Monday, September 21, 2015

Senran Kagura 2: Deep Crimson Review

As previous reviews show, I've always liked the Senran Kagura games, but they never seemed to realize their true potential.  Shinovi Versus was greatly enhanced, but I felt that expanding on the first game rather than going on a tangent would have been a better follow-up, so when Senran Kagura 2 promised to be just that, I got legitimately excited.

I hadn't been so excited for a game in a very long time.  With so many $60 games revolving around guns and grim tones on crappy systems, I just wanted to play a fun, lively, $40 (50 with the included soundtrack) action game with shonen trappings on the 3DS and go on another adventure with the badass adorable Senran Kagura heroes, all in a nice physical package I could hold in my hand, because XSEED stopped trying to open unlocked doors by using their heads as battering rams, unlike Bandai Namco.
Fuck you Bandai Namco.
Consistent delays weakened the fire, however.

Needless to say, I had high expectations.  Some might say they were unreasonable, but in the end, as expected from a Senran Kagura game up to this point, Senran Kagura 2 is an enjoyable experience and my enthusiasm was not squandered.

Senran Kagura 2 is the real sequel to the first Senran Kagura.  That is, the first Senran Kagura released in Japan.  The Hebijo story of Senran Kagura: Burst is disregarded outside of the backstories.  Certain gameplay and visual elements are taken from Shinovi Versus, but none of the characters introduced in that game are present.  Supposedly it all takes place before Shinovi Versus, but that opens up a number of inconsistencies and confusion I won't go into.

The first chapter establishes the basis with a recap/retcon of the final chapter of the first game, recreating the Hanzo students invading the Hebijo school to get their Super Secret Ninja Art scroll back.  It changes how some events unfold, but still ends with the battle with Orochi, except this time Orochi has more of an introduction, and instead of being stationary and mostly offscreen, it's a massive all-range boss on a giant battlefield with a heavy rock remix of its original music.

It's a brilliant way to start the game on a high note and shows off the graphical upgrade and gameplay changes, but it cuts out the original game's climactic battle between the powered-up Homura and Asuka.  As the box art implies, they probably cut it to save for later, but removing it from the original game's story takes some punch away from the climax.

The central plot kicks off partway in with a vacation Homura's team of now-renegades and the Hanzo students take to Kyoto, during which Japan starts being overrun by youma, the hellish beasts called to the human world by shinobi sacrifices and spilled blood.  I guess "blood" must be a metaphor for something, because, as touched upon in my Mortal Kombat article, there's no blood shown in the actual game aside from one animated cutscene.

The two new characters that serve as central story elements are a pair of mysterious girls on the run from the youma: the little girl that appears on the 3DS menu screen for the game, Kagura, and her guardian Naraku.  You would be forgiven for thinking Naraku is the source of the youma, because... Well...

But no, Naraku is but a human girl (or at least what passes for human in this franchise).  Like any other Senran Kagura character, she has a fun visual design and interesting weapons in the form of expanding balls on chains attached to her ankles.

Much of the game is spent in conflicts between the shinobi, Naraku and a team of special youma equivalent to the Psycho Rangers all woven into a story that balances the action with well-written drama and silly debauchery that's come to be expected of Senran Kagura.  Naraku is a great new fighter, but Kagura is a great new character with an interesting history behind her that the story is able to write different ideas around.  Without spoiling anything, I will say that she will be a very interesting character to have around in future installments.

One of the story's only problems is that it doesn't establish where a lot of it is taking place after they go to Kyoto.  This is a problem with Senran Kagura 2 being aimed at a Japanese audience because to take advantage of the setting, the shinobi go to many of Kyoto's famous landmarks, which are well-known to Japanese people, but less so to us Americans who would rather see Mt. Rushmore and the Empire State Building.  The majority of the list of backgrounds taken from the main story mode practically reads like a checklist of things to see in Kyoto for tourists.
Without that establishment, the middle of the game isn't as absorbing, but it still delivers on the fun with the characters.

There are still many conflicts of morality and what the right thing to do is, like the first game, but this time there are also antagonists that are straight-up evil, especially Dougen.  For the first time in the games, he makes a visual appearance and thankfully looks nothing like he did in that godawful anime.

Imagine if Law of Ueki's Carl P. Accio was raised by Rugal Bernstein and grew up to have the voice of Souther in the Fist of the North Star anime and you can visualize what kind of a villain Dougen is.

