When the Senran Kagura series first launched, I’m not sure anyone could have quite predicted the trajectory it would take.
While some fans lament the fact that the series has deviated somewhat from its original course of “cool female ninjas fight youma, also there are breasts and bums”, I can’t say I’m the slightest bit sorry for the existence of games like Senran Kagura Bon Appétit (also known as Dekamori: Senran Kagura in Japan).
It’s a game that bills itself as a “hyper busty cooking battle”, and gives us the opportunity to see that enormous cast of delightful characters in a rather different context to normal. What’s not to like?
There’s some disagreement over whether or not Bon Appétit is a canonical part of the overall Senran Kagura narrative — indeed, the introduction to the game itself urges you not to take it too seriously — but to be honest, at this point it doesn’t really matter.
What does matter is that Bon Appétit was the first, convincing sign that the cast of Senran Kagura had grown beyond the constraints of their original genre and context; they had become a troupe of “virtual actors” in their own right, and this was just the first example of them turning their attention to something other than kicking the snot out of each other.
For longstanding series fans, Bon Appétit features a number of callbacks to the events of its immediate predecessors Burst on 3DS and Shinovi Versus on Vita. At the time Bon Appétit was first released for Vita, Shinovi Versus was regarded as a direct follow-up to Burst in narrative terms, and indeed this is still a plausible reading of the series, if not unanimously agreed on at the time of writing.
From here, it gets confusing, however, and no-one seems to quite be able to agree on the specifics; moreover, there’s not really been an official word on it, either, although some hints dropped in Peach Beach Splash provide some food for thought.
Some argue that the two narrative routes through Burst represent a split timeline — and indeed, there are some inconsistencies between the two, so this is plausible — while others argue that Burst and second 3DS game Deep Crimson occupy a completely separate timeline to the rest of the series, though this then doesn’t explain how characters in Shinovi Versus and Bon Appétit make reference to the events of Burst. Unless, of course, we take into account the more recent release of Burst re-imagining Burst Re;Newal, which retcons the events of Burst into this “second timeline”… and who knows where the hell Senran Kagura 7even (which is, of course, actually the ninth, tenth or twelfth game in the series depending on whether you count… you know what, never mind) will fit into things at this point?
Confused yet? Don’t worry; everyone is. And, like I say, it doesn’t really matter. Because this is, at its heart, nothing more than a game about 22 thoroughly charming ninja girls entering a cooking competition in the hope of winning a Super Secret Ninja Art Scroll that can supposedly grant any wish. If you’ve played previous Senran Kagura games, you’ll get some nice series fanservice and references. If you’ve never played one… well, you might wonder what on Earth is going on, but there’s certainly no “prerequisite” to enjoying this on its own terms.
The narrative setup for Bon Appétit sees legendary master ninja, Asuka’s grandfather and colossal pervert Hanzou (of Hanzou Academy fame) establishing the First Annual Super Dish Cook-Off as an excuse for ogling a variety of pretty young things; he knew that the tempting prize of the aforementioned Super Secret Ninja Art Scroll would tempt both good and evil shinobi to the contest alike, since the girls have, at this point, all demonstrated that they have their own strong motivations for fighting and trying to better themselves.
From hereon, you can choose any of the 22 cast members — including the five girls from each of the Hanzou, Hebijo, Gessen and Crimson Squad groups, plus former “secret” characters Daidouji and Rin — and enjoy a unique story for each. These stories unfold in traditional Senran Kagura style, featuring a combination of full-screen “NVL-style” text narration to explore the protagonist’s inner thoughts and motivations, and “ADV-style” dialogue sequences with animated characters to show more “immediate” exchanges between individuals.
Each run through the game’s story mode consists of five rounds. Before the first round, you’ll have an NVL-style introduction to the character’s reasoning for entering the competition, followed by an ADV-style exchange with their first opponent, who will be someone that is personally significant to them in some way. After this, you have the first round of the competition, after which there’ll be another exchange between the two initial characters.
Following this, you compete in two more rounds of cooking competition against randomly selected opponents — there’s no narrative context to these — until you reach the fourth round, at which point the final two rounds are both presented as part of the character’s story. Beat all five rounds and there’s a final NVL section with an event image as your reward. A whole runthrough takes about 30-40 minutes, assuming you don’t have to retry any of the “battle” sequences.
