Of all the fan service-heavy properties in the world, the cross-over between Hyperdimension Neptunia and Senran Kagura seems like the match made in heaven. Both are comedic properties, with large groups of characters and both love hot springs, boob jokes and… well, sex-themed jokes that are related to the other various body bits too. Both properties have the standard blend of airheads, tsunderes, and all the other anime tropes, and both properties make “over the top” seem subtle.
I already know the way that this game is going to go across the broad media landscape. It is, after all, a cut-price action JRPG/brawler, with fan service that’s there purely for aesthetic and comic purposes. The developers aren’t making any great point about anything in Ninja Wars, let alone making a point of the big-breasted women that, for reasons, decide to meditate while straddling a giant peach. These are all things that generally deliver a game a sour Metacritic score. And then, because I will be an outlier and give it a good score, a bunch of people for whom this game was never made for will float on into the comments section here to yell at me for the ten seconds it takes to ban them because I scored it above one game or another that they did like. It happens almost every time.
Anyhow, that aside, I did really enjoy Ninja Wars. It’s not perfect by any means, and it’s not the best Neptunia game. Nor is it the best Senran Kagura. It’s certainly not the best game I’ve played this year, but it’s also a fun and frivolous little experience that knows its limits, doesn’t outstay its welcome, and is wildly entertaining while it lasts. Taken in that context, the little issues dissipate. What matters is that the development teams got the important bits right within their limited budgets, and made something really pretty into the bargain.
The world that the various denizens of Hyperdimension Neptunia and Senran Kagura occupy has been invaded by a hostile, robot-powered army that practice the “Headshot” style of martial arts. While previously at war, all the girls from the various factions put aside their differences to take on this hostile power. In keeping with the Hyperdimension tradition, all of this is a very thinly-veiled allegory, with the invader ninjas representing western game development, and the very Japanese characters needing to get together to repel the invaders and avoid losing their “share crystals” (representing, you guessed it, market share). What minimal plot twists and turns exist in the game don’t exactly make any of it more profound than this, but it’s enough of a context to justify all the fourth-wall breaking “clever” little nods thrown into the script.
It’s an enjoyable enough plot for contriving up reasons why Asuka and Neptune are suddenly BFFs, even if it is overlong in the execution dialogue sequences. Hideo Kojima gets away with 20-minute (and much longer) cut scenes because his work is loaded with meaning. When it’s girls joking about boob sizes, bathing together, and using a lot of words to say “we need to go here next,” Kojima-length story sequences mean that there’s room for the script to have a hard edit. With that being said I think I would haven’t have minded this “visual novel” stuff being as long as it is if I simply could have saved and taken a break midway through. It is entertaining before the superficiality becomes draining. It’s just that whenever the story kicked in I inevitably found myself itching to get out of the scene so I would have a chance to save and take a break. Ninja Wars is best played in very small bursts (this is not intended as a criticism of the game), and the lack of mid-cutscenes saves do undermine that a little.
Once you get to dive into the action, it’s pretty good stuff. Tamsoft is experienced with both properties, and they do the crossover justice, with a fluid, dynamic action system that relies heavily on utilising a range of special abilities while trying to avoid being hit by the enemy too many times. The dodge button is incredibly useful, responsive, and a key element of the system, especially given that it confers temporary immunity. Enemies tend to do a lot of damage and soak up a bit in return, so weaving in, launching a special, and then ducking back out of the mess is a useful strategy overall.
The roster of characters all feel equally useful and differentiated, too. There’s not so much of a difference from one to another that it can artificially scale the difficulty of enemies depending on which character you’ve chosen for which battle, but there’s just enough separating them so that it feels like there’s a point to choosing your favourite two characters. Enemies, meanwhile, tend to be quite simple and only attack in small packs, and there’s not enough variety between them, but they work well enough as a brawler-style gauntlet to battle through before squaring off against the bosses (which can be challenging).
I did have a few small issues with the combat system. Firstly, the camera isn’t nearly as responsive as it needs to be given that you’ll frequently be surrounded by enemies, and more than a few times I made use of that dodge button, which, thanks to the dash action that accompanied it, meant that the camera would swing around to nothing in particular and I lost sight of the enemies that I was trying to track. It’s never resulted in game over screens for me, but it was a quality of life issue. I also had an issue with the lack of attack pattern information that would sometimes make things artificially challenging. A good action combat system – a Dark Souls system, for example – can be brutally hard, but it will always give you some kind of tell or projection that would make getting out of the way possible for skilled players. Either I just wasn’t picking up on the tells with a few of the enemies in Ninja Wars, or they weren’t there. Not that Ninja Wars is trying to be particularly difficult, but giving players the ability to win on skill is a basic good design principle in 2021.
Additionally, and this is really minor, but the balance is all out. Once I was in a dungeon I wanted to spend some time in there, fighting my way through hordes and dealing with some kind of attrition before tackling the boss. The levels in Ninja Wars are pretty, colourful, and enjoyably designed as far as brawlers go, but they’re also over far too quickly, especially given that they’re bookended by such lengthy cut scenes. It’s a brawler, Idea Factory. Let me brawl. And while I’m griping about really minor things – where is the photo mode, Tamsoft? You used to have them in your games on Vita. You can clearly do them, and I’m sure a PlayStation 5 can handle the same photo mode engine. Every game with a fan service element needs a photo mode. How else can I amuse myself by blasting my people’s eyes on Twitter with it?
Despite the litany of complaints above, it must be emphasised that the combat action is good. Really, it’s so good that it’s surprising in the right way. It’s fluid, it’s dynamic, and while it’s shallow, it’s also flashy and in-your-face. Much like the two properties that form the basis of the game, really. However, perhaps the most “Hyperdimension Neptunia, Senran Kagura AND Tamsoft” moment of all is the Peach Balance minigame. You’ll do this for various boosts in battle, but you’ll also do it because it involves a cute girl, wearing teeny-tiny towels, straddling a giant peach as she (supposedly) meditates. It’s ridiculous and, of course, totally appropriate for both base properties. I’m going to get jeered at for this, but I would have liked more of those kinds of minigames in there.
Working with a clearly limited budget, Tamsoft has focused on delivering a tight action-combat system, while also relying on the fan service of both Senran Kagura and Hyperdimension Neptunia to see it through. It’s a good couple of hours of genuine fun, with the requisite bath scenes, humour and familiar characters to meet and fight. You can’t help but think that both properties could have grown to become more than this, but taking as it is, it’s still entertaining nonsense, with a heavy emphasis on the “entertaining”. I play enough serious games that require deep analysis, this kind of thing is my ideal break time between them.
– Matt S.
Find me on Twitter: @mattsainsb