One of the biggest strengths of the Senran Kagura series as a whole is its comprehensive lore, consisting of numerous intertwining character backstories and its own take on Japanese mythology.
Interestingly, the complete series doesn’t take a linear approach to exploring its narrative, instead breaking itself into three main branches: the “main” plot, the Versus plot, and the spin-off stories. Each of the individual installments stand by themselves as a complete story in their own right, but taken in context with all the other companion pieces, it’s clear that Senran Kagura is a franchise that has been thoroughly planned from start to finish — and it’s very likely we haven’t seen the last of it with Estival Versus, not by a long shot.
So where does Estival Versus itself fit in to the grand scheme of the complete series? Read on and let’s find out.
The Versus installments concentrate on the interpersonal relationships between the girls, their reasons for fighting and their many and varied backgrounds.
The Versus subseries of Senran Kagura — to date consisting of Vita-only title Senran Kagura Shinovi Versus and the more recent PS4 and Vita-based Senran Kagura Estival Versus — takes an interesting approach in that it doesn’t really advance the main overarching storyline of the series at all.
At heart, Senran Kagura as a whole is about the struggles of a group of young women as they train to become good and evil shinobi, initially to fight against their counterparts from the opposing ideology, but later with the shared purpose of defeating the horrific and terrifying yōma — demons drawn from Japanese mythology. This particular part of the plot is primarily dealt with by what is regarded as the mainline installments of the series — Senran Kagura Burst and Senran Kagura 2: Deep Crimson, which can be found on the Nintendo 3DS platform.
While the Versus series acknowledges the events of the 3DS titles, the overall conflict between the shinobi girls and the yōma is not furthered significantly by these games. Instead, the Versus installments concentrate on the interpersonal relationships between the girls, their reasons for fighting and their many and varied backgrounds that brought them to their own personal Path of the Shinobi. Both Versus games also expanded beyond the core ten cast members from Burst and Deep Crimson to incorporate the girls of Gessen Academy (another group of good shinobi) and the girls of Hebijo Academy (a group of evil shinobi who replaced Homura’s Crimson Squad following the events at the conclusion of Burst).
Over the course of Shinovi Versus, every member of the cast learned that differing ideologies do not at all mean that you can’t be friends with someone.
The inclusion of two good and two evil groups of shinobi in the overall narrative allows the series to do some interesting things with its exploration of morality, which is a key theme in the series as a whole. Over the course of Shinovi Versus in particular, every member of the cast learned that differing ideologies do not at all mean that you can’t be friends with someone — in fact, getting to know someone from the “other side” can prove to be a valuable learning experience, presenting you with ways to look at life that you might not have previously considered. At the same time, different people ostensibly on the same “side” can approach “good” and “evil” very differently, as particularly evidenced by the difference in approach between the good Hanzō girls (“we should help people!”) and the good Gessen girls (“we should defeat evil at all cost, regardless of consequences!”).
Estival Versus is in an interesting position narrative-wise, because all of its core cast members have already learned the aforementioned lessons about morality, and as such it would probably be redundant to have them put in similar situations once again. Similarly, then conflicts between the characters have largely been resolved over the course of the previous three games, and despite still being on “opposing” sides so far as their overall philosophy goes, all the girls are now friends with one another. So where can it go next?
The option Estival Versus goes for is to explore the backstories of some of these characters further — specifically, those who have suffered tragedy and loss in their pasts. This, by extension, gives the story a reason to focus on characters such as the Gessen cast, all of whom lost their adoptive grandfather; Miyabi from Hebijo, who lost her mother; and the polar opposite twins Ryōbi and Ryōna, also from Hebijo, who lost their sister.
By featuring characters other than the core groups found in the 3DS games, we can get to know the extended cast a little better rather than the whole experience turning into the Asuka x Homura Show.
This change in focus also allows the Versus series to play to its strengths: by featuring characters other than the core groups found in the 3DS games, we can get to know the extended cast a little better rather than the whole experience turning into the Asuka x Homura Show — a criticism that the more vocal fans of the Gessen and Hebijo girls often level at the rest of the series. Here, Asuka and Homura are both present, but neither are the central focus of the story. Fans of their relationship will, however, be pleased to know that there is the most explicit acknowledgement of their feelings for one another found in the whole series to date.
The narrative setup of Estival Versus sees the girls brought to a strange other world, seemingly at the behest of Asuka’s estranged grandmother Sayuri. Sayuri explains that she, in collaboration with Renka, Hanabi and Kafuru, three new shrine maiden-themed characters who collectively form the “Mikaruga Sisters” mini-cast, have brought the girls together for a festival called the Shinobi Bon Dance: a competition between the four groups to prove their strength and their capability to take on a huge yōma that seemingly stands poised to invade our reality.
Much like Shinovi Versus and its “Shinobi Battle Royale” setup, the central competition of Estival Versus actually turns out to be the least important part of the narrative as a whole. Instead, the strange and mystical powers of the festival itself provide the girls with the opportunity to see, speak with and say goodbye to people who were snatched away from them — as well as to lay to rest the many restless shinobi souls who passed away before their time.
At its core, Estival Versus is a story about grief and loss, and how we come to terms with those things.
Initially the girls are resistant to Sayuri’s plan, even going so far as to set up their own competition that is completely at odds with the Shinobi Bon Dance. The streak of stubbornness that runs through them all has been developed over the course of their previous adventures, during which they learned that true strength isn’t just about being physically strong — it’s about being mentally strong, too. As Asuka often puts it, it’s about being a sword and shield — being able to tackle your problems head-on when necessary, but also defend yourself and those important to you when that’s the best course of action.