So how do those battles work? Well, with this being a game about cooking, they of course unfold as a rhythm action affair that is strongly reminiscent of the genre’s PS1-PS2-era glory days.
You’re presented with two “lanes” on which button prompts move from right to left, and you have to hit the buttons and/or directions indicated when they reach the “ninja star” marker on the left side. Continually do this and you’ll build up a combo; make a mistake and you’ll break that combo. The victor is determined by a sliding “tug of war”-style meter at the top of the screen: do better and it will slide to the right; cock up and it will slide to the left. If you reach the end of the song and it’s right of centre, you win; on the left, and you lose.
There are three difficulty levels available, with each difficulty level affecting both note pattern density and the number of buttons you have to worry about. At the hardest difficulty, you’ll be using all four directions and all four face buttons with intense note patterns… and it is hard. Normal difficulty, however, provides a solid challenge for those who have a decent amount of experience with rhythm games, while Easy is very accessible for those who just want to enjoy the story.
There are a few additional mechanics layered atop the basics we’ve already talked about. First of these is the “Ninja Arts” meter in the corner of the screen. Fill this up and you can hit a shoulder button to unleash your ninja arts, which causes the background to burst into flames and all your successful hits to be worth more points. Continue to fill the meter while it is “active” and you’ll gain ever-increasing amounts of points, but make a mistake during a long combo and it can cause a big hit to the “tug of war” meter if you’re not careful.
The second mechanic involves a heart-shaped meter on the screen that gradually fills as you score points. Each song is split into three discrete segments, with a brief “appraisal” of how you’re doing between each. The first two allow you the opportunity to fill the two halves of the heart meter; if they are both filled by the time you reach the third segment, that part of the song will feature a special heart-shaped note for you to hit.
Successfully hit this, and you’ll get an extremely distracting animation of your opponent gyrating provocatively in the background for a brief period, but — assuming you still win — you’ll also have scored yourself a “Perfect Victory”. This has two main effects: firstly, you’ll get an extremely entertaining animation of Hanzou enjoying your victorious dish once the match is over, and secondly, you’ll have the opportunity to enjoy a “Special”, which consists of your opponent being stripped naked, covered in whipped cream and chocolate and made to pose seductively on a giant dessert dish.
Yes, this is Senran Kagura, so the series’ iconic clothes-blasting action is well and truly in evidence. Success in each of the segments of the song causes the losing contestant to have a layer of clothes explode dramatically off them, and scoring the aforementioned “Perfect Victory” blows their lingerie off as the coup de grâce, leaving them utterly humiliated in defeat.
At this point, it’s worth reiterating something worth noting about this aspect of the series that I’ve talked about before: while this side of things is most obviously there for the fanservice, it’s actually not especially unusual for nudity to be used in this way in Japanese popular media. Specifically, it can be seen as symbolic of the victorious combatant’s complete mastery over and understanding of their opponent: gradually “stripping” the layers of defence away with their skilful battling until the loser is (in this case quite literally) laid bare in defeat. There are plenty of other examples of this in video games; Dungeon Travelers 2 is a great example.
There’s also a “skinship” aspect to this in Senran Kagura, too. If you’ve never come across this concept before, it refers to the idea of being comfortable in nudity around those you care about and trust, and is often seen represented as (typically same-sex) characters taking baths together. It’s not a sexual thing (though sometimes one thing can lead to another) but rather a simple sign that you are willing to open yourself up and make yourself completely vulnerable; you’re showing everything to someone that you trust, and demonstrating your belief that they will not take advantage of this or hurt you physically or emotionally.
Play any of the Senran Kagura games and you’ll notice that despite some initial embarrassment at their clothes exploding off, none of the girls actually appear to be the slightest bit bothered at simply being nude. In fact, after whatever situation caused them to end up in the buff this time around, it’s not at all uncommon to see them simply standing around starkers, chatting away to their opponent of a few moments ago as if nothing happened. On one level, this is simply comedically absurd, of course, but it can also be read as evidence that these girls are already completely at ease with one another. Even when self-professed sexual harassers such as Katsuragi are around.
