Neptunia x Senran Kagura: Ninja Wars is the best “action Neptunia” to date

Neptunia x Senran Kagura: Ninja Wars feels like it’s been a long time coming; the Neptunia and Senran Kagura series doing a crossover seems like something that should have happened a long time ago. It is, for sure, a match made in heaven.

While the two series have their own distinct way of doing things — Neptunia tends towards self-referential parody and satire of the gaming industry at the given moment any particular installment releases, while Senran Kagura blends a relatively serious, dark narrative with light-hearted character-centric stories — there’s definitely a whole lot of crossover between the pair of them.

Both series have a large ensemble cast of female characters who have adeptly proven over the years that they are more than capable of transcending the original context in which we met them. Both series have experimented with a variety of different gameplay styles over the years. Both series have a certain amount of fanservice without going completely over the top — despite what western games journalists might want you to believe about Senran Kagura in particular. And both series are waiting for a brand new “mainline” installment.

Neptunia x Senran Kagura

Neptunia x Senran Kagura is, as you might expect, not that new mainline installment for either series. But it is a very good thing indeed — and so if you’re a fan of either (or, more likely, both) series you won’t want to pass this one up.

Like many of the previous Neptunia spinoffs, Neptunia x Senran Kagura: Ninja Wars unfolds in one of the many parallel dimensions that we’ve seen in the Neptunia series to date. This time around we’re not in the Hyper Dimension, the Super Dimension, the Heart Dimension or any of the others we’ve seen in previous titles — we’re in a whole new world where the land of “Gameninjustri”, as it is known here, is shaped like a giant shuriken, and where the country of Heartland has been at war with its neighbour Marveland for as long as most people can remember.

Neptunia x Senran Kagura opens with the two countries’ representatives having one of their many battles — the Four Ninja Goddesses of Heartland’s “Compa Style” (Neptune, Noire, Vert and Blanc) are facing off against the Four Shinobi of Marveland’s “Honeypa Style” (Asuka, Homura, Yumi and Miyabi). As with most things in the Neptunia series, all these things are references; Heartland and Compa are references to Neptunia developer Compile Heart, while Marveland and Honeypa are references to Senran Kagura publisher and developer Marvelous and Honey Parade Games respectively.

Neptunia x Senran Kagura

During the initial battle, an unknown third party attacks using mechanical soldiers, forcing the Heartland and Marveland forces to team up with one another against this new threat. And from hereon, a new alliance is formed as our heroines take on the might of the Steeme Legion, led by Yoh Gamer and her sidekick Tetsuko.

It’s all a very silly context of course — narratively, the game is absolutely more Neptunia than Senran Kagura — but Neptunia x Senran Kagura plays things admirably straight. It doesn’t take long for you to become invested in these girls’ struggles against their dangerous new enemy, and for you to find yourself rooting for them as they strike back against seemingly impossible odds and a foe with seemingly limitless power.

If anything, I’d say that the Senran girls are perhaps slightly underused, since they don’t get a lot of opportunity for character development over the course of Neptunia x Senran Kagura’s narrative. At the same time, though, this is somewhat understandable; as a non-canonical installment in both series — not to mention the fact that it unfolds in a parallel universe — it would perhaps be rather strange for any of them to have dramatic moments of character growth or revelations about themselves.

Neptunia x Senran Kagura

It is, if anything, a good example of how both Neptunia and Senran Kagura’s casts have become “ensembles” in their own right — they’re pretty much virtual actors at this point, and in this game they’re effectively playing a part rather than being “themselves”. And there’s an argument to be made that the all-original characters created for Neptunia x Senran Kagura are the real stars of the narrative anyway!

The narrative as a whole in Neptunia x Senran Kagura is charming; both Neptunia and Senran Kagura are series known for their wit and strong characterisation, and both are very much in evidence here. There are plenty of silly running jokes — amnesiac ninja Goh the Crow is a particular highlight in this regard — and the main story moves along at a good pace, giving incidental characters a bit of time to shine before moving on to the next “episode” of what’s going on. Fans of Megadimension Neptunia VII will be especially pleased to see the return of Affimojas and Steamax.

