Tamsoft’s loud, gaudy brawler provides a fun distraction on the PlayStation Vita with a surprisingly deep combat system and sweet story, but a number of issues keep it from achieving greatness.
World-building & Story
Shinovi Versus follows the students of a number of different ninja academies as they battle for supremacy among each other. It’s not an area of Japanese culture I know anything about, so provides an interesting backdrop to the on-screen action as well as an amusing education piece for a number of concepts.
Rather than following one overarching plot, the game instead opts for following each individual academy from their own perspective, which allows more time for individual character development rather than telling a grand story. The trials and tribulations of each group of shinobi are nothing special and if you’re coming into this hoping for something meaty, you’ll leave disappointed.
What the game nails, however, is providing a compelling motive and back-story for each member of the academies. Through rivalries, optional missions (girl’s heart) and general banter the cast is developed well beyond what I expected for a game of this type. Sadly initial impressions are disappointing – most characters are shallow, vapid and obsessed with boob size; which is why it’s so nice to uncover their history which actually has some depth to it.
Fortunately (or frustratingly, depending on how you find it) most of the game is spent getting to know each cast members and you’ll soon form favourites, although you’re forced to play as each one throughout the campaign. This means you’ll understand everyone’s personality quickly, which is helpful which switching between each academy as characters regularly pop up for conversations between them – there’s no correct order to play through, but knowledge of prior groups of shinobi will provide a greater understanding of the next.
Overall, the story told here between the characters and shinobi battles is compelling enough, but I did find my interest waning during some of the longer-winded back-and-forths between the characters and I definitely feel the game would’ve benefited from a more focused overall plot.
World-building is kept to a minimum – you’re never really properly introduced to this land of rival ninja factions that the characters inhabit, but bits and pieces are slowly revealed through the back-story of the characters. It doesn’t help that the game is mostly just a series of arenas which – while pretty – don’t help give a sense of scale to things.
Presentation & Sound
Right from the launch of Vita (with Dream Club Zero) developer Tamsoft have shown themselves capable of making very ‘clean’ looking games on the console, in spite of any technical deficiencies. Shinovi Versus is exactly the same in this regard – it may not be pushing the technical prowess of other titles, but it’s impressive all the same.
Starting with the character models, these are solid in the sense that many budget Japanese games are these days – clean and defined. The clothing damage adds an extra layer of definition to them (characters have four various states of undress) and amusingly flashes of light or chibi versions of them are used to protect their modesty when they’re completely stripped.
However, it’s the special attacks that are the star of the show. Much like in the Hyperdimension Neptunia series, these flashy moves feature plenty of colour; over-the-top animation and various environmental effects making them very fun to pull off and even better to look at. Whether it be something more run-of-the-mill like Yumi’s ice pillars to something more offbeat like Yagyu summoning an octopus from her umbrella, they’re all impressive and enjoyable.
This extends to the super-secret ninja arts – often screen-clearing moves that require specific criteria to activate, these are the culmination of the character’s theme that was previously explored and are among the best animations the game has to offer.
Sadly, not everything about the character models and their attacks is up to snuff. Enemy models – particularly for trash mobs – are low-quality in terms of both the characters themselves and their attacks. It makes sense since you’ll be plowing through so many of them, but it’s still disappointing to see so little effort go into these.
Environments fare better – while they are closed arenas that funnel you down a specific path and get massively overused throughout the campaigns, they are visually pretty to look at ranging from autumnal forests to ninja strongholds at night-time. I did find myself pausing to take screenshots on multiple occasions which is always a good sign.
Sound is a mixed bag – music is generally pretty good, highlighted by a fantastic Ys-esque guitar track upon booting up, but in-game tracks are less notable (it’s certainly worlds apart from Tamsoft’s earlier work on the Toshinden series). Voice acting is fully Japanese and while characters are emotive, I found myself phasing out a lot of it (which may have more to do with the dialogue rather than the VA’s themselves).
