A few months ago, on the PlayStation anniversary episode of Retronauts, we all wondered aloud whatever happened to Battle Arena Toshinden developer Tamsoft. My answer arrived almost immediately, a few days later, when I sat down to review Onechanbara Z II: Chaos; the Tamsoft logo appeared on startup. And last week, I saw it again, on the title screen of Senran Kagura 2: Deep Crimson.
No, Tamsoft never left us. They were here all along, doubling down on their core strength: Selling games with sexy girls. It's only fitting. Toshinden, the company's very first project, was marketed largely on the sex appeal of its female lead — "sex appeal" in video games being a term relative to its time, of course. Now that the novelty of three-dimensional characters has worn off, gamers tend to like their ladies rather less triangular than poor, blocky Sofia. Tamsoft has listened to the demands of its biggest fans and said, "We will give you what you desire." And voila: After years of toiling in obscurity, making cheapo bargain-basement Simple 2000 software for Japanese PlayStation and PlayStation 2 buyers, Tamsoft has found its comfortable gold mine in teaming up with Marvelous to produce games consisting largely of naked (or rather, as close to naked as the ESRB and CERO systems will allow) fan service.
And, honestly, that's fine. Some dudes, and presumably some ladies, are into the over-the-top titillation of games like Senran Kagura and Onechanbara, and I don't have a problem with that. I wish video games would grow the hell up when it comes to how they treat sex — that's games, not gamers, a distinction certain people seemed to miss when reading that linked piece — but by no means am I calling for the expurgation of sex from games. I just want there to be more to the medium's treatment of human sexuality than robotic softcore make-outs, breast physics programmed by men who evidently think mammary glands consist of gelatin, and seduction as a Skinner box reward for proper dialogue tree navigation.
Tamsoft seems content to cultivate the second category, and the studio is evidently doing well enough there that they've been able to up the fidelity of their work substantially as a result. The leap in visual quality between the hilariously low-budget original Onechanbara on PS2 and Chaos on PS4 is more than can be accounted for by sheer technology alone, and even Deep Crimson represents a considerable leap in graphical chops over last year's Senran Kagura: Burst. So more power to 'em. At least they're honest about the intentions of their games — low brows, high hemlines — and Onechanbara in particular comes by its crassness honestly. Just as fellow Marvelous/XSEED franchise (and fellow ascended Simple 2000 creation) Earth Defense Force takes the form of a dumb-but-addictive video game homage to schlocky '50s B-movies like Them!, Onechanbara looks to the dark, taboo tradition of '70s grindhouse and sexploitation flicks such as Sex & Fury for its aesthetic cues. It's not classy or respectable in the least, but that's precisely the point.
Senran Kagura, on the other hand, I find a little harder to defend. The series comes off as a conflicted morass of contradictory aspirations, with its wild tonal shifts from one moment to the next. On one hand, the games' chapters have bookends in the form of remarkably earnest visual novel sequences told through the voice of the series' main character, an aspiring kunoichi named Asuka. On the other, the same characters whose lives are chronicled with such sincerity between chapters are basically treated as strippers throughout the games: As they take damage in battle, their clothes gradually disintegrate to leave them in their skimpy underwear. And all but one or two of the girls are designed with enormous breasts whose overly mobile physics make the Dead or Alive games look like an exercise in prudishness. The problem isn't that the characters are universally top-heavy — many women are in real life! — it's that their breasts are programmed to move in a way that in no way resembles the actual physics of human anatomy. It's hard to take story sequences when the slightest character action sets off a chain reaction that resembles an earthquake at a Jell-O factory.
And therein lies Senran Kagura's greatest contradiction: It's a portable game that really doesn't lend itself to the main advantage of portable gaming — that is, the ability to play anywhere you like. I don't particularly want exaggerated boob jiggling in my games to begin with, and I certainly don't find the Senran Kagura's obsession with humiliating its girls as punishment for defeat especially palatable. Most of all, I don't want other people seeing all that happening on my 3DS, especially kids. As someone with a lot of young nephews and cousins constantly clamoring for play time on my game consoles, content-appropriateness of the game I keep on hand is something I have to think about a lot. But you can't turn Deep Crimson's "sexy" features off, which makes this a bit of a hard sell for gaming on the go, or around others.
To its credit, Deep Crimson does allow you to deactivate some of the more egregious elements of the series' trademark strip-tease mechanics. You can get rid of the clothes-destruction cutscenes (think Sailor Moon transformations, but tawdrier). You can choose not to allow a character's current state of undress to render in post-combat story sequences, too, instead showing them in their full costume during conversations. And the really uncomfortable stuff, like the photo mode that allows you to pose, capture, and ":"touch" the girls in various poses (some innocent, some decidedly provocative), is totally optional and totally skippable. But you're still stuck with the basic elements of shredded clothing and comically exaggerated breast physics, whether you want them or not.