Gameplay-wise, Neptunia x Senran Kagura is the latest evolution of a Neptunia branch that can be described as “action Neptunia”. This began back in 2014 with the release of Hyperdimension Neptunia U: Action Unleashed, continued with Megatagmension Blanc + Neptune vs. Zombies in 2015 and, until now, was refined beautifully and seen in its best form in 2017’s excellent Cyberdimension Neptunia: 4 Goddesses Online.

Neptunia x Senran Kagura

As the “action Neptunia” series has evolved, it has gone from Senran Kagura-style arena combat games to more ambitious action RPGs, and Neptunia x Senran Kagura shows a good refinement of what Cyberdimension Neptunia: 4 Goddesses Online was doing. Essentially what we’ve got here is a game that blends elements of Senran Kagura, Final Fantasy VII Remake and Phantasy Star Online (albeit without the “online” part) — and the result is an immensely satisfying, enjoyable title.

Basic gameplay in Neptunia x Senran Kagura involves entering one of several “dungeons” that unlock over the course of the story, then completing an objective in that dungeon. When running story missions, these objectives tend to simply involve reaching the end of the dungeon and beating a boss there, but the wide variety of side missions are where you’ll likely spend the majority of your time in the game.

In these cases, you’ll be tasked with retrieving items, beating all the enemies on the map, defeating specific enemies, activating objects without being destroyed by super-powerful, unbeatable foes or squaring off against more powerful versions of story bosses you’ve previously taken on.

Neptunia x Senran Kagura

You can take two characters on a mission and switch between them at any time; the one who is not active will gradually regenerate their stamina and, if they’re heavily injured, their health up to a certain point. Both characters obtain experience points from any combat you engage in, and indeed all the characters you don’t take along get most of the experience too, meaning no characters will ever get left behind.

In fact, you can play through the whole of Neptunia x Senran Kagura with the same two characters if you want to; the available characters are largely there for a bit of variety, since they each handle a bit differently — though not so much that I’d say they necessarily each have their own distinct “uses”. There are ten characters in total and this is plenty of variety; it’s a shame characters like Neptunia’s CPU Candidates and the wider Senran Kagura cast aren’t involved, but I guess they had to draw the line somewhere.

Basic attacks can be unleashed in a smooth combo by tapping the square button on the controller, while the triangle button throws either kunai (which can inflict status effects) or shuriken (which deal more damage) to attack from range. Enemies can be locked on to, and additional damage is inflicted by hitting them from the side or the rear. There’s a really nice sense of impact to the basic attacks, and repeated attacks can cause enemies to stagger, interrupting their attacks or preventing them from acting.

Neptunia x Senran Kagura

Things get interesting when you hold down the L1 button to pop up your character’s “Ninja Arts” menu. Here, the four face buttons are assigned to various skills, which consume varying amounts of the character’s stamina gauge. Some are single-target attacks, some attack in a radius, some attack in a cone and some can be used as ranged attacks or gap-closers. These skills are the main thing that makes each of the characters unique, so picking your “main” for the game will likely involve experimenting with everyone and finding which skills you enjoy using the most.

There’s a combo system called “Ninja Art Trigger” in Neptunia x Senran Kagura, where up to four Ninja Arts can be chained together by using them in quick succession, indicated by a “Trigger” gauge on the screen. Many Ninja Arts will have additional effects — usually buffing the user or debuffing the target — if they’re used as a particular “step” in a Ninja Art Trigger combo, so it’s worth memorising some of the most useful sequences for use against more powerful foes and bosses in particular.

To make things feel a little more strategic and/or manageable, time slows right down while the Ninja Arts menu is open, allowing you time to review each skill’s description and pick which one is right for the situation you’re in right now. This is where the game feels most like Final Fantasy VII Remake’s combat system — it’s not quite turn-based, but it adds an interesting feel to what is going on. You’ll find yourself alternating between real-time hack and slash and dodging and picking the right Ninja Art for the right situation — the result is a satisfying and enjoyable combat system that combines a bit of depth with a lot of accessibility.

