Senran Kagura Burst Re:Newal: The Pairing of Sword and Shield

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We live in an age where remakes and reboots are very popular. Exactly how that came to be is anyone’s guess — improving technology leading creators to believe they can better realise the original intention of a work, presumably — but regardless of the reasoning, here we are.

Senran Kagura, a series which turned eight years old on Sunday, September 22, 2019 — the Sunday just gone at the time of writing — has been no exception to this, with its most recent “mainline” release in the series being Burst Re:Newal, which first hit Japanese shelves in February of 2018, and followed just under a year later in the West.

Burst Re:Newal, as the name suggests, is a reimagining of the first game in the series — or, more accurately, the expanded second release of that first game, Senran Kagura Burst — and it brings the beginning of the saga to a whole new audience. Let’s take a closer look.

The first thing worth considering when examining Burst Re:Newal is why it exists in this form in the first place, rather than as a simple port of the original 3DS version. To understand that, we need to contemplate Senran Kagura’s overall lore.

As we’ve mentioned a couple of times in previous installments of this series, Senran Kagura as a whole is split into two timelines. The first consists of the 3DS game Senran Kagura Burst, which in turn consists of narratives that explore both the Hanzou and Hebijo academies that train young shinobi girls, and Senran Kagura 2: Deep Crimson, which further explores the apocalyptic “main point” of the series, which is aforementioned shinobi girls battling against otherworldly forces straight out of Japanese legend, known as youma.

Without spoiling the details of Deep Crimson, which is beyond the scope of what we’re covering in the current feature, the conclusion of that game essentially “reset” everything, and the subsequent mainline games — including Shinovi Versus (which was actually released before Deep Crimson), along with Estival Versus and Peach Beach Splash — are considered to unfold in the second timeline that was created as a result.

We were left with a slight issue, though; Shinovi Versus was obviously originally intended as a direct follow-up to Burst, since it makes frequent references to the events of that game, but this whole “split timeline” thing made a bit of a mess of things, since those two games now canonically unfolded in two separate realities.

You could perhaps apply the somewhat generous (albeit plausible) interpretation that one of the discrete narrative routes through the original Burst led to Deep Crimson while the other led to Shinovi Versus, but now we have Burst Re:Newal to sort all that out once and for all.

In Burst Re:Newal, the events of Burst happen again in the second timeline — and in the process, develop the additional interpersonal connections necessary to incorporate the expanded cast introduced in Shinovi Versus, Estival Versus and Peach Beach Splash.

Confusing? Don’t worry about it too much. Burst Re:Newal is a great place to start if you’re new to the series, but if you’re an established veteran, rest assured that there are lots of nice little lore snippets throughout the game that will make you stroke your chin thoughtfully and go “Ohhhhhhh!”.

Whether or not those connections were originally intended by the writers — I suspect not, at least not when Burst was first composed — doesn’t really matter at this point; so far as the series as a whole is concerned, the second timeline is now the “main” one, and upcoming (possible) finale title Senran Kagura 7even will apparently bring everything back together once and for all.

With all the above in mind, today we’re going to be specifically examining Burst Re:Newal’s gameplay in general as well as how the Hanzou girls’ narrative route unfolds, and next time we’ll wrap things up with a look at both the Hebijo narrative and the two additional DLC scenarios that incorporate Yumi and Miyabi. Sound good? Good, ’cause that’s what you’re getting.

Get comfortable, we’re going to be here a while.

For the unfamiliar, the original Senran Kagura Burst was actually a 2.5D side-scrolling beat ’em up that felt distinctly like a modern version of classic belt-scrollers like Streets of Rage and its ilk. Many of the features that remain part of the series to this day were introduced in that original installment, but the perspective was very different; it wasn’t until follow-up Shinovi Versus that we moved into the 3D arena-based brawling that we typically expect from the series today.

Burst Re:Newal continues with this newer style of gameplay, which is ultimately to the game’s benefit; the dramatic, energetic combat of the series always felt a little cramped and constrained on the small screen of the 3DS, and moving to fully three-dimensional environments allows the girls more room to move around, along with plenty of delightfully ridiculous anime-style combat.

