First impressions count for a lot in this fickle industry. Whether it's art style, design choices, or DLC policies, it's surprisingly easy to lose all interest in a game that doesn't initially match up to your personal preferences. For Senran Kagura Shinovi Versus, this is a big problem, as from the word go, you're bombarded by big, bouncing breasts, skimpy underwear, and an all-female cast that's sexualised at almost every turn.
The Japanese property is both founded on, and probably best known for, its apparent obsession with the female form, and as you can imagine, this alone is enough to turn many away from the franchise. To put it another way, if you thought that the heaving body parts and suggestive poses of the Dead or Alive series constituted as shameless, then you can't have encountered Senran Kagura – it's in an entirely different league.
So far, this review has probably started exactly as any fan would expect it to. In the game itself, there's an undeniable focus on the sexualisation of its cast, and it only makes sense for both critics and gamers alike to concentrate on that fact – but at the same time, it'd be unfair to write about nothing but the title's most, er, obvious features. After all, the franchise certainly has its own niche, and just because its styling is so divisive, doesn't mean that everything else should be largely ignored.
Fortunately, if you can see past the rampant fan service, there's a decent brawler hiding beneath the release's somewhat shallow exterior. Shinovi Versus plays a bit like Sengoku Basara, but it's more of a one-on-one fighter: you're free to roam in all directions, there's a lock-on button, and the action is frantic, over the top, and generally a lot of fun. It can take a little time to adapt to the game's hectic pace, but once it clicks and you're used to the flow of each crazy combo, fights turn into a dance of absolute chaos.
Combos are performed by hammering the square and triangle buttons, while R is your incredibly handy block button, L allows you to transform into a more powerful shinobi mode, and tapping circle lets you dash, which you can use to cancel out of moves and quickly change direction. For a brawler, it's an accessible combat system, but it does possess a reasonable amount of depth when it comes to timing blocks, unleashing super ninja techniques, and mixing up offensives with stylish airborne blitzes.
To top off the satisfyingly weighty fighting engine, the title's character roster is enjoyably diverse, despite the fact that all of the fighters abide by the same input methods. This is mostly because they all boast their own ridiculous fighting style, which range from traditional sword wielding to devastating the area with heavy artillery strikes. Discovering each girl's gimmick and subsequently levelling them up to unlock more advanced combos is a delightful process, and it's this gradual learning curve that'll keep you glued.
In terms of the title's actual structure, it's not quite your traditional fighting game. You begin by selecting one of three ninja schools, each featuring their own set of warrior maidens, and then you're plopped into a hub-like room where you can talk to your allies, change costumes, buy new ones, hone your skills, and access missions.
These objectives are split into two categories: optional and main. Main missions advance your chosen academy's story as you take the fight to opposing schools, while optional tasks play like your usual arcade mode, where you'll brawl a select group of opponents that are tied together with a loose narrative based on your current character. In short, there's plenty to do, especially since you can replay any stage to try and earn a better rank, or attempt it at a higher difficulty if you find that you're overly powerful. However, you'll end up preferring some missions over others because of a few frustrating imbalances.
As hinted, each ninja has their own level, which can be raised by beating your foes and acquiring experience points. Go back to a two-star difficulty stage with a beefed up shinobi, for example, and you'll find that your opposition will crumble with just a few well placed attacks. As such, you'll be tweaking the star rating quite a bit to keep things entertaining, but there are some missions where the temptation to blitz through on an easy setting is too great thanks to annoyingly cheap enemy types.
Outside of some horribly overpowered playable characters, various grunt opponents who you'll need to fell in order to get to that mission's boss are often far too troublesome. You'll come across burly opponents, for instance, who can't be flinched with normal attacks and have colossal health bars, while in later stages, projectile-based troops can lock you in place with endless barrages. At these points, Shinovi Versus is at its worst, making you feel like hurling your handheld across the room.
Unfortunately, these issues are exaggerated by what can be an atrocious camera. As you'd expect, twirling the right stick moves your viewpoint, but when you're constantly mashing out combos on the face buttons, that's a tall order. That said, you can always tap R to centre the camera behind your character, but even then, this is hardly an ideal solution when the viewpoint consistently gets lodged in walls and scenery, particularity when you're battling in an enclosed space. These problems aren't enough to ruin the experience – we're eternally grateful for the lock-on mechanic – but they make the game seem much more unfair than it actually is.
The core combat is accessible and satisfying, then, but it's let down by a few imbalances and a bit of poor design. It's a shame, too, because with a little more care and attention, Shinovi Versus could have been a much better brawler. Still, there's enough content here to keep you playing, and that's without mentioning the infamous lingerie lottery, where you can spend your well earned money trying to win increasingly risqué undergarments. Again, it's a component that certainly won't sit well with everyone, but if you're already a fan of Asuka and her buxom buddies, you'll probably love this unashamed addition.
Elsewhere, under the dojo menu, you can take the fight online, although sadly, we don't recommend it. We've already mentioned how unbalanced some of the cast is, and online, these dangerously effective characters are completely exploited. You'll frequently find opponents who make use of the same few ninjas, all of whom sport attacks that inflict specific ailments, like stun or freeze, which stop you in place while your foe smashes you into the dirt – and that's if you can even finish a whole match without the other player pulling the plug and disconnecting when they're on low health.
It's a good job, then, that the single player offering feels adequate, and surprisingly, one main aspect that'll keep you coming back is the character driven narrative. Differing depending on your currently chosen school, each story puts you in the shoes of various shinobi as you go toe-to-toe with your rivals, systematically dealing out death to each member of the cast. The overarching plots aren't particularly interesting, but they're told through the eyes of each ninja, and it becomes clear that an unexpected amount of effort has been put into crafting these personalities. In that sense, it seems like a bit of a shame that the cast's physicalities always take centre stage.
Speaking of which, the character models are all nicely designed and well animated, and all in all, it's an attractive art style that fits the gameplay, with bits of Earth flying from the ground when you unleash powerful blows, and flashy visual effects accompanying almost every attack that connects. The music, too, gels well with what's going on, and, although the frantic, over-the-top rock soundtrack can start to chip away at your sanity, it's hard not to feel on top of the world when you manage to catch a foe in a brutal aerial assault just as a cheesy guitar solo kicks in.
As a game, Senran Kagura Shinovi Versus will no doubt be unfairly judged based on the sexualised portrayal of its all-female cast, but those who can look beyond its titillating nature will find an accessible, enjoyable brawler. Balancing issues and a backstabbing camera put a limit on the fun, but a diverse cast and surprisingly competent narrative should keep fans fighting well into the late hours – just remember to play it beneath the sheets.