When two gaming franchises come together in a collaborative effort it doesn’t always work out as planned. For every game that fits like a glove in Professor Layton vs. Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney, there’s another where the narrative seems like a collection of one-way conversations taking place in separate universes – like in Project X Zone.
Neptunia x SENRAN KAGURA: Ninja Wars, two very niche franchises that are well-known for featuring light-hearted humor, bouncing body parts and hot spring scenes jump onto the scene with more of the same, but this time with an action RPG twist.
Using the Neptunia universe as its platform NxSK takes its parody and pokes at the gaming industry – along with the ninja goddess concept – and places Asuka and co. (from the Senran Kagura series) into the equation as a rival countries’ group of ninjas who have a long history of fighting with The Purple princess and friends, basically, just for laughs.
It perhaps shouldn’t come as much of a shock then that the character development focuses more on commenting on the characters’ current physical development and expanding on the few adjectives listed in their loading screen bios rather than any decent gags or overarching plot. You could argue that this a pitfall of trying to introduce two franchises worth of characters in a short period or perhaps or its simply showing their skin-deep character depth.
While that isn’t necessarily a bad thing – at least in the eyes of fans – what does get my goat is how this is presented, in a visual novel animated so off-puttingly that I wanted to skip the story altogether after only a few chapters. The character designs and voice acting are decent enough, but the animation is supremely lazy, with the occasional blink and robotically animated mouths that continue to move at the same speed and pattern, even when characters pause between sentences. Considering how smoothly animated characters are in co-developer Compile Hearts’s previous Neptunia games such Neptunia Virtual Stars released just one year prior, it’s really disappointing.
Sneaking in like a well-endowed ninja with a copy of Jekyll and Hyde in their back pocket though, the fighting gameplay comes to the rescue and is addictive enough to grab and keep your attention for the length of the story. Lots of cool artistic accents like small camera lifts and tilts are welcome details in smooth attacks that flow well into another and, to a degree, share a resemblance with Samurai Warriors 5‘s visual presentation, with its almost cell-shaded anime characters and a traditional Japanese instrument-filled soundtrack keeping the tempo moving.
With 10 ninja/samurai characters all with different weapons and skillsets, there are lots of satisfying ways to attack the few enemies that the game offers, but much like the story, there isn’t much depth beyond that, with few unlockables for both weapons and abilities.
In terms of the attack-based interface, cues are taken from the FFVII remake with melee attacks assigned to the ‘square’ button and ‘L1’ and ‘R1’ shortcut menus for special moves and temporary status effect boosts respectively. One of the great things about bringing up these menus, similar to FFVII remake, is that the scene goes into ultra slow-mo which allows you to appreciate the beautiful slashing accents and kickass moves afforded to you.
Unfortunately, this hack and slack/RPG fusion has its issues in that NxSK omits the key features that make those specific aspects work so well in the prior-mentioned games. Without large maps, a decent enemy count and multiple controllable allies on the field at the same time, the fighting mechanics’ potential is restricted, like a beast forever waiting to be unleashed. Jekyll makes a further appearance in an unadjustable and overly easy difficulty level that renders the game’s item, gem and equipment systems almost completely redundant – assuming you aren’t just running at the enemy in straight lines.
In a way, it’s almost more disappointing that the fighting mechanics exists as a singular pillar of quality (on an island of mediocrity) rather than the overall game being entirely average, as I would love to be let loose with these fighting mechanics in a more fully fleshed out context – either through an expanded single-player mode with maps rather than dungeons, or even a co-op multiplayer.
Those who do enjoy what story is given to them will likely enjoy the remaining features of the game which includes, amongst others, a mission mode full of one-off dungeons and a ‘Peaches and Cream Meditation’ mode where one of the thinly-dressed cast of female ninjas balance on a peach, controlled by rotating the PS4 controller. No, that’s not a typo, and failure to keep your bearings on said fruit will have you fall into an ‘interesting’ position on the ground. It’s not particularly graphic, which may upset those who prefer the two series’ forays into adult rating content, but it does a good job of showing who this game is tailored towards.
In attempting to mix, match and accentuate the two franchises, NxSK results in a short and forgettable filler episode, with neither of the two’s best aspects able to shine through particularly well. It should be said that it’s not without redeeming features, as both fanbases will find replay value in the enjoyable action gameplay, but it’s far from likely to command a casual’s attention as a standalone attraction.