Neptunia x Senran Kagura

Between missions, you can customise all the girls with various pieces of equipment. Each character can equip different types of shuriken and kunai to affect their ranged damage and the status effects they are capable of inflicting, plus two accessories that provide passive bonuses of various descriptions. There’s a wide variety of these accessories that can complement most play styles — some provide additional buffs while at full health, others might help you out in a pinch, and others still provide flat bonuses.

The more significant character customisation element of Neptunia x Senran Kagura comes in the form of Spirit Gems, which can either be acquired as loot drops during battle, or purchased from the shop in Heartland. These things fit into a grid that each character has, and provide various passive bonuses. Again, these can fit your play style as you see fit — if you enjoy dealing lots of damage, load up on gems that increase your damage; if you want to progress quickly, load up on experience-boosting gems; if you like using your Ninja Arts, add some gems that let you drain stamina from enemies or deal additional damage.

The interesting part of this is that different arrangements of gems on the board will provide even greater bonuses. For example, at the start of the game you can line up three of the same type of gem to gain a significantly greater bonus on top of the gems by themselves. As the characters level up, the available space on their Spirit Gem board broadens, allowing for larger and more complex arrangements; by the time you hit the level cap of 50, you’ll be able to squeeze in several bonus arrangements for some significant benefits.

Neptunia x Senran Kagura

Some strategy is involved; you can only put five gems with the same name on the board, so if you want to make the larger shapes (such as the 3×3 Large Square arrangement), you’ll need to combine different gems of the same type — perhaps five gems that boost your attack power against yokai-type enemies, and four that buff you up against bosses, for example.

There’s also a “Synthesis” system, where two same-level instances of a Spirit Gem can be fused together to produce the next level up, thereby increasing the bonus — for example, fuse two level 1 gems together to make a level 2. Making good use of this facility becomes more and more useful as Neptunia x Senran Kagura progresses; while things start off pretty easy, towards the end of the game enemies start hitting quite a bit harder and being able to take quite a bit more punishment, to boot. As such, you’ll want to take some time to optimise your Spirit Gems in order to survive the challenges ahead of you.

You can probably make it through a lot of Neptunia x Senran Kagura without having to worry about all this too much if you don’t want to — on the whole, the game errs on the slightly easy side for most of its main story. But once you get into the “Yomi Training” challenges of the postgame, you’ll definitely need to engage fully with all of the mechanics, particularly since these special dungeons often lock off particular abilities and demand that you endure a significant amount of combat without taking a rest.

Neptunia x Senran Kagura

Likewise, the motion-controlled “Peaches and Cream Meditation” minigame can probably be ignored for the majority of the game if you’re not interested in playing it — but particularly later on, the buffs to HP, attack power and defence, plus the bonus items you’re awarded for completing the minigame successfully, are well worth it. Plus it’s a kind of fun little diversion anyway!

There are a decent amount of things to enjoy in Neptunia x Senran Kagura, be it character progression, tracking down the various hidden treasures in each dungeon, challenging the optional side missions and Yomi Training or simply working your way through the story. You can romp through the main narrative in about 10 hours so if you’re rushing through things, but there are plenty of things to do besides the main scenario — and those who enjoy minmaxing will derive great joy from the customisation mechanics and the variety of different Spirit Gem “builds” it’s possible to create.

Neptunia x Senran Kagura probably isn’t going to satisfy the hunger of those who want to see new mainline Neptunia and Senran Kagura games or those who think both series have done “too many” spinoffs — but at this point, it’s kind of hard to say what “mainline” means for Neptunia in particular anyway, given that every game in the series has always stood very much by itself.

Neptunia x Senran Kagura

Meanwhile, this may not be Senran Kagura 7even, but it is at least a positive sign that the Senran Kagura series is still very much alive and kicking — and that one day we might just see its main narrative resolved once and for all.

More than anything, though, this is a thoroughly charming, well-crafted game that those who enjoy hack and slash action RPGs will get a lot out of. It may be relatively brief, it may follow the Neptunia trend of heavily reusing environments and enemies with palette swaps — but while it lasts, you’ll have a great time with Neptunia x Senran Kagura.

Neptunia x Senran Kagura: Ninja Wars is available from October 26, 2021 in North America and October 29, 2021 in Europe for PlayStation 4. Thanks to Idea Factory International for the review code.

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Pete Davison
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