in a completely non-lethal “defend the base” sort of game, and that time in their own world will stand still while they carry out their contest.
However, matters are complicated when some of the shinobis’ dead relatives also start to appear on the island, alive and seemingly healthy. Upon being questioned, Sayuri explains that this island is home to shinobi who have passed on to the next life. Although the four teams are intense rivals, their members are also friendly with each other on some level, and they all agree after talking it over that Sayuri and her assistants seem to be hiding the true purpose behind the festival. Meanwhile, some of the shinobi start to lose their nerve, expressing a desire to permanently stay in this new dimension with their deceased family members and creating friction with those who want to win the battle and return home to fight an ancient evil that’s awoken to threaten life on Earth, conveniently just at the time the shinobi were teleported to this island.
It wouldn’t be right to say that Estival Versus is nothing but fanservice. It has a plot that serves the game perfectly well, and its drama is nicely balanced by Senran Kagura’s brand of absurd humor. I already addressed this in my review of Our World Is Ended, but I have no problem with throwing “inappropriate” humor and sex jokes into a game as long as it doesn’t cause too much of a tone problem, and it doesn’t in this case. And anyway, it wouldn’t be a proper Senran Kagura game without all the lewd jokes and wacky girl-on-girl hijinks and misunderstandings. If that’s not what you’re into, you already know the series isn’t for you anyway, and if you are, it’s just a good time.
As far as gameplay goes, Estival Versus is on solid ground. All our favorite shinobi return as playable characters along with a few new faces, and they have a wide variety of fighting styles, some easier to use and some more difficult/frustrating. This makes it a little annoying that the game requires you to play as every single shinobi at least once to make it through the main Millennium Festival campaign, since the player character is swapped after each mission. However, it’s not such a big deal: the game lets you change the difficulty level at any time, so if you find one particular shinobi hard to control, you can always switch over to normal or easy mode for her mission if that’s not too shameful an act for you to bear. Grinding is also easy to do, though it’s not especially necessary. Upon completing one of the main campaign missions, you can return to play it with any character you like, meaning you can pit a character against herself in battle, which is always fun. And if you’re really up against a wall, the game gives you the option of cheesing boss fights by butt-stomping your enemies into submission, though that move doesn’t trigger those famous strategic-clothes-tearing-off sequences that would occur otherwise during battle.
While Estival Versus does have paid DLC, the great majority of its extra content is unlockable within the game proper, which is something I appreciate. And there is a lot of it. Each character gets her own story consisting of five unique missions in addition to the main campaign, and there are extra campaigns on top of those. None of these missions offer anything different gameplay-wise from the usual “beat up huge crowds of low/mid-level enemies and then beat up one to three of your fellow shinobi” structure. That’s more or less the whole game. However, what you do get are a lot more goofy scenarios and dialogue between the characters. Because not only do these girls fight each other when they have an argument — they also fight when they’re having an otherwise nice, civil conversation (my favorite: shut-in Murasaki beating the writer’s block out of Mirai so she can continue her online novel.) Fighting is what they know, and it’s what they do. And it’s what you’ll do if you play this game. There are also the usual antics you can get up to in the dressing room, where you can try out the dozens upon dozens of costumes and put the girls in embarrassing poses if that’s your thing, but that’s all entirely optional.
So this is one of those cases where assigning a score feels pointless, because you’ll already know whether you’ll love or hate this game before you play it. Estival Versus is a very competent brawler, and the basic gameplay is fun if you’re into that style of game. But if you’re not a fan of the Senran Kagura aesthetic, you probably won’t like this or any of the other games in the series.2 For my part, I give Estival Versus a 6, because that’s just how much I liked it. If giving a lewd anime girl beat-em-up such a high score means I lose my credibility as a serious game reviewer… well, as far as I know, I never had any such credibility in the first place, so that’s okay with me.
Also, this doesn’t seem to be mentioned very often, but the Senran Kagura games I’ve played before have good soundtracks, and this one is no exception. The Estival Versus OST features a nice mix of western and eastern instruments and styles, and some of its pieces are really catchy. And every single character has a theme song as well. The composers certainly weren’t slacking off on this project. In fact, check out Yumi’s theme: it’s partly a rearrangement of Mozart’s Requiem. See, this is actually a very classy game.
1 Which reminds me of one of my favorite quotes from The Simpsons from back when the show was good, between Homer and his son Bart when Bart complains about missing summer after breaking his leg and getting a cast: “Don’t worry, boy. When you get a job like me, you’ll miss every summer.”
2 I don’t think any of the Senran Kagura games deserve to be dismissed on the grounds that they reflect bad gender politics, because they’re mostly over-the-top games that don’t really try to say anything about gender politics. In fact, you could argue that on the occasions these games take a serious tone, they represent empowered female characters who face their problems head-on.
But this is a subject for a different post. All I have left to say about it right now is this: if these games honestly creep you out, I can’t criticize you for feeling that way. Everyone has different tastes. I’d just like it if the “woke” crowd on Twitter and elsewhere would also recognize that fact and stop calling for these games to be censored or not exported to the West. If you don’t like them, just don’t fucking buy them and let the rest of us have our fun. Can we agree to that? (Well, of course we can’t, because they get off on exercising control over others by attempting to shame them over their taste in games and other media. But good luck getting these brave guardians of wholesomeness to admit to that.)