The basic gameplay of Burst Re:Newal is true to the series’ standard formula, with a few little twists. Each character has light and strong attack buttons, so you can unleash a string of quick but weak strikes with the former and finish off a combo with the latter. Most of these finishers provide the opportunity for an “Aerial Rave”, which knocks your foe(s) up into the air and allows you to pursue them for a bit of gravity-defying pummelling.

Each level can be started in one of two states: Flash state is the character’s standard form with no changes to her base attack and defence power, while Frantic (or Yin) state causes her to explode out of her clothes in order to completely sacrifice her defensive potential for considerably increased attack power. Both forms have slightly different movesets, too; in Frantic mode, for example, you can indefinitely chain weak attacks into endless combos, while in Flash you’ll eventually reach a finisher even if you never hit the strong attack button.

There’s a third form, too. Repeatedly attacking causes you to build up your Ninja Art gauge, with the rate of gain increasing according to the length of your combo and the damage you’re outputting. Building up your Ninja Art gauge to at least one level in Flash mode allows you to carry out a magical girl-style Shinobi Transformation (complete with momentary nudity, just for genre authenticity), which increases the girl’s stats as well as completely restoring her HP and allowing the use of Secret Ninja Arts. Each girl has three of these, which cost one, two or five Ninja Art gauges to perform; the latter only becomes available after a specific point in the narrative, but the first two can be used at any time.

Secret Ninja Arts are generally offensive in nature, but they are where some of the most significant differences between the girls are seen. They are by no means a “win button”; in order to use them effectively, you’ll need to understand their area of effect, range and effectiveness in different circumstances, and use them with suitable timing. You’re invincible while a Secret Ninja Art animation is going off, but that goes for your opponents, too; there’s no sense unleashing one of your most powerful attacks while your foe is doing one of her own, completely shielding her from damage!

Burst Re:Newal adds a couple of additional systems atop these base mechanics. First of these is the Burst meter, which gradually builds up as you rack up combos and deal damage, much like the Ninja Arts meter. When it’s full, you can tap a button to enter Burst Mode, which causes cherry blossom petals to fall in the background while your damage output increases immensely for a short period as the meter drains. Once it’s empty, a super-powerful Burst Attack that draws in enemies and deals enormous area-effect damage goes off; finishing off an opponent with one of these causes a special cinematic defeat animation that causes them to end up completely naked.

I’ve addressed this before, but it bears reiterating. While Senran Kagura is most widely known for its more fanservicey elements — particularly the clothes shredding/stripping system — these presentational features are there for more than titillation.

From a mechanical sense, your opponent’s clothes getting shredded indicates that you’re building up some good momentum in the fight and getting some long combos on them, while yours getting torn indicate that you might need to play a bit more defensively.

From a presentational sense, it’s perfectly logical that high-speed shinobi combat involving a variety of extremely sharp objects would result in you never being able to return that top you’re wearing to Dorothy Perkins.

And from a symbolic sense, Japanese media often makes use of nudity to represent vulnerability, understanding and honesty. If you’re naked, you have nothing to hide. If you stripped your opponent bare through your combat skills, you’re proving that you completely understood how your opponent thought and behaved, and successfully, completely and utterly overwhelmed them using that knowledge. And the fact the girls rarely seem truly ashamed by being stripped demonstrates that they accept the fact that sometimes in the shinobi world, carelessness can leave you completely defenseless and vulnerable.

Probably Burst Re:Newal’s most significant addition to the base Senran Kagura formula, however, is the use of visible attack telegraphs. In previous games, there were certain audio-visual cues you could use to determine when opponents were likely to strike and with which moves, but Burst makes these completely explicit using visible, glowing markings as well as more subtle animations.

This adds a really nice rhythm to the combat as you find yourself anticipating enemy manoeuvres, leaping and darting around the field as you weave in and out of incoming attacks. If you’re feeling particularly brave, you can stand your ground in one of these telegraphs and attempt to block an attack or parry it by blocking with perfect timing; the latter in particular is very beneficial, since performing it successfully both stuns your opponent for a brief period and immediately causes you to gain a level on your Ninja Arts gauge. You better get that timing right, though; while orange telegraphs can be blocked normally with imperfect timing, failing to parry a purple telegraph will shatter your guard and stun you as well as dealing significant damage.

