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First Impressions: Senran Kagura: Estival Versus

by Todd Ciolek,
I hope you're enjoying Anime News Network's expanded video-game coverage, including Gabriella's look at Fire Emblem's history. It's very thorough, but there's one minor piece of the series I'd like to examine in greater detail: its early Nintendo Power coverage.

Kids growing up in the Nintendo-dominated late 1980s rarely heard about Fire Emblem. It'd been around in Japan since 1990, but Nintendo Power didn't acknowledge it much until a 1994 feature about games that never left Japan. The magazine returned to the series during the lean middle months of 1996, when a lack of new Super NES games and long delays for the Nintendo 64 left plenty of open pages.

Nintendo Power's feature covers Fire Emblem in nice detail, explaining its strategic features and storylines. It explores the fourth Fire Emblem game, Genealogy of the Holy War, most closely of all and ends with a cruel stroke for any kid hungering for more RPGs: “there are no plans for a North American release.”

There's one oddity in Nintendo Power's Fire Emblem coverage. The above image and caption serve to explain the Fire Emblem tradition of getting two characters to marry and have tactically advantageous children, but fans of the series (or just those who can read Japanese) will notice an error: the two characters in the screenshot are brother and sister. And no, the game doesn't have Eldigan and Lachesis falling in forbidden love and spawning inbred, malformed archers or cavalry for the player's army. Disturbingly enough, there seems to be a manga adaptation that explores the creepy subtext between the two of them, but the less said there, the better.

It seems like a small error on Nintendo Power's part, but Fire Emblem can be a messed-up series. Genealogy of the Holy War sees an ancient evil resurrected through incest, other games let cousins wed, and even the new Fire Emblem Fates gets off-putting when the player's avatar grows weirdly close to their stepsiblings and their long-lost actual siblings via the game's bonding system. Perhaps Nintendo Power's editors knew exactly what they were doing.

NEWS

PLAYSTATION VR GETS A PRICE, A RELEASE DATE, A REQUIRED ACCESSORY
Video games and virtual-reality headgear have a long and fragmented relationship. Expensive VR games popped up in arcades during the early 1990s, but pursuits like Dactyl Nightmare didn't usher in a new era of 3-D environments and motion sickness. Even Sega, at the height of their Genesis-era hubris, decided that the market couldn't support a Sega VR headset. Nintendo's Virtual Boy, while not really a VR getup in the same sense, nonetheless bombed and made just about everybody wary of game systems that involved 3-D goggles attached to one's face. Sony dodged it for years, but their turn came up: the PlayStation VR is real, and it's due out in October.

The PlayStation VR features an OLED display with a 100-degree view, with a 360-degree head-tracking features. For $399.99 you get the headgear and the necessary hookups…except for the PlayStation camera that runs about sixty bucks. You'll also need a PlayStation 4 to actually use the new gadget, but Sony's confident that any PlayStation VR buyers own the latest console already.

In typical launch-window overestimation, Sony promises 50 PlayStation VR games by the end of the year, with over 200 developers on board for titles. The actual system will include the minigame anthology PlayStation VR Worlds, though I'd prefer Playroom VR (above), a cuter multiplayer minigame compilation that stars little robots and a huge dinosaur. The rest of the library has a lot of first-person games like the adventure Wayward Sky and the spaceship shooter EVE: Valkyrie, though Sony's also booking updates of older games, like Tumble VR and Rez Infinite. In fact, Rez Infinite remains the system's strongest point. Tetsuya Mizuguchi's delirious rhythmic shooter is still a cult favorite, and its VR version looks astounding while adding a new “Area X” level. Sony's lucky to have it as a launch title.

ROMANCING SAGA 2 RETURNS, MIGHT STILL BE INTERESTING
The SaGa series has a bad reputation in some parts, but I suspect that's because the worst games in the series are noticed more than the good ones. Western RPG fans remember the disappointments of SaGa Frontier and Unlimited SaGa, but there's less attention paid to the well-received SaGa games, including some that never came here. Romancing SaGa 2, for example, is one of better parts of the series, and there's only a partial fan translation out there. Well, Square Enix wants more attention for it, and that's why this oft-overlooked SaGa is headed to the Vita and mobile devices.

