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Monday, September 25, 2017

Review: Senko no Ronde 2 (Sony PlayStation 4)


Review by Clark A.

Last year, fans of bullet hell shooters were treated to Touhou Genso Rondo: Bullet Ballet. Fusing bullet hell madness with the psychology of fighting games, it proved the genre is more adaptable than casual observers give it credit for. It’s easy to forget, though, that this Touhou game was handled by G.rev and infused with the sensibilities of a decade older series, Senko no Ronde. Those who came to Bullet Ballet for its cute girls and stuck around for the tight action will be pleased to know that Senko no Ronde 2 has even more going for it.  

Yes, in a relatively rare move for a 2D shooter, Senko no Ronde 2 features a bonafide story mode that fleshes out its characters beyond being the pretty faces behind the explosions. The meat and potatoes of this release is a mode that adopts the visual novel format with the occasional climactic fight thrown in for good measure. Make no mistake, though. It wasn’t the fact that a 2D shooter had a story that impressed me, but the way it turned an otherwise fun little game into the stuff of legends.

Still, I would be remiss to gloss over what makes the Senko no Ronde compelling and different. Besides a few vague approximations like Acceleration of Suguri and perhaps Psychic Force or Virtual On, you're not going to find many franchises that remotely do what Senko no Ronde does. This is not a typical 2D shooter that tasks you with scrolling vertically or horizontally and wiping out common threats as you work your way towards a boss. Instead you’re locked in a circular arena where health bars are the deciding factor. The bouts here are all one on one contests waged between distinctive characters with countless intricacies.


Because 2D shooters, particularly bullet hells, often come down to how well orchestrated enemy attack patterns are, there’s something liberating about the structure employed here. You aren’t simply reacting to pre-programmed movements and holding down the fire button. No, you’re permitted to actively dictate the pace and play mind games, even against computer opponents. Because most fights have a time limit, players who have honed their dodging skills for decades can build strategies around defensive play. Unlike in many traditional fighting games, “turtle” mentalities don’t cheapen the experience because they feel at home in the context of this game’s mechanics.

Introducing open-ended experimentation is really the crux of Senko no Ronde’s appeal. These games borrow all the beloved 2D shooter conventions imaginable and rework them into a more competition oriented format. Some ill-considered genre mashups out there complement each other like a birthday cake and a blowtorch, but G.rev and its partners come bearing a thorough understanding of what makes both 2D shooters and fighting games tick. Great shoot ‘em ups often give the player multiple ways of dealing with enemies such as bombs and alternate fire. That’s the case here with them functioning a little like heavy punches and versus light punches, albeit more dynamic. Melee attacks are then thrown into the mix to make spacing as relevant as a fighting game. Aiming is tough at a distance, but firing projectiles too close makes you transparent to counter. Mechanics like dash cancelling and parrying attacks are more innate to fighting games, but their usage isn’t unheard of in shooters either, so they feel like a logical extension of the player’s manoeuvrability options.

Disappointed at the lack of flashy boss fights? Well, using the oh-so-creatively named B.O.S.S. mode, you can become one and tip the scales of warfare via massive machines capable of pumping out ridiculous amounts and patterns of ammunition. That’s a concept that resonates on two levels because it resembles the kind of flashy super move you’d desperately whip out in the likes of Street Fighter. Here, though, boss transformations are just as much about pressuring your opponent as they are clinging to life. If your life bar is down to the point where one hit will cause you to explode, B.O.S.S. mode will allow you to absorb more blows. While you can easily dodge a super attack in a fighting game, you can’t easily prevent an opponent from initiating B.O.S.S. mode…other than just bust it out yourself. That design choice is the source of unparalleled tension, since you always have to weigh factors like whether it’s better to prevent your opponent from using their trump card or save yours as a counter.


There’s also the matter of the player’s individual strengths to consider, since if you’re better at dodging fire than dishing it out, you might prefer to conserve your ace in the hole. These segments last long enough to be game-changers, but are short enough not to be impregnable to those on the losing side. They’re also balanced by the fact that, with masterful aim, those who are being oppressed can terminate an opponent’s transformation prematurely. These power struggles allow Senko no Ronde to embrace the David versus Goliath scenarios that bullet hell games achieve better than just about any other video game genre.

This might all sound unique and enticing enough to forge an exceptional experience, but as remarkable as the mechanics are, again, they aren’t the reason I consider Senko no Ronde 2 an essential masterpiece. Make no mistake - this is a full-featured game boasting online play, arcade modes, score attack, and other such trimmings that will set the heart of your average fan ablaze. However, Touhou Genso Rondo tackled much of the same concepts with the added benefit of recognisable, lovable anime ladies. No, the reason I adore Senko no Ronde 2 is the big kahuna: its story campaign. While this story is technically residual material from Senko no Ronde DUO, it was never previously localised for English-speaking audiences and the chances of that coming to fruition seemed nonexistent for years.