The aforementioned Yin and Yang modes add some additional wrinkles to the mix, too. Spending time fighting in either of these modes causes you to build up a progression meter for each on a per-character basis, with helpful passive abilities unlocking for the character at each of five “levels” you reach. The Yang gauge, for example, allows you to unlock abilities to chain a parry into an Aerial Rave and increase the character’s attack power according to how long your combo is, while the Yin gauge’s ultimate ability allows you to restore your health with every hit.

As you play and progress through the game, the growth of these meters will affect and support your playstyle; when maxed out along with overall character level (which caps at 50), each of these girls has the potential to become an intoxicatingly powerful force of nature that rips through their opponents with ease — though they are by no means invincible, as some of the later (and secret) encounters in the game will take great pleasure in teaching you, and they all still play very distinctly from one another thanks to their movesets.

Burst Re:Newal adds another subtle but significant feature that makes character progression much more straightforward than in its predecessor: Secret Growth Medicine, which is acquired through completing missions, hidden in boxes around each battlefield and purchasing it from the in-game shop using the money earned after each mission. These medicines, which are in abundant supply, can be used to immediately level up characters, allowing you to relatively easily get the whole cast up to the cap of level 50 pretty quickly. You still have to grind a bit to max out the Yin and Yang meters — assuming you want to, of course; it’s by no means a necessity to clear the game — but getting your characters up to decent levels puts lucrative Hard difficulty clears within anyone’s reach.

Mechanically, Burst Re:Newal is by far the most solid of all the Senran Kagura brawlers, which makes sense given that it’s the latest release at the time of writing. It’s clear that Tamsoft and Honey Parade Games have learned from the previous installments in the series and applied that knowledge to refine and improve their craft; the final result, while superficially similar to its ancestors, has its own distinct feel that is slick, satisfying and highly enjoyable to play.

All right. Let’s change perspective now; it’s time to examine the narrative that unfolds through the Hanzou narrative arc, positioned as the most suitable place for those new to Senran Kagura to start. Which makes sense; it’s the story that was told in the original Skirting Shadows/Portrait of Girls release back in 2011.

The Hanzou girls’ narrative introduces us to Asuka, Ikaruga, Katsuragi, Yagyuu and Hibari: the five “Elite” students of at Hanzou National Academy. Hanzou is, from the outside, a normal school; however, it runs shinobi training in secret, and the Elite positions — of which there are only ever five at a time — are even more secret than that.

As we join the story, the girls are learning how to leverage their unique talents and call upon Secret Ninja Arts using the power of nature. They learn that each of them has a guardian spirit of sorts, and that by calling upon this spirit of nature, they are able to accomplish seemingly supernatural feats. Naturally, as you might expect, each of these guardians is thematically appropriate for the character in question.

Asuka’s guardian is a toad, which might not sound all that flattering until you consider how respected frogs and toads are in Chinese and Japanese culture. The toad is seen as bringing good luck to travellers, and is often associated with returning safely from a journey or other challenge; in Feng Shui, it is also associated with luck and harmony. All of these things describe Asuka perfectly; although not the oldest of the group, she becomes the central “leader” figure, and is seen as a constant source of love, positivity, support and good fortune for the rest of them.

“Somewhere along the line,” muses Ikaruga towards the end of the game, “Asuka became the heart of our group. My position as class representative is but a facade. But I have made my peace with that. Class representation is a simple matter of seniority. Leadership is a matter of spirit. So I will do all I can to let Asuka fight with a clear mind.”

Ikaruga’s guardian is a phoenix. This works as a piece of symbolism on several levels when we consider her background: she was adopted out of a life of poverty to become the new heir of a group known as the Houou. “Houou” (sometimes spelled Hōō or Ho-oh) is a Japanese word for a phoenix or phoenix-like creature, so Ikaruga literally had a phoenix-esque “rebirth” out of her old life into a new one… courtesy of a “phoenix”.