Gameplay & Content
A 3D arena brawler of the mold that has become somewhat popular on Vita, Shinovi Versus takes a few cues from Koei-Tecmo’s Warriors series in its battles mixed in with the 1v1 fighting of something like J-Stars. The end result is a fun time that is unfortunately plagued by some issues which drag the experience down.
Once you’ve started, picked a faction and a character, you’ll be thrust into battle against a sea of foes. It’s fairly easy to get to grips with things – your character is responsive and can chain attacks together to form combos; you’ll also dash between enemies and jump over them. You’ll also quickly pick up things like transformations and the super attacks that come with this, which makes initial combat a tonne of fun.
The problems come once you start delving a little deeper. If you pull off a full combo you’ll be able to launch your opponent in the air and chase after them, a great system which feels really fluid and fun. The game will rapidly start pitting you against other shinobi who provide a much greater challenge than the hordes of weaker foes and when these are launched into the air the game’s main draw shows itself – clothing destruction, which strips enemies of a layer of clothes in a mini-cutscene.
Rather than simply being a little cosmetic bonus, this actively gets in the way of combat. The game will stutter slightly before it plays and rarely did I find myself in a position to attack my foes in the air after it played despite pressing the button beforehand. As far as I can tell there’s no way to turn the clothes damage off either, meaning your gameplay experience will constantly be interrupted by this.
Thankfully, everything else about the combat is on point. Secret moves are fun to pull off; smashing through waves of foes is mindlessly enjoyable and I always felt in control of who I was playing as. Each character is different enough in attack style to make replaying as each not feel monotonous, although there is an inherent tedium from playing a game of this kind that mean you’ll tire of doing the same thing over and over fairly quickly.
As such, Shinovi Versus provides various other systems to keep you entertained between battles. There’s a shop, which is mostly for cosmetic items, but this gives rise to the next feature – the dressing room. This allows you to dress the characters up in the various outfits you’ll obtain and admire them from all angles. It’s fanservice-laden and not something I got any particular use from, but it’s there if you’re interested.
There’s also online and ad-hoc multiplayer available which – bizarrely – is the best part of the package. As you’ll be playing against other characters the transformation and stripping animations don’t play; there’s a selection of odd modes available ranging from stripping the most items of clothing to collecting the most panties that rain from the sky and best of all, it runs well. The only downside is that while you can play this with bots (a great addition), you seem to need to be online in order to do this. This is the kind of mode I can see myself booting up to mess around with at various points in the future, but it looks like I’ll be locked out of it when the servers go down.
And just a small note on performance as a whole – generally I found the game ran pretty well on Vita, insomuch that I didn’t notice any particular bouts of slowdown which affected the gameplay aside from the aforementioned stutters before clothes damage happens.
Content-wise, the game has a lot to offer. Each of the four groups has a number of main missions available which should take 4-5 hours each to clear, then on top of this there are the ‘girls heart’ optional missions which flesh out each character. However, whether your patience with the game will last to see all this content is questionable as things do rapidly get repetitive enough that you’ll want to pick something else up in between.
It’s worth noting that – like with many titles these days – the game offers a fair amount of DLC. Most of it is cosmetic stuff that I wouldn’t really recommend getting, but there is also a pack which gives you two extra characters – Daidouji and Rin.
Aside from being able to play as these ladies, they also offer their own optional side missions that pose a stiff challenge compared to the rest of the game. They’re worth checking out for the price and provide a decent amount of new content should you not be tired of the game at this point.
Senran Kagura Shinovi Versus is a game I feel very conflicted about – many things about it are better than I expected, such as the nuanced combat system and character development, meaning I’ve definitely come away from my time with the game impressed. At the same time, it has a number of annoyances – ranging from the combo-wrecking clothes damage animations to the recycling of arenas and enemies that I feel could’ve used a lot more work. I enjoyed my time playing and could definitely recommend it if you’re looking for a fun brawler, just beware that its shortfalls may affect your enjoyment.