Senran Kagura Estival Versus marks the first time the traditionally portable series has made its way to a console. That is to say, everything’s brighter, clear, louder, and maybe a bit bouncier this time around.
Estival Versus doesn’t do much that previous games in the series haven’t already. If you’ve played any of the entries in the series on the Vita, this one will be immediately familiar to you. That’s not a bad thing, either. The same familiar rhythm of stringing together long combos against hordes of enemies is still intact, and that’s OK—the core gameplay works well, and there are no glaring issues.
I know, I know. You can’t say you like how one of these games looks without eliciting snickers from people that take Senran games at face value. Mechanically, Estival Versus may be very similar to the Vita games, but visually it couldn’t be further removed.
Models are the most detailed we’ve seen so far, environments are bigger, but perhaps the biggest improvement is how smoothly these games run. It’s clear that the PS4 has processing power to spare running Estival Versus, but it’s nice to see a game running at a solid frame rate, considering how scattershot performance seems to be on any console this generation.
If a character has appeared in a Senran game, odds are good they’re in Estival Versus. Every academy represented in the game is there, along with some characters that have been killed off in the canon, and a few newcomers fill out the largest roster ever for the series. There’s over two dozen characters to choose from, and each of them feel unique and interesting.
Each character handles uniquely, and nothing has been lost in the translation from the small screen. All the girls from Hanzo to Hebijo are present, as well as a few side characters, like Ryoki, who died during the events of Shinovi Versus. Estival Versus also marks the first time character from Dead or Alive has appeared in Senran Kagura. Ayane from the popular ninja fighting franchise feels right at home in Senran Kagura’s universe.
As much as I enjoy Senran games, I never thought I’d be heaping praise on its story. At first blush, Estival Versus seems like a typical story about the series’ various star characters on beautiful beaches enjoying an endless summer, but if you look a bit deeper, you find how deeply Estival Versus delves into the subjects of loss, grief and coping. Sure, there are still bits of the game that are devoted wholeheartedly the series’ more fanservice-y aspects: girls are in panty snatching contests, sexual harassment abounds, and there’s more than enough to make even the most hardcore fans blush, but it’s the other elements, the ones that touch on real emotional themes that make Estvial Versus shine.
The paradise these girls have been transported to allows them to reunite with lost loved ones, as though they were still with them. Because of this, each of the girls re-experiences and has to process their grief differently. It’s an interesting turn for a series that has mostly been about fanservice. That isn’t to say there isn’t plenty of fanservice, in fact there might be more than ever, as Kotaku’s Mike Fahey pointed out. The narrative of Estival Versus is much more relatable, and much more human than that of any previous entry in the series. The theme of loss and acceptance is something Takaki and company have managed to tackles surprisingly well, with a number of poignant scenes throughout the game. Over the course of the eight day festival, the characters grow and interesting and meaningful ways. By the end, the girls of Senran Kagura’s ninja academies feel like much more than the caricatures they appear to be.
Multiplayer has, perhaps surprisingly, been a major part of the Senran Kagura series. For the transition to consoles, Takaki and his team wanted to vastly improve the multiplayer portion of the game; thankfully, they succeeded. There’s a whopping seven multiplayer modes, ranging from traditional deathmatch and point battles, to a panty-collecting mode; there’s even a Senran-appropriate take on capture the flag, in which shinobi compete to capture a bra and return it.
My two favorite modes were walker mode, in which a couple mechanized walkers, similar to the ones you can find in Mega Man X are dropped in the field and you must compete against up to nine opponents for their use, and survival mode, where you and up to three other players fight hordes of nameless grunts to protect a festival stand from being destroyed. Each mode is highly customizable, allowing you to specify how many players you would like to allow, whether or not grunts will spawn, among other things.
At times during multiplayer, the frame rate can get quite unstable, which is disappointing considering how smoothly single player runs the majority of the time. It’s a minor annoyance in a mode full of smart decisions, like allowing you the option to fill empty slots in a match with (mostly useless) CPU opponents, but it’s one that can still get in the way of your enjoyment at times.
Dressing room mode is another series staple that has found its way into Estival Versus. If you’ve played around with dressing room mode in any other game in the series, then you’ll know what to expect here. You can customize any of the game’s characters hairstyles, outfits, accessories and lingerie to suit your tastes. The amount of control you have is pretty impressive, and you can then move those characters into diorama mode to take pictures. You can pose your team in a range of poses from action-like to provocative to hey-are-we-sure-this-game-isn’t-an-adult-title.
It’s a fun feature if you’re into that kind of thing, but I probably like it best for the reactions it produces, like that of Kotaku Editor-in-Chief, Stephen Totilo:
Last year, at E3 I had the opportunity to talk to Kenichiro Takaki, the creator of Senran Kagura. At the time, Estival Versus had just released in Japan, and he was keen to show the game off and share details on it with me. Though I wasn’t able to see them at the E3 demo, Takaki was very excited about what he had unofficially at the time dubbed the ‘Puru Puru Finish’, or Jiggle Jiggle Finish. The idea behind is, as I was told last year is, “...kind of like a Mortal Kombat Fatality, depending on what kind of move you do, you get to execute them in a different way.”
Creative Finishers, as they’re now dubbed in the Western release, stayed true to Takaki’s vision; they’re a surprising end to a battle, that you might not expect. Sure, they all involve your opponent being stripped nude, and some environmental element involved, but they toe the line between comedy and lewdity, and they do so successfuly. The creative finishers in Estival Versus are often hilarious, involving your opponent getting stuck in a basketball hoop or thrown into a tree, or even stuck on a hot air balloon in flight. The intent behind them is definitely for them to make you funny, and more often than not, they’re effective in that regard.
Senran Kagura Estival Versus is, without a doubt, the best game in the series. When I first started playing these games, I was initially embarrassed by the fanservice, but now, all I see is the stellar action game underneath. Estival Versus improves on its predecessors in every way. 10 player multiplayer, smoother frame rates, better graphics and the largest roster ever are just the tip of the iceberg. The narrative is wacky, crazy, and at times even manages to be moving. Everything has been stepped up this year.
When I met Kenichiro Takaki last year, he showed me an illustration he had made in anticipation of his trip to E3. It was of the Los Angeles Convention Center, where E3 is held each year. Draped in front over the entrance, replacing the Call of Duty banner that adorned it was an advertisement from Estival Versus. At the time, he told me that was his goal, to have Senran Kagura on the front of that building one year. It’s certainly a lofty goal, but at the rate Senran games are improving each year, it might not be an impossible one.