Ikaruga’s adoption was also an attempt to revitalise the Houou group — which, naturally, is actually a front for shinobi activities as well as a powerful business organisation — since the family’s blood heir Murasame displayed little talent in the shinobi arts. In other words, she was brought in to bring new life to the Houou — much to her adoptive brother’s chagrin, since part of the deal involved her inheriting the family sword Hien (“swallow”). Legend dictates that a worthy wielder of Hien is able to draw forth the azure bird kept within — and wouldn’t you know it, Ikaruga is able to do just that using one of her Secret Ninja Arts.

Ikaruga feels a great deal of guilt about this. She knows that she has greater talent than her brother and is a more worthy wielder of the sword, but it doesn’t stop her feeling guilty about it — particularly as Murasame has continued to not take her position all that well.

“[The family tree] is simply a straight line from the head of the family to me,” Ikaruga explains as she considers her shinobi ancestry as part of a school activity. “My brother’s name is not included. My name is where his would have been. Time has not made it any less of a burden to bear.”

Katsuragi’s guardian is a dragon. This is an entirely appropriate figure for this rambunctious, courageous and determined young woman. In traditional Japanese art — most commonly seen in tattoo art in the modern world — dragons are associated with wisdom, strength and generosity, with that strength typically being used to do good for mankind.

While Kat is a pain in the arse for the others at times thanks to her extremely gay and overtly sexual nature, it’s impossible to come away from an encounter with her not thinking she’s wonderful. The rest of the group refers to her as Katsu-nee (“Katsu the big sister”) with good reason — she’s always there to support everyone, and often has wise words to share. When she’s not trying to grope her friends, of course.

Katsuragi’s strength comes from her background, and this bit of backstory is one area where Burst Re:Newal incorporates a few new elements that were not in the original 3DS version. In the first timeline, we learned that Katsuragi’s parents were renegade shinobi; they had refused to carry out an order they disagreed with, and this forced them into exile. Before they did so, however, they ensured that Katsuragi would be able to safely live her life and train as a good shinobi — and in exchange, Katsuragi’s main motivation for fighting is to become strong and influential enough to get them pardoned.

In Burst Re:Newal’s second timeline, all this is still true, with a hell of a twist: the mission they baulked at completing was the assassination of Kurokage, Yumi’s grandfather and mentor to the Gessen girls. Unable to bring themselves to murder this man who these youngsters loved so much, they chose to let him live, ultimately leaving their powerful “gauntlet” weapons to Yozakura — which, in turn, explains why Katsuragi only has boots as a weapon, without matching gauntlets.

From this, then, we can see that Katsuragi is strong because she has to be; her life situation is as a result of her parent’s wisdom and generosity, and she herself is wise enough to understand that, and does not resent either them or shinobi culture for leaving her this way. It’s just the way of the world, she thinks, and all she can do is make the best of things.

“They left me to protect me from whatever punishment might still come their way,” Katsuragi muses when a chance encounter with her childhood dog Choco leads her to the hidden shinobi village where her parents are hiding out. “If I go to them now, I’d put us all at risk, and their sacrifice would be for nothing. It’s enough for me just to know where my parents are. To know they’re safe.”

Yagyuu, meanwhile, is associated with the squid, and her guardian is arguably the most prominent and visible during her special attacks. The squid is associated with agility and grace, as the real-life squid is a tricky prey to catch. They are also highly defensive creatures, able to blend into environments and make use of their ink to escape their foes. They’re adaptable and creative — and deeply mysterious. Not coincidentally, these are all adjectives which apply equally to Yagyuu herself.

Yagyuu loved her sister a great deal, but lost her in a car accident. She has never quite been able to let go of her sadness over this event, but found a certain amount of solace in how much Hibari reminded her of her sibling. Despite this, Yagyuu remains a very closed, private sort of person; throughout much of the Hanzou story, she blends into the background, happy to just support everyone else from the shadows.

It’s fitting that her main rival in the narrative ends up being Mirai, whose greatest fear is that of being ignored by everyone and not taken seriously. While Yagyuu wants to blend into the scenery like a squid, Mirai desperately wants people to pay attention to her; to understand who she is, what she’s capable of and why she fights. But more on Mirai another time.