Romancing SaGa 2 is one of many Square RPGs that made RPG fans owners seethe with envy in the 1990s. It arrived on the Super Famicom, saw coverage in some American magazines, and then stayed in Japan. To be fair, RPG fans didn't seethe for too long over Romancing SaGa 2. We moved on to whining about how Square wouldn't release Final Fantasy V, Front Mission, Bahamut Lagoon, or Romancing SaGa 3.

Romancing SaGa 2 follows a plotline more intriguing and cohesive than the usual SaGa offering: a multi-generational story tells of an emperor, his descendant, and his assorted RPG-standard allies facing off against seven legendary heroes who saved the world…and then returned to it as demon overlords. The game's battles offer a wider array of attacks and learnable techniques than the progression of contemporary Final Fantasies, and it balances the typical SaGa experimentation with a relatively coherent RPG.

Romancing SaGa 2 never showed up in North America; Square Enix tried a remake of the original Romancing SaGa for the PlayStation 2, but it didn't move enough copies to justify another such attempt. The version of Romancing SaGa 2 for the Vita, iOS, and Android isn't nearly as ambitious; it's the Super Famicom original with better backgrounds and sharper combat spritework. But it's coming to a modern platform in Japan, and that means there's a small chance it'll come to North America after all these years.

I AM SETSUNA IS MOSTLY ON ITS WAY HERE
As for Square Enix RPGs that aren't from 1993, I Am Setsuna showed up at the currently underway Gamers Developers Conference 2016. It's a new RPG with a lot of old callbacks.

I Am Setsuna, known in Japan as Ikenie to Yuki no Setsuna, follows a maiden designated as a sacrifice for her isle's monster-warding rituals. Her best friend Kuon, a swordsman named Yomi, and a bodyguard accompany her for the long snow-swept journey to her destiny, and from there things get a good deal more complicated.

Setsuna may be modern and slated for the Vita, the PlayStation 4, and the PC, but it bursts with callbacks to Chrono Trigger: the little figures on an overworld free of random battles, the team-up attacks, the active-time battles, and the fact that enemy and party member positions matter during combat. Atop those techniques, the game adds a Setsuna gauge that provides additional damage as the player times button presses just right.

It looks promising in its deliberately old-fashioned style, though Vita owners will note that Square Enix plans to localize it only for the PlayStation 4 and PC. Director Atsushi Hashimoto mentioned that a Vita release might come around if enough fans make civilized noise, however, and there's time to do that before I Am Setsuna comes out in North America.

FIRST IMPRESSIONS: SENRAN KAGURA: ESTIVAL VERSUS

The Senran Kagura series is less a line of games and more a collection of varied excuses, all for the same thing: enormous wobbling breasts. Yes, Senran Kagura is technically the ongoing saga of shinobi women bound together in friendships, rivalries, and the occasional tragedy, but the games fool no one for very long.

Senran Kagura is, of course, a steady success, and each game in the series expands with new characters and new ways to exploit them. Estival Versus opens with ninja sisters Ryobi and Ryona spying on a ritual in the forest. In between Ryona begging to be insulted and struck (because she's a huge masochist) and Ryobi halfway obliging (because she's a minor sadist), they notice that the ritual involves their presumed-dead sister Ryobi. Upon intervening, they're whisked away to a pocket dimension, and they're not the only ones. Every other female ninja from Senran Kagura's four major schools ends up in an otherworldly festival run by a ninja grandmother, and the only way out lies in beach games, swimsuits, and constant brawling.

The alternate-reality getaways of Estival Versus once again turn the busty ninja girls loose in large battlefields, now in the form of spacious beaches or carnival thoroughfares. The heroines tear around these arenas, rushing, double-jumping, and wall-running as they slice through phalanxes of equally busty shinobi foes, occasionally facing off against a serious opponent or transforming into a high-powered incarnation.

And there's the hook for Senran Kagura. Whenever a ninja maiden switches to her more potent form, the player gets a gratuitous pan up her nude and revolving form, dotted only by some selective flashes of light. And whenever one of the characters is thrashed in battle, the player gets a carefully animated clip of her clothes flying away in pitiful shreds, usually while she gasps in humiliation and feebly tries to cover herself. In special cases, they'll land, naked and defeated, atop drums, trees, basketball nets, ice cream stands, cages, and other stage-specific props. Should the combat prove too taxing, there's a dress-up mode where characters pose, disrobe, and generally absorb the player's attentions.