XSEED themselves have also compared him to Skeletor.  He's hammy, evil and cunning, with an over-the-top design that keeps with the tone of the rest of the characters.  He is the perfect villain for a shonen story.

Would you do business with someone who looks like that?
The youma designs are fun as well.  Separate from the aforementioned Psycho Rangers and the smaller youma there are 5 giant youma (one of them being Orochi) fought on massive battlefields like a boss out of Kingdom Hearts.  The giant youma change up the pace and are a lot of fun, but only show up toward the beginning and end.  If they were distributed more evenly across the game it would have had a better sense of pacing.

I would still at least partially recommend Senran Kagura 2 just for the story even if it had the crappiest controls of the year, but the controls are better than they've ever been.  The satisfaction of hacking and slashing through enemies at high speeds is kept, but there are more moves, more depth, more enemy variety, more flow and better animation.  It's as though every complaint I had about the gameplay designs of previous games were addressed and fixed.
In previous games, the preparatory animations for the hidden ninpo were pretty to look at the first time, but after a while I just skipped them.  In Senran Kagura 2, they're executed quickly, with only a brief close-up of the character getting into position to indicate it.  Instead, the lengthier animation is reserved for the new, much less common tag team attacks, which are the best, and oftentimes funniest, attacks in the series!

Theirs deals damage from the impact of clashing with each other!

In my review of Shinovi Versus I complained that the free-control camera allowed for blindsided cheap shots.  Senran Kagura 2 remedies this by going back to the fixed camera angle of the first game, but with much more open battlefields that are now shown in Ocarina of Time 3D-quality stereoscopic 3D.  Since the camera moves in more directions this time it's still possible to be blindsided, but unlikely.

There were some changes to the controls, but not many.  Now that 2-player co-op is a focus, the A button is used as a tag button and R is for dashing, but there's an option to switch the two for those used to playing the first game.  In addition to the returning short dashes and ninja running, Senran Kagura 2 adds hookshot-like rope kunai that propel you at any enemy you're locked onto.  It's a nice addition that keeps up the action and is extremely helpful in the fights with giant youma.

Calling back to the first game, there is no blocking this time.  Frantic mode is only temporary mid-battle and there is no burst combo breaker mechanic.  Avoiding enemy attacks is all about moving out of the way, quickly reading their moves and waiting for the right chance to strike.  Recklessly attacking leaves you open, but sometimes pulling off long combos fast enough can stun the enemy, so the game encourages the same rapid-fire attacking of the previous games, but only with the skill and power to back it up.

With a great story and great gameplay improvements Senran Kagura 2 already proves its value, but that's only at its core.  It's difficult to say how long it takes to complete the story overall because it's very likely you'll take time to play with the other features it has to offer.  The biggest time sink next to the story is the Youma's Nest, a survival dungeon in which you must clear as many rooms of youma as you can in one life, with each floor increasing in difficulty.  You need to know when to give up in the Youma's Nest though.  If you die there, you lose much of the experience you gained.

Each floor adds more rooms, but you can only move from floor to floor.
In addition to the experience points, clearing rooms in the Youma's Nest awards you alternate weapons for each character.  There are 75 in all, each with unique looks and descriptions.  They aren't just weapons with slightly different blade patters, they're entirely new designs or sometimes a different weapon altogether that happen to be used in the same way, like a pair of hammers for Asuka and an axe for Yomi.  Silly weapons add to the signature Senran Kagura lightheartedness, particularly in the case of Hibari, who already uses her cartoonish bunny as her default weapon.

These weapons are purely cosmetic, which is brilliant.  Too often in games players are urged to stick with a weapon for its superior stats, even if it's not their favorite, but Senran Kagura 2 outright tells you to go with what's cool!  They're all equally practical!  Instead, stats are modified by equipping special stones obtained through separate sets of missions with special requirements.

If you're not blowing time on that you probably will be in the dressing room, which has expanded tremendously from Shinovi Versus.  Senran Kagura 2 has the expansive outfit customization of an HD Soul Calibur game.  Everyone's outfits, hairstyles and hair colors are interchangeable, with dozens of additional ones included.  Any outfit can be assigned to be the one they start with and transform into, but the many many accessories are where the real fun begins for the fashion enthusiasts.  Like in Shinovi Versus, they can be adjusted and positioned to be anywhere on the body, but this time they can be selected to be on only before or after a transformation.  Since there are far more of them this time around, there's a lot of room for creativity in their use.