What makes the series' otaku-bait elements so frustrating this time around is that Senran Kagura 2, from what I've played, is a legitimately entertaining beat-'em-up. It was easy to write off the previous games, which in practice turned out to be shallow and inept; Burst in particular was a complete mess of nonsense in which you could barely see your character amidst the mindless mobs of enemies... not that it even mattered when you could thoughtlessly air-juggle foes almost infinitely. It was amusing only insofar as seeing how preposterously high you could get your combo counter; four-digit values were not out of the question, like Tamsoft was trying to make the Disgaea of fisticuffs or something. Deep Crimson, on the other hand, revamps combat significantly, shifting from a sort of forced, semi-top-down, 2D perspective similar to old belt-scrollers like Double Dragon to more open 3D arenas. This allows enemies to spread out and demands players manage space, think three-dimensionally, worry about crowd control, and master technical skills like canceling out of combos and fall recovery.
Simply mashing the attack button only gets you so far here — and that's fine, because Deep Crimson uses a simple yet flexible combo system that consists of light and heavy attacks. Each character has her own unique set of combos, and each new attack string you unlock appears on a handy chart on the lower 3DS screen for quick reference. It's lightweight so far as brawlers go, but that makes it accessible. Each of the fighters feels more distinct in combat than in Burst as well; where the Hanzou Academy women all seemed more or less the same but for their speed before, here their different combat styles come to the fore. Main character Asuka plays the Mario/Ryu "all-arounder" role, but you also have a brawler with short range and high speed, a slower warrior with a lengthy katana that give her excellent reach, a tricky technical fighter who uses a bamboo parasol to great effect, and so on.
Deep Crimson doesn't just offer better combat, it does a lot more with its mechanics than Burst as well. Rather than forcing you to replay basic missions ad nauseum to grind for experience, you can take the characters into a series of 50 different special stages that challenge you to win with specific conditions, e.g. only using ground attacks or only by reflecting projectiles. And then there's the Youma's Nest, an extensive gauntlet of mini-battles that works a bit like Zelda's Cave of Ordeals: As you defeat a room on one level of the dungeon, you open up two stages on the level below. I've only made it about halfway down, but if each of the 14 floors has one more room than the level above it, that's almost 250 different battles to fight... and the difficulty ramps up pretty quickly.
In other words, Senran Kagura 2 is a legitimately excellent brawler — easily the most fun I've had with the genre in years. Honestly, that makes its relentless determination to pander all the more frustrating. It doesn't need to strip its female characters to their underwear to be appealing! In fact, it achieves pretty much the opposite by doing so. Deep Crimson actually could get by on quality game design alone. All the semi-nude women (and pretty much every character in the game is female, including most enemy mobs) and all the hyperactive boob-wobbling become a distraction, a discouragement, and a crutch. It's like having an otherwise interesting discussion with someone who can't help but work his sexual fetishes into the conversation at any opportunity. I get it, boobs are great! I like them, too! But maybe not quite so obsessively?
So, I'm really torn on Deep Crimson, which is why this is article isn't a full review. As entertaining as its action can be, the juvenile surface of the game makes it tough to enjoy, let alone recommend, and I don't know if I'll be bothered to finish the game. In fact, the titillation factor put me off the series altogether at first. I only played Burst because no one else on staff wanted to review it. While it wasn't much of a game, I found myself taken aback by how heartfelt the writing was, despite everything else. Deep Crimson carries forward that narrative style and adds in genuinely commendable brawling mechanics, and improved visuals to boot. I just wish that while the girls were baring their hearts, the game wasn't baring their panties... then sort of surreptitiously looking the other way while offering you the chance to pose and poke them, too.
Tamsoft and Marvelous have a pretty good thing going here, but the series has really painted itself into a niche by catering to such a limited demographic. It wouldn't take much to make future Senran Kagura games an easier sell to a general audience — there's no need for censorship or even a change to the cast's exaggerated designs, just the inclusion of a few additional player options. Deep Crimson includes toggles for its more extreme fanservice elements, and it's not like offering a switch to mute the jiggle physics and clothes destruction would be a compromise of some deep creative vision — it would simply make the series more palatable to a wider audience. Not to mention the sort of portable game you could actually play outside the privacy of your own home without fear of a public indecency rap.