Yagyuu’s subtlety and defensive nature manifests itself at another key point in the Hanzou story, too; during a period where Hibari is having something of a crisis of confidence, she continues to watch over her from the shadows and protects her from attack, ending up getting shot in the process. She unthinkingly made use of herself as a literal shield to protect the person she loves more than anyone else in the world — but this, in turn, ended up causing a number of other problems. She ultimately comes to realise that isolating herself or putting herself in harm’s way out of fear of losing others is not the way forward; “to live alone, out of fear of that loss, would hurt far worse,” as she puts it.

Which brings us to Hibari, who, in many ways, is one of the most important figures in the overall Hanzou narrative. Hibari’s guardian is a rabbit, which is appropriate in many ways; rabbits are seen as nervous, flighty creatures, which certainly describes Hibari well, but in broader Japanese culture they’re also associated with always moving forward and advancement without looking back. In a very “meta” sense, Hibari’s role in the story is to push it onwards.

It is a mistake she makes that causes Hanzou’s conflict with “evil” shinobi school Hebijo Clandestine Girls’ Academy to escalate and, more crucially, it is her temporary defection to Hebijo in shame that causes her to understand that despite the labels “good” and “evil”, there really aren’t all that many differences between her friends and their rivals in Hebijo.

“The Hebijo are taught just like we are,” she observes as she’s being given the Hebijo campus tour. “It makes sense, when you think about it. I’d just never given it any thought before. The Hebijo students are the enemy. Cold-blooded minions of evil. Not like us. At least, that’s how I always thought of them. That’s when it hits me: the only difference between Hebijo and Hanzou Academy is who’s employing us. As shinobi, our business is the same. Come to think of it, it’s kind of silly for our two schools to be fighting each other in the first place. What is a good shinobi? What is an evil shinobi? These little questions are swelling up inside of me.”

Hibari’s realisation here is probably one of the most important moments in the whole series, as it’s this knowledge — which she subsequently shares with her peers, who have already been starting to think similarly, based on their past encounters with their respective rivals — that forms the basis of the entire way in which these girls interact throughout every single subsequent game in the series. It’s the idea of mutual understanding and respecting of one another’s differences; just because you’re technically on different “sides”, it doesn’t mean that you have to hate each other.

Asuka comes to this conclusion, too; on two separate occasions in the narrative, her airheaded clumsiness causes her to lose her wallet to a thief — who is subsequently frustrated that how terrible she is with money means that she never has more than 500 yen in her pocket at any one time — and on both occasions, she’s bailed out by Homura, leader of the Hebijo elite class. Despite Homura’s burning desire to fight, defeat and even kill Asuka, Asuka can tell there is a good heart buried underneath all that rage — so she makes an effort to reach out a hand of friendship. A hand that Homura tentatively takes.

“It’s not even that we feel awkward around each other,” muses Asuka as the pair walk home after sharing a sushi dinner together at the restaurant run by Asuka’s grandfather, legendary shinobi Hanzou. (Yes, the school was named after him.) “It’s more like that comfortable silence shared by old friends. What an odd feeling. We didn’t meet all that long ago, and most of our time together so far has been in life or death battle on opposite sides. But she still feels like an old friend to me.”

Much of Asuka’s narrative revolves around her struggling to understand a statement that her grandfather made to her when she was younger: “your strength is a mere sword, and a sword is meaningless if not joined with a shield.” The relationships she builds over the course of Burst Re:Newal’s narrative help her to come to a gradual understanding of what he meant by this, with Homura slotting the final piece into place.

“When your grandpa was in his prime, he was always on the front line for his friends, in every battle, no matter how dangerous it got,” explains Homura as they walk home. “Crazy, huh? And yeah, he was strong, but he’d always come back wounded. Even so, he never asked for any kind of reward. Just wanted to protect his friends.”

“That’s the sword and shield,” Asuka muses to herself, drawing a smile from her new friend.

She still has a lot to learn — and continues to do so over the course of the subsequent installments in the series — but figuring out this core piece of information comes to be the main driving force behind not just Asuka, but everyone who comes into contact with her at one point or another.

More about Senran Kagura

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