The included Photoshoot mode encourages that creativity.  In it, you can choose the background, position characters and change their expressions and poses for the camera to save to your SD card.  Most of the poses are of the pop idol/anime poster girl variety though.  I would have liked more action poses, but the only one for that is arm folding.

You can take a photo with the camera projecting the background using the 3DS's AR card too, but it's hampered by not allowing accessories and because, in one of the worst oversights I have seen in the last 7 years, attempting to use it with two characters at once apparently overloads the game and pretty much freezes the entire thing!  Why would they even allow it if it can't do it?!  That's the kind of obvious shit that gets corrected in alpha testing!

The best way to show off your gaudy wardrobe is online, but you'll have to do that the old-fashioned way.  While there isn't a Super Mario Maker-style sharing option, Senran Kagura 2 does have a Streetpass sharing function and very strong multiplayer options, but not the clusterfunk competitive multiplayer of Shinovi Versus.  You can play any story mission you've unlocked and any unlocked room in the Youma's Nest locally or online.  When playing story missions the cutscenes still play out and the room's host has control over the speed of the text, so playing through the story with someone else is an option, though being able to freely select characters in multiplayer is likely to make it inconsistent with the gameplay a bit.

All the sizable features are big reasons to play, but the little things are what make Senran Kagura 2 feel polished.  Things like selectable menu voices, special intros and outros, composer commentary for the music in the gallery, the change to each team's appropriate hub locales in the first chapters and the variations on the many many outfits and accessories.  For some of the color variations there's also a change in design.  There's a Naruto-style ninja headband with a different design on each color, for example, and Mirai has a new camisole to go with her Star Platinum one: The World.

Also Daidouji's Jotaro-style hat can be put on anyone now.
By eliminating the problems I had with Shinovi Versus and giving players lots more to play with, Senran Kagura 2 reaches the potential I knew it could in a lot of ways.  Even XSEED's translation seems a little more accurate in its dialogue.  My only real problems are the occasional instances of laziness and missed opportunities that are rather easy to spot.

The aforementioned AR crash is a big one, but more deliberate laziness can also be spotted.  They apparently didn't make a 3D model for Kiriya in the story mode, although he's a menu voice option.  He's barely in the story at all, but every time he is, outside of the visual novel segments, the characters are talking to him offscreen like he's an adult from Peanuts.  The same goes for Hanzo, but at least he didn't already have a 3D model in the first game!
Kiriya isn't exactly painful to look at.
There's also a lack of new playable characters.  Returning characters play differently enough to not feel like a retread, especially in the case of Mirai and her new 3-weapon moveset, but expanding the cast should have been the logical next step for a numbered sequel.  Kagura and Naraku are unlockable for photo shoot mode and menu voices, but they cannot be customized and are not playable!  Kagura I can understand, but there is no reason for Naraku not to be playable!  She fights in the story mode more than once and has her own hidden ninpo and detailed animations!  She's perfect for a new breakout character!

Instead the only new playable character is Murasame, unlocked by saving Senran Kagura: Burst data to your SD card.  Yes, the first playable male character in the franchise and it's Ikaruga's brother, the epic fail guy who gets humiliated in every game, including this one.

Naraku is more qualified to be playable and certainly should be, but honestly, if I had to choose between her and Murasame, I'd take Murasame, because he's so unqualified he's a lot of fun.  If you don't cancel out of the animations, his attacks have him hitting himself, getting his head stuck in the ground, tripping and running awkwardly.  All this is coupled with his extremely hammy voice actor and doofy dialogue to make him the most unique character.
It's clear he was an afterthought; he only knows 2 super moves, he doesn't transform, you can't change his outfit (only put on accessories) and he only has one character-specific combination attack in which Ikaruga does all the work.  However, as a free bonus character, he's a great addition and a decent fighter despite his fumbling.

The missed opportunities might just be me though, and taking it for what it is, Senran Kagura 2 is easily the best Senran Kagura game yet.  It already has a strong amount of content built around the core gameplay, with a lengthy story and plenty to unlock to keep players occupied.  Upcoming DLC will give players even more reasons to come back, if the price is right.

Long have I hunted the giant Yomi.
It could still be better in some areas, but that doesn't hurt what's already there.  I give Senran Kagura 2: Deep Crimson an 8 out of 10.

Oh, and there are boobs... I guess...

Derr hurr.

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