Here in the West, we’re all thoroughly familiar with the idea of furthering your enjoyment of a game by purchasing additional merchandise to celebrate your love of it.
Depending on the game, we might get action figures, posters, comics, books, soundtrack CDs… but rarely something “extra” in the original medium, unless a sequel comes along, or perhaps some DLC.
One thing that Japanese developers and publishers like to do — and which we’re seeing increasing numbers of localised for English-speaking audiences — is produce a “fandisc” for a popular work. And while the idea may seem self-explanatory, I’ve seen plenty of examples of people who don’t quite “get” it.
The basic idea of a fandisc is to provide additional supplementary material for a popular game. They are most commonly seen within the visual novel sector, and in this instance case tend to collect together art, music and additional information about the storyline. The most extravagant fandiscs even act as quasi-sequels or spin-off stories to the original material, and in some case ultimately spawn something entirely new in their own right altogether — as we saw with To Heart 2 birthing the fantastic Dungeon Travelers series.
The important thing to bear in mind with a fandisc is… well, it’s in the name, really. It’s something for existing fans of something, rather than something designed to get new people into a series. It’s a means for someone who really enjoyed a particular work to involve themselves further and more deeply with the material they liked so much, and perhaps to experience the world, characters and other aspects of the original title in a brand new way.
The reason a lot of people aren’t so familiar with this concept is down to the fact that, up until relatively recently, we haven’t had a lot of them localised over here in the West. Since visual novels and Japanese games in general are already considered pretty niche-interest here anyway, the theory runs, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense for a localisation company to spend time and resources on something that has an inherently limited audience, when they could put themselves at less risk by localising something with a broader appeal — or which is more newbie-friendly.
Thankfully, not all localisers subscribe to this viewpoint. Visual novel publishers JAST USA and MangaGamer have brought us fandiscs for Alcot’s My Girlfriend is the President and Overdrive’s Edelweiss respectively. In 2014, NIS America brought us Hyperdimension Neptunia Vita fandisc Hyperdimension Neptunia: Producing Perfection as their last localised Neptunia title before handing over the reins to the then-newly established Idea Factory International. And now Xseed and Marvelous Europe have been good enough to provide us with Senran Kagura Reflexions for Nintendo Switch, a game designed specifically for no-one but the most passionate of Senran Kagura fans — and an experience that’s all the better for being created with this in mind.
The setup for Reflexions, as we shall refer to it hereafter, is somewhat mysterious. You meet series image girl Asuka (or one of a few other cast members with the optional DLC packs) in a deserted classroom just as the sun is setting, and she clearly seems bothered by something. Evidently feeling rather tense and stressed by whatever it is that’s on her mind, she invites you to take her hands and give them a reflexology massage… and from there things get even more peculiar.
Reflexology, for the uninitiated, is a form of alternative therapy that involves applying pressure to the feet or hands (the latter in this case) in order to have various effects. The most commonly cited use of reflexology is to manipulate the body’s life force (or “qi”) in various ways, usually in order to clear spiritual “blockages” and encourage healing in specific parts of the body, with specific “zones” in the body and internal organs corresponding to particular areas on the hands and feet.
While science has not been able to prove any measurable physical benefit to the body through reflexology, many people still find it valuable to induce relaxation; as such, many reflexologists also provide services such as massage and aromatherapy for a comprehensive package of stress relief. It’s this latter, less “scientific” attitude towards reflexology that Reflexions focuses on — though it doesn’t lose sight of the original “qi” theory.
By massaging Asuka’s hands in various places, she has different reactions. You’ll initially feel her pulse through her fingers (represented through both a loud heartbeat sound and a surprisingly convincing HD Rumble effect in the Joy-Cons) and, subsequently, you will appear to trigger some sort of cognitive event. In your first playthrough of the game, exactly what thought you’ll trigger with each zone of her hands remains a mystery — and they change with each reflexology session — but after clearing the game once (which only takes about half an hour or so) you have the option of “seeing” which you’re about to trigger by means of a visible thought bubble.
Once inside the thought — somehow you get brought along for the ride — it becomes apparent that these aren’t memories of Asuka, but rather fantasies or dreams of some description. There’s no consistency to them and they don’t relate to her life as we have seen it depicted throughout the Senran Kagura games; by turns we see her living the life of an idol, acting as a doting little sister towards an older brother, looking for romance in the rain with a classmate (in a normal school rather than a ninja academy) and even wrapped up as a “present” for some lucky young stud.
