Senran Kagura: Peach Ball
UNLESS GAMERS have been living under a rock all this time, they would most definitely be familiar with the Senran Kagura series. The arrival of the Nintendo 3DS handheld console at the turn of the decade gave Marvelous the impetus it needed to bring Senran Kagura: Skirting Shadows and Senran Kagura Burst to the attention of those on the lookout for actioners featuring no small measure of fanservice. The newly formed Japan-based publisher, out to make an impact as an offshoot of the merger of industry players Marvelous Entertainment, Livewire, and AQ Interactive, felt it had in its hands a solid franchise featuring appealing characters, deep and unpredictable gameplay, and nuanced storylines designed to transcend platforms.
Marvelous was right, and it didn’t have to wait long to see its gamble pay off. Senran Kagura: Skirting Shadows and Senran Kagura Burst were certified hits, leading to more releases. And in just eight years, it has seen the takeup of Senran Kagura videogames — 11 to date, two spinoffs included — reach the seven-figure mark. And so winsome are the principal protagonists that they’ve managed to cross over as stars of manga and anime adaptations. The cast has grown significantly over time, feeding on the overarching narrative of female shinobi-in-training from the Hanzo National Academy, the rival Hebijo Clandestine Girls’ Academy, the elite Gessen Girls’ Academy, and the rogue Crimson Squad aiming to become the best in the art of ninjitsu.
In growing the Senran Kagura franchise, Marvelous has been predisposed to pushing the envelope, not just in terms of having titles provide naughty visuals and dialogue, but in occasionally branching out of the main story to have familiar faces grace unusual settings. Senran Kagura: New Wave, released on iOS and Android platforms in 2012, focused on card battles. Senran Kagura: Bon Appétit, which made its way to the PlayStation Vita two years later, was about rhythm cooking. Senran Kagura: Peach Beach Splash, out on the PS4 in 2017 and on Windows shortly after, made use of water guns as shooters. And, in its newest offering for the Nintendo Switch, gamers are enjoined to operate pinball machines.
In terms of content and choice, the just-released Senran Kagura: Peach Ball offers much less than its predecessors in the Senran Kagura series. The Story Mode has Yomi, Asuka, Yumi, Ryona, and Murasaki coming into contact with Beastall, Haruka’s latest concoction, while inside the rest room of the Honey Arcade and turning into animals as a result. Gamers are then tasked to help them turn back into their old selves before they lose their memories. The key is for them to breathe in the antidote contained in a Peach Ball; only when it manages to reach, as the game itself notes, “the proper vibrational force” will it produce a mist that “can restore their humanity.”
So how should gamers meet the stated objective? Well, since the damsels in distress are inside the arcade, Senran Kagura: Peach Ball makes the answer clear. They each need to be coaxed into going on top of a pinball machine, after which playing it and continually directing the Peach Balls to their bodies will trigger the release of the mist. The premise is ridiculous, but par for the course in a Senran Kagura offering. So are the raunchy, if witty, dialogue, exaggerated and enhanced frontal assets of the characters, and creative parameters governing their increasing state of undress. Indeed, a proper rescue sees them devoid of clothing, albeit with their private parts strategically covered.
And therein lies the rub. As the latest from a franchise that has claimed a loyal following precisely because of its unique capacity to lace risqué material with humor, Senran Kagura: Peach Ball does not disappoint. On the flipside, it could very well have thrived even absent all the suggestive content. As a straight-up pinball game, it’s nothing short of outstanding. Various themes augment the two tables available. More importantly, the layouts are superb; they’re tricked out logically, and the risk-reward interplay is such that there is merit in going for mini-games and specified targets.
The Story Mode should be the way to go for most gamers, who start with choosing from the five aforementioned characters, save his or her choice, and then direct his or her choice to save the rest. That said, Senran Kagura: Peach Ball offers Free Play, which allows for the sidestepping of the narrative in favor of all-out pinball fun. And fun does come in spades, with table physics decidedly favoring the player, not to mention encouraging its tilting. Regardless of choice, the currency gained from the experience can then be used to purchase in-game bonuses; the sheer number of unlockables should keep completionists coming back for more action.
By and large, Senran Kagura: Peach Ball makes no pretensions about its intellectual property roots and intent to thrill, but not to the point of being exploitative. Nonetheless, it remains one of the most enthralling pinball games in the market. Admittedly, it doesn’t run at 60 frames per second on the Switch. Then again, it doesn’t need to; it features ultra-smooth gameplay, vibrant colors, striking artwork, enveloping music, a topnotch Japanese voice track backstopped by precise English subtitles, an appropriately light story, and, best of all, a compelling interface. Controls are precise and high-definition rumble is supported, providing gamers with physical feedback that ups the ante on the action.
There are titles that highlight suggestive subject matter. There are games that feature loads of arcade entertainment. And then there is Senran Kagura: Peach Ball. Enough said.
• Stays true to intellectual property roots
• Outstanding gameplay mechanics
• Superb production values
• Relatively short Story Mode
• Sensitive subject matter
• May be an acquired taste
POSTSCRIPT: Senran Kagura Burst Re:Newal — Censorship is, on principle, a no-no, so the decision of Sony to limit the content carried by Senran Kagura Burst Re:Newal (which made its way to store shelves early this year) vis-à-vis the original release cannot but be viewed with disappointment. The strict guidelines imposed by the console manufacturer on games licensed for the PlayStation 4 have, in this particular case, compelled publisher Marvelous to leave out an offering (present in the 2011 version of Senran Kagura Burst as well as in its iteration for the personal computer) that enabled gamers to better acquaint themselves with characters in the dressing room.
The good news is that the absence of the feature in no way discounts the true value of Senran Kagura Burst Re:Newal. At heart, it’s a labor of love that updates the title responsible for getting the Senran Kagura series off the ground. Everything about it is improved, and drastically so that it might as well be treated as a new release. From the visuals to the audio tracks to the gameplay itself, it trumps its source material. And no wonder; the latter came out on the Nintendo 3DS, a previous-generation handheld device far behind the powerhouse PS4 Pro in hardware specifications.
Armed with the processing capabilities of the platform on which the update is to run, Marvelous has cut no corners. And the result is remarkable; at the very least, Senran Kagura Burst Re:Newal manages to provide the same come-ons the current batch of gamers are used to. Which is to say those unfamiliar with the Senran Kagura series can do a lot worse than use it as a starting point. Parenthetically, the transition to the sequels and the spinoffs become less jarring. The interface has been made to approximate that of Senran Kagura Estival Versus; instead of the outright hacking and slashing that defined combat in Senran Kagura Burst on the 3DS, no small measure of strategy is required to progress in the remake.
In sum, Senran Kagura Burst Re:Newal earns its $39.99 price tag. Even those who already finished the original on the 3DS will appreciate the upgrades and additional bells and whistles. Polished and packing a punch, it can lay claim to being the best from the Senran Kagura series to date. (9/10)