But back to the gameplay. The 22 different songs on offer are enormously varied and range in difficulty from very easy but enjoyable to listen to (Hibari’s saccharine-sweet I Just Want to Marry Sweets) to monstrously difficult but irresistibly toe-tapping (Rin’s ’90s anime-inspired Prepare Yourself, Teacher). They also encompass a wide range of different styles and tempi: Ryouna’s track Frantic Self-Satisfaction is a delightful bit of downtempo howling dad rock, for example, while Yomi’s relentlessly energetic I Devote Myself To Bean Sprouts -My Lovely Bean Sprouts- sounds like a song from a lost Sonic game.
At this point, Japanese rhythm games have absolutely nailed the fine art of making the player feel connected to the music by making the note charts you play have direct, clear links to what you’re hearing. And Bon Appétit is no exception in this regard.
Sometimes you’ll simply be tapping out the rhythm of the main melody; at others, you’ll be banging out counter-rhythms, complementary off-beats or syncopated patterns, or perhaps assisting the rhythm section in their backing. The easiest difficulty perhaps feels a bit simple to feel much of a direct connection with the music, but both Normal and Hard make it very much feel like you’re part of the performance. Your Vita (or your controller, if you’re playing the PC port) becomes a musical instrument in its own right; successfully nailing a complex pattern in the middle of a challenging song feels just as satisfying as if you’d actually performed it yourself.
The game doesn’t overdo it with attempts to distract you, either; grit your teeth and maintain your focus on the note charts and you won’t have a problem; the entertaining background animations, meanwhile, provide plenty of things for a potential audience to watch, and you can catch enough of a glimpse of them during play to bring a smile to your face every time.
In fact, probably the most distracting thing in the gameplay is attempting to squeeze in the shoulder button hit required to trigger Ninja Arts; in the faster, more complex songs it can be difficult to find a suitable opportunity to fit this in without throwing off the rhythms your thumbs are busy banging out at the time. And once you lose your concentration in this way, it can sometimes be a little tricky to regain it — though unlike many other rhythm games, it’s not possible to fail a song in the middle here, so it absolutely is possible to claw back a victory after a disastrous middle 8.
As for the narrative component of the game? Well, it’s just as diverse as the songs on offer. While this is clearly intended to be an entertaining side story (or, perhaps more accurately, a set of 22 entertaining short stories) rather than something to be taken too seriously, the various characters’ routes don’t shy away from some interesting topics.
Miyabi’s story, for example, continues to explore her struggles over her gender identity introduced in Shinovi Versus; she feels guilt over wanting to abandon her more “masculine” aspects when those are the things that make her popular with a lot of her admirers.
Mirai’s, meanwhile, sees her coming at her self-esteem issues from a different angle from usual: rather than focusing on her flat chest, she wants to develop a more mature attitude that shows people they can rely on her, rather than feeling the need to “mother” her at all times.
Yagyuu’s story, as always, sees her attempting to understand her feelings towards Hibari — and trying to work out the best way to communicate the love she feels.
And Yomi’s, in which she comes to the realisation that she might be getting tired of her beloved bean sprouts, is a heartbreaking allegory for a struggling relationship.
At the other end of the seriousness spectrum, we have Asuka’s story, which is a 40-minute dick joke; Katsuragi’s, which is the same but for tits; Homura’s obsession with meat (and crab impressions) to the exclusion of all else; Daidouji’s desire to find something other than a giraffe to punch in the face; and Haruka’s earnest desire to unite the world by drugging everyone up to the eyeballs and making them dance the samba. There is, as they say, something for everyone to enjoy here.
And, like the other Senran Kagura games, there’s plenty of longevity here even once you’ve seen all 22 stories — which will take you quite some time! An arcade mode tasks you with clearing six narrative-free stages and attempting to record a high score (with online leaderboards) while a free mode allows you to practice any of the songs to your heart’s content. There are tons of clothes, accessories, hairstyles and sets of lingerie to unlock, trophies and achievements to attain and a dressing room to play around with.
And even if you’ve “done” everything, this is still an immensely entertaining game to just pick up and play for a few minutes. Pretty girls, great music, satisfying gameplay… and some truly delicious-looking food. Sounds like a fine way to spend an evening to me!
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