Something is obviously wrong — Asuka doesn’t act “like Asuka” in any of them — but one thing appears to remain consistent: all of these incarnations want to calm down or relax in some way. And it seems that the dream won’t end until that happens.
What follows is another interpretation of reflexology, though applying to the whole body this time. In this case, you’re able to touch, poke, prod, slap, rub and grab various parts of “Asuka’s” body, with each region of her body corresponding to a distinct, vague emotional reaction represented by a colour. None of these emotions are made explicit, leaving a certain amount up to your interpretation, but her vocal and physical reactions will tend to give you a reasonably good idea of how you’re making her feel at the time — and they make a lot of sense according to the context. The little sister responds happily to you holding her hands or patting her head, for example, while the somewhat sexually aggressive tutor is more than happy for you to fondle her breasts… once you’ve done your homework, of course.
Once you’ve triggered a sufficiently strong emotional response, you’re then provided with the opportunity to give that “Asuka” a massage in order to help her relax and hopefully get the pair of you out of that particular dream. Initially, all you’re able to do is a rather intense “slapping” massage on her thighs (the lovingly rendered “thigh wobble” is truly a thing to behold) but as you progress through the game, you’re also able to use a massage roller on the back of her legs, a brush on her arms, and a vibrator on her stomach and chest.
Each of these (particularly the latter) have their own corresponding HD Rumble effects on the Joy-Cons, and all can be controlled either through motion controls or stick and button combinations. Your goal, such as it is, is to build up Asuka’s “relaxation” meter to a heart marker within 60 seconds by ensuring you’re doing whatever you’re doing at just the right speed and intensity — not too fast, not too slow. Once you hit that magic mark, the timer disappears and you can continue for as long as you like — or you can move on, at which point a mysterious container starts to fill with a fluid of a colour corresponding to the emotion you triggered in the full-body reflexology session.
You then repeat the process until it’s full, at which point Asuka will regain part of her fragmented heart according to the majority colour of the container at the end of the playthrough, with your ultimate aim in mechanical terms being to reassemble her entire heart and understand exactly what is actually going on here by seeing all five endings.
If you go into this game expecting deep and satisfying mechanics, you’re probably going to be disappointed. This is, more than anything, a visual novel in which your means of advancing the story is performing various massage-related activities rather than simply clicking through text. The core aim of the game is not to provide satisfying, complex gameplay, but rather to allow fans the opportunity to spend time with a character that they like in a variety of different contexts. Or, perhaps more accurately, to spend time with an actor they like in a variety of different contexts.
One of the things I’ve been saying about the Senran Kagura series as a whole for quite some time now is that the ensemble cast of characters is, by this point, more than strong enough to transcend the original context in which they were presented. And, sure enough, we’ve seen that in a number of ways over the last few years. We’ve seen them having a cooking competition in Senran Kagura Bon Appetit. We’ve seen them having water gun battles in Senran Kagura Peach Beach Splash. And now, we have the opportunity to spend one-on-one time with at least some of them in Reflexions.
To put it another way, the cast of Senran Kagura is, by now, as much a group of “virtual actors” or “idols” as they are characters with an in-game context and narrative to follow. The mainline games still tell the core story of the young shinobi fighting back against the forces of the monstrous youma — but outside of that, they’re recognisable individuals in their own right, even completely divorced from their original context. Reflexions provides us with the opportunity to get to know the “actor” Asuka, and to see her take on a variety of popular tropes; she’s performing just for us, and allowing us to show our appreciation however we see fit.
It is, more than anything, a Senran Kagura “playset”, in other words, giving us a chance to indulge various fantasies with a beloved character — whether that’s contemplating what it might be like to have her as a little sister, or dressing her up in cute outfits to take photos.
For fans of Senran Kagura, Reflexions is a great opportunity to engage with some of your favourite characters in a new and exciting way — with that word some representing the game’s main drawback for some. If your favourite shinobi girl isn’t Asuka, Yumi, Murasaki, Ryouna or Yomi… well, you’re out of luck for the moment, unfortunately. That said, across those five characters a variety of different tastes are catered to, so you should be able to find someone to enjoy spending time with, even if she isn’t your one true Senran Kagura waifu.
For those not already into Senran Kagura… well, there’s really not a lot here for you outside of the opportunity to slap the thighs of a girl you don’t know, which some of you might be into. Go play the mainline games… then check this out once you’ve come to understand the true joy of titty ninjas. Asuka will be waiting!
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