But in order to engage with the Shinobi Bon Dance and everything that’s going on around it, the girls have to deliberately open themselves up to things that they know make them weak. They need to acknowledge their weaknesses — even embrace and accept them. This is difficult for many members of the cast — particularly proud, dominant and assertive types such as Miyabi, who is initially mortified when her classmates discover that she calls her deceased mother “Mama”, but later learns to accept this part of herself, regardless of what anyone else might think of her as a result.
At its core, Estival Versus is a story about grief and loss, and how we come to terms with these things. Everyone handles the loss of someone important to them very differently to everyone else. Not everyone has been unfortunate enough to suffer tragic loss in their life, though pretty much all of Estival Versus’ cast have had it worse than most for one reason or another. Indeed, we see reactions to the Shinobi Bon Dance’s visions of the dead ranging between blind acceptance, confusion, denial, childish stubbornness and pretty much everything in between. Indeed, we see many of the characters who have previously been set up to be “the strong ones” — the aforementioned Miyabi being one, as well as the perpetually angry Ryōbi — brought low by their own repressed feelings of grief at the people they’ve lost: feelings that bubble uncontrollably to the surface when they’re suddenly confronted with those people through what seems like an impossible miracle.
In many respects, Ryōbi is actually the “main character” of Estival Versus, if there is one, since she goes on the most significant journey of personal growth and character development over the course of the complete narrative. Beginning with skepticism at the situation, she proceeds through most of the Kübler-Ross stages of grief as the story progresses: denial that she’s really seeing her deceased sister Ryōki; anger at herself for her harsh last words to Ryōki in the real world, anger at her twin Ryōna for latching on to the vision of Ryōki so readily, anger at Ryōki for leaving her and Ryōna alone in the world; bargaining with herself and anyone who will listen for a chance to make up for her perceived sins and to be able to spend more time with Ryōki; depression at the seeming inevitability of having to say goodbye again; and, during the final battle of the game, reaching that final acceptance that Ryōki really is gone from the real world, but that she left the world with no regrets, and that both she, Ryōbi and her twin Ryōna, should move on with their lives, looking forward rather than back.
As one combatant gradually strips her opponent down by demonstrating superior fighting skills, the opponent is exposing more and more of herself — both literally and metaphorically.
A central part of the Senran Kagura series as a whole is the concept of coming to understand one another through combat, and this, by definition, involves understanding both each other’s strengths and weaknesses. This is reflected not only through the narrative themes presented in the visual novel and dialogue sequences, but also through the gameplay. Estival Versus is a lot more challenging than previous games in the series, and in order to beat the other girls in the boss battles, it becomes necessary to observe them carefully, watch what they’re doing and strike when there is an opening; charging in hack-and-slash style is a sure means of getting swiftly defeated.
The game’s more controversial aesthetic elements reflect this, too. Senran Kagura is perhaps most notorious for its provocative clothing damage system, which is taken to a whole new level in Estival Versus with its Creative Finishers. These see the defeated opponent stripped completely naked and thrown into some sort of humiliating situation. While obviously there for fanservice reasons, these aspects are also in keeping with the narrative theme of understanding through combat — and also with the usage of nudity in a lot of Japanese media to reflect intimacy, honesty, confidence and having nothing to hide.
In other words, as one combatant gradually strips her opponent down by demonstrating superior fighting skills, the opponent is exposing more and more of herself — both literally and metaphorically. The Creative Finishers in Estival Versus reflect a combatant having such a complete understanding of her opponent that she exposes her completely and throws her into a situation beyond her control. It’s the ultimate expression of dominance: understanding someone better than they understand themselves.
Despite being one of the most legendary “good” shinobi, Asuka’s grandfather is not above using his powers for his own selfish, morally corrupt, perverted and borderline incestuous reasons.
An interesting aspect of the Versus subseries in particular that is also worth highlighting is the inclusion of a number of character-specific “Shinobi Girl’s Heart” stories, one for each character, each of which gives us further insight into that character specifically, usually outside of the context of the main narrative. While usually rather more comedic and light-hearted in nature than the overall storyline, the Girl’s Heart stories nonetheless provide us with information about the characters’ motivations, tastes and personality in a way that it’s not possible to do in a narrative that attempts to give more than 25 main cast members roughly equal time in the spotlight.
It’s through the Girl’s Heart stories that we learn more about the rather serious-seeming Yumi’s desire to be a highly feminine, cute girl — even going so far as to desire being “the perfect bride” in her Estival Versus side story. We learn about the command Asuka’s grandfather Hanzō has over mystical ninja arts, and how despite being one of the most legendary “good” shinobi, he is not above using his powers for his own selfish, morally corrupt, perverted and borderline incestuous reasons. And, of course, there’s plenty of opportunity for the more… underdeveloped members of the cast to come to terms with their own body image issues, particularly when surrounded by the heaving bosoms of their peers.
On the whole, part of the reason the Versus subseries seems to be so well-received by the Senran Kagura fandom is how much of a complete package each game feels. The main story tells its own complete, self-contained narrative that advances the personal arcs of many of the main cast as well as providing additional background information on the series’ overall lore, while the inclusion of the Shinobi Girl’s Heart stories — plus a number of extra bonus missions in the case of Estival Versus — helps to flesh out the world and characters even further. Across all its various works, Senran Kagura represents one of the most well-realised, comprehensively explored settings and ensemble casts in all of modern gaming, and continues with each new installment to demonstrate that despite its more provocative elements, creator Kenichiro Takaki and his team have a great deal of respect and love for these characters.
Not bad at all for a series primarily known for its fanservice, huh?
In the next article, we’ll be taking a look at Senran Kagura’s aesthetics, including the artwork of Nan Yaegashi and the inspirations behind the games’ soundtracks.
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Estival Versus is available now for PlayStation 4 and PlayStation Vita. Find out more at the official site.