It probably goes without saying that Senko no Ronde 2’s story takes place in space. To get more specific, though, it follows the exploits of the various planets, federations, and organisations that have sprouted up across the solar system since humanity was forced by calamity to spread out from earth. That expansion led to the advent of a new space calendar and other such events that redefined how people examine history. Most crucially (for the purpose of gameplay, anyway), just about every group under the sun now utilises Rounders, the giant robots of everyone’s dreams, to perform combat and navigate the vastness of space.


At first glance, it’s run of the mill stuff. The story kicks off from the perspective of Lev LeFanu, an amnesiac pilot who was taken and trained to become a Rounder pilot at a young age. Compelled by the government, he joins the Harmonia Volunteer Force, a group of similarly youthful Rounder pilots. He then undergoes something of a personal struggle in his new surroundings, which is probably not assisted by the imminent threat of terrorists trying to nab super-weapons. He’s a little more interesting than your average fictional amnesiac, particularly because he doesn’t seem driven to discover his past so much as prove himself useful to his comrades in the present.

That said, Lev LeFanu is also the vehicle through which players are introduced to Senko no Ronde’s massive world. Players begin by fighting for the Harmonia Volunteer Force, but you’ll quickly realise how many other entities there are when you get to play as them. There’s the Special Space Service, the Goddiver Security Organization, and various other galactic outfits that operate under different rules with their own motivations. Few seem outright shadowy and each one has a cast of diverse characters who perceive the world a little differently due to their circumstances. As the plot unravels, you discover even more players behind the scenes such as royal families and rogue hackers. So much of the characters’ fates are down to politics, not their own agency. Perhaps this will slightly frustrate some players since the video game format is seen as more conducive to control, but in typical visual novel format, there are still plenty of minor decisions players can make.

Character personalities are very much anime archetypes at the outset. Examples include the sexy flirt, the standoffish commander, and the bratty battle prodigy. Even so, they break out of their moulds not just because of back stories and character development but these precious scenes of genuine, human interaction. They might be as menial as whining and moaning over a broken air conditioner as the commander tries to get a task done, but they’re incredibly effective at giving each character a presence. Niche games of this scale can be prone to rushing from point A to B as quickly as possible, stopping only for technical exposition rather give characters time to branch out and seem believable. For how massive the cast is, I'm grateful the writers took the time to make a large percentage of them feel like they matter.


I’m also glad that the writers tackled warfare from a more down-to-earth perspective (no pun intended). A lot of the early fights are realistic and more about the regular training exercises between friends and rivals at the same organization. Confrontations against other groups aren’t always these melodramatic, overblown affairs of life and death either. They can be as simple as getting an uncooperative intruder to depart or flexing a little mechanical muscle to instill fear and respect in another nation. Because the player pilots most forces affected by the conflict, it's all quite even-handed. Players will discover why certain characters have chosen to abandon structured army life and pursue their own interests, why people fight to give their life meaning, and why others might be willing to be seen as a “villain” if it serves their concept of a greater good.

The story has a good number of fights to make it more than a “pure” visual novel, but never so many that the next big battle is the eternal fixation. Heck, the dialogue continues on in the midst of battle, giving the sense that two entities squaring off are conducting themselves in a human way and creating tension. The only downside is that it might be a lot to absorb for English audiences since the text unfolds at the bottom of the screen with no English dub.

The story might not be immediately accessible to impatient audiences, but it’s worth sticking it out. Plenty of jargon and character backgrounds must be juggled, not to mention the ever-expanding lore, but as previously mentioned, the game provides methods of catching up on these. As a whole, the story offers some insight into the world's political structure and why people fight. More importantly, why they're obligated to do so and how they deal with the hand they’ve been dealt in life. If you’re familiar with mecha anime and manga, the messages will resonate even deeper.


The cherry on top isn’t the story itself but how it’s actually presented. The plot events are mapped out on a giant timeline/web of squares that each contains a set of dialogue scenes. Besides being a useful hub of sorts, it makes it easier to keep track of prior events. It also helps keep track of which organisation you’re controlling, and believe me, that’s quite useful with how many there are. One little novelty is that it can provide a slight visual sense of when potential enemies in different parts of the story might meet up and clash, creating a unique sense of dramatic build-up. It's a nifty little system I wouldn’t mind seeing more straight-up visual novels adopt and improve on even further, especially ones that jump between large casts.

As an aside, production values are reasonably impressive for a game of this niche scope and the artwork is always on point. The music, composed by Zuntata and Yasuhisa Watanabe, is stellar even by the high standards for shoot ‘em ups. It’s a bit of a shame that there are so many typos, but considering this game’s chance at receiving localisation looked to be zero after Ubisoft failed to rebrand Senko no Ronde as WarTech ten years ago, I encourage you to be forgiving.

Few games in the world are as multilayered in their appeal as Senko no Ronde 2. It’s positively exceptional, melding a fighting game into a 2D shooter then using that as the basis for a visual novel. That story goes on to become the fabric of every mecha fan’s dreams, featuring the best tropes of space operas along alongside more substantial commentary. It’s a pleasant reminder that story-driven games don’t need to rely on the RPG format.




- Clark A.
Anime Editor

Review: Senko no Ronde 2 (Sony PlayStation 4)
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