That's the reason Senran Kagura exists, why it's sold over a million copies, and why it's branched out into everything from manga adaptations to ice-cream sundaes that resemble cleavage and ninja scrolls.

But is there more to Senran Kagura? It's a brawler, after all, and it's arranged in the broad melee tradition of Dynasty Warriors. Stages throw together clumps of enemies, threatening only because of their sheer numbers, and let the player pull off however many vicious attacks a character might have. It's far more controlled than the sprawling battlegrounds of Dynasty Warriors or Samurai Warriors, however, and that works to Senran Kagura's advantage. Stages are easily digested and rarely overstay their welcome. It's a game best taken in satisfyingly violent bites.

If it's fun for a simple stretch, Senran Kagura: Estival Versus doesn't satisfy in other gameplay. Good brawlers learn to vary their objectives, relying more on design than sheer numbers. Estival Versus rarely challenges outside of its boss battles.

If there's one commendable point, it's the sheer variety of characters. With over 25 playable cast members, Estival Versus neglects few play styles or weapons…or fetishes. Ditzy, slang-spouting Shiki dons a witch-reaper costume and flings a scythe around, while her teammate Murakumo wears a gruesome ogre mask and draws manga in her spare time. Newcomer Renka pounds on opponents with traditional drumsticks, while her sisters use a hammer and a giant summoned dolphin. And should you want more routine ninja, there's the base Senran Kagura lineup of general-purpose shinobi Asuka, her multi-sword-packing rival/friend Homura, and their respective ninja schools. The game's just a means for showing them off in every way.

Bizarre as it seems, Senran Kagura: Estival Versus wants us to take all of these jiggling ninja semi-seriously, at least to the point where we care about their backgrounds and their goofy adventures in a weird realm of unending festivals and domineering seniors. Yet it summons neither pathos nor comedy. Stale dialogue pigeonholes the characters early on, dragging out everything from relentless boob-grabbing jokes to the inevitable lines about someone stealing someone else's pudding (really, can't schoolgirls in video games and anime argue about another form of dessert? Like tiramisu or rumtopf?). Compared to other risque anime-comedy games, Senran Kagura seems tepid. Even the Neptunia games occasionally trip over an actual joke.

And what if the game succeeded in this department? If it wrung sympathy and admiration for these characters, it'd be all the more cruel and unpleasant for the game to demean them. Many of the Senran Kagura characters are insufferable or bland, but I sorta liked the deadpan Hikage and the mercurial Homura, who wields six blades like Wolverine and leads her ninja squad in working low-level jobs. And that made it all the worse when the game's viewpoint crawled like a cockroach over their torn clothing.

Fans of comics, cartoons, and video games are used to this. We're inured to the point where we won't let some occasional pandering make us give up on caring about an interesting superheroine or cyborg cop or secret agent or international martial artist, and yet there's a point where a fictional woman becomes less a character and more a conveyance for boobs and butts. Senran Kagura lies well beyond that event horizon. If it were just a game about impossibly endowed ninja women slashing and posing with undegraded confidence, it might be superficial nonsense to draw laughter and eye-rolls instead of scorn. But there's an uglier side, a conflation of humiliation and titillation that doesn't sit right even by the loose standards of video-game sexuality.

For those who love cartoon cleavage and trashy indulgence, Senran Kagura: Estival Versus may seem a brilliant playground and a halfway satisfying brawler. Yet there's always something uncomfortable waiting in the wings, be it those telling cutaways of the characters stripped and embarrassed…or the mere fact that the game's portrait mode, which lets players date and dress the cast, has a setting for “blushing and tears.” If there's fun to be had in Estival Versis, it's rarely the harmless kind.

NEXT WEEK'S RELEASES

DAY OF THE TENTACLE REMASTERED
Developer: Double Fine Productions
Publisher: Double Fine Productions
Platform: PlayStation 4 / PS Vita / PC / Mac
Release Date: March 22
Hamsters: Yes
MSRP: $19.99

The original Maniac Mansion was as close to a mid-1980s horror-comedy film as computers and game consoles of its era would allow. It sent seven teenagers into the home of the mad scientist Dr. Fred, leading them to sentient tentacle creatures (literally large talking tentacles), radioactive backyard pools, Fred's bizarre family, and, in uncensored versions of the game, hamsters that could blow up in the microwave. That was the stuff of cult classics, even if Maniac Mansion inspired only a generally unfaithful TV series and a 1993 sequel.

That sequel, Day of the Tentacle, begins five years after Maniac Mansion. The original game's most useful character, the nerd-of-all-trades Bernard, and his friends travel through time to stop a purple tentacle monster from drinking radioactive slime and conquering the world. A cheap temporal displacer scatters them across history, however: Bernard hunts a diamond in the present, metalhead Hoagie meets America's Founding Fathers, and spacey Laverne explores a Tentacle-dominated future.

Their adventure plays out with the same point-and-click interface used in Maniac Mansion and many other LucasArts adventure games, and the characters all have a cartoonish look that's aged far better than the era's attempts at video-game realism. Those elements remain largely unchanged in Double Fine's Remastered edition, which uses redrawn, high-definition graphics that recreate the original, plus new interface options and a commentary track with some of the game's original creators: Dave Grossman, Larry Ahern, Peter Chan, Clint Bajakian, Peter McConnell, and, of course, Double Fine founder Tim Schafer.

Day of the Tentacle lacks the subtler, character-driven narratives of later Schafer works like Grim Fandango and Full Throttle, though it's charming in its own goofball, early-1990s way—like the rare Animaniacs episode that was good all the way through. And yet I see missed opportunities. The original plans for Day of the Tentacle called for six playable characters—and one of the three dropped protagonists was Razor, the punk-rock girl from Maniac Mansion. Razor was easily the game's most memorable character (Nintendo Power's Howard and Nester comic picked her to join the heroes, after all), and it's a shame that this Remastered take on Day of the Tentacle can't change a few more things.

STRANGER OF SWORD CITY
Developer: Experience, Inc.
Publisher: Experience, Inc.
Platform: Xbox One
Release Date: March 22
Vita Version: Next Month
MSRP: $30.49

Imagine my disappointment upon learning that there's no actual place called Sword City. Michigan and Norway have towns called Hell, New Zealand has Gore, Idaho has Dickshooter, Latvia has Ogre, and North Carolina has Kill Devil Hills (and Boogertown), but there is no community on this earth named Sword City. Perhaps that's why Experience made a dungeon-crawling RPG about one.

Sword City lies in the equally fictional land of Escario, and it's a maze of bizarre creatures, selectively armored warriors, hobbit-like mygmies, cat-women Neys, all-purpose lowlifes, and…well, other mazes. You're the stranger of the title, warped to this fantasy dystopia after a plane disappears with you aboard. In your inevitable forays into the labyrinths, you're pushed toward three different factions and their leaders. The Strangers' Guild is full of travelers from other worlds—and run by Rui Tsukisaga, whose hybrid schoolgirl-armor marks her as an Earth expatriate. The seemingly altruistic Kingdom Chivalry falls under the will of priestess Marilith Cribaum. And the high-tech criminal outfit Medell Company? They're led by the cyborgs Alm and Rainera. Sure, they're probably evil. But they're the most interesting bunch.

Stranger of Sword City's ending changes depending on which faction leader you ply with blood crystals recovered from dungeons. Exploring those dungeons plays out like past Experience RPGs: you roam around in a first-person viewpoint, guide a largely custom-made party of characters through menu-driven battles, and die if you're not careful. Your group can hide in dungeons to waylay monsters, and the now-standard crafting system has you feeding items to a mimic creature. It beats visiting just another shop in Sword City.

ALSO AVAILABLE: Hyrule Warriors Legends arrives on the 3DS. It's much the same as its Wii U origins; a battlefield brawler featuring characters from throughout the Legend of Zelda series. The 3DS version of the game offers quicker character-switching and an epilogue with new “giant” bosses.” It loses the Challenge Mode as well as Ganon and Giant Cucco, but it adds Tetra, the Skull Kid, Toon Link, Linkle (a female version of Link), and the King of Hyrule. That's the king from The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker, not the one from those bizarrely animated and oft-quoted Zelda CD-I games. Too bad.


Todd Ciolek occasionally updates his website, and you can follow him on